Former Vietnam vet tells stories, encourages patriotism
Retired Lt. John W. Blankenship flew T-34s, T-28s, S-2s and the P-3C Orion Aircraft with VP-19 during the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
However, on the outside, in regular clothing, he was just an average guy at a restaurant in San Diego, sipping on a margarita and munching on some pub food sitting at the bar.
That is, until another man his age walked in wearing a flight jacket.
“I didn’t have anything on that day. I didn’t have a hat that said ‘veteran’ or anything,” Mr. Blankenship said.
However, that didn’t stop the man from immediately approaching Mr. Blankenship and asking straightaway, “When were you in and what did you fly?”
“We ended up being months apart,” Mr. Blankenship said, smiling as he recalled the exchange. “It’s a funny thing.”
The founder of the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation sat down with the News-Press in his Montecito home’s museum, stocked full of model planes, wartime guns, hats and helmets worn by dictators and even a white cap worn by a member of the Taliban, uniforms from World War I and more. In the light of Memorial Day, he recalled war stories, both from his own service and from the numerous veterans he’s crossed paths with — from Tuskegee Airmen to commandant at West Point to four-star generals to Medal of Honor recipients.
Every item in his exhibit comes with a story, and Mr. Blankenship knows each one by heart, sharing them with excitement, suspense and pride.
“People will ask me to tell them about a spitfire — I can tell you how fast it goes, the size of the engine, the kind of armor on it and the range,” Mr. Blankenship said, chuckling. “I don’t know why I have all that in my head. My wife thinks I have almost a photographic memory.”
The UCSB graduate received his draft notice in 1963 and spent five years in the military, graduating from naval flight school in Pensacola, Fla. in 1965. He was then stationed in Iwakuni, Japan and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
His main duty was to monitor the seas by planes equipped with nuclear torpedoes, so that “if a war started, we needed to kill every submarine out there that was Russian.”
“We would go out and start dropping little tiny bombs on them, one-pound bombs that don’t hurt them,” the veteran said. “We did it just to piss them off, and to make them realize that they were dead men if something happened.”
Out of every former service member and pilot he’s talked to, Mr. Blankenship said he’s never met anyone who has actually seen a Russian submarine, but he himself did on his very first mission.
The Montecito resident has been to Normandy, Benghazi, North Africa, Okinawa, Guam and even Stalingrad, visiting military history museums, cemeteries and battlefields all over the world to hear stories and honor the fallen men. He’s practically dedicated his life to war, because as he pointed out, “91% of the time, the world has been at war,” and the same holds true for the United States.
Mr. Blankenship was born in 1942 in San Diego, which he said is likely why he knows so much about war.
“Back then, you had airplanes going all the time, and I heard so many great stories as a young man,” he said. His father was a pilot, and he and his pilot friends would “sit around on a foggy day telling war stories.”
“Here I was, saying, ‘Oh my God, what’s a B-17?’ Of course, they’d tell me,” Mr. Blankenship said. “They’d tell me, ‘A guy was shot down over in New Guinea,’ so I wanted to find out where New Guinea was. The stories still stay with me.”
After all, the veteran said, there are 26 Blankenships buried in cemeteries in Europe from World War II and 14 Blankenships died in Vietnam, and they’re all relatives.
Visiting their gravesites has brought him all over the world, even back to Civil War sites where more Blankenships fought. Because of Vietnam’s controversy in America, Mr. Blankenship said he’s even been spat on three times, once in Hiroshima at the area the bomb was dropped, and two other times in the Bay Area.
“They were typically women, and they would question me, ‘Why would you serve?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to run to Canada. I couldn’t do that to my family. I’m a Blankenship, and we serve,’” Mr. Blankenship said. “It was an interesting time to be in the military because of all that went on. When we came back home, there were all these protests, and we didn’t know. We were just doing our job.”
However, the former pilot said he can see the younger generations falling more and more out of touch with wartime since there’s not a draft. He said the military, for many younger Americans, is “this thing over there that somebody else does.” When his son was accepted into the Air Force Academy, he said his fellow high schoolers didn’t even know what the academy was or how big of an honor it was to be accepted.
“Service is a wonderful thing to give back to your country,” Mr. Blankenship said. “I look back and think it was some of the best times. All the guys from World War II say it was the highlight of their life, and most of the Vietnam guys even say they’d go do it again.”
He said the bonds developed among soldiers, much like his encounter at the bar in San Diego, are irreplaceable, because they all had to pull together and accomplish a task.
Now, as founder and director of the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation, he maintains a livelihood of working on projects and ceremonies that honor all veterans of all wars.
He’s constantly asked to provide a color guard, bagpipes, flyovers and more to honor fallen soldiers.
“They deserve that. You need to honor what these men went through,” Mr. Blankenship said. “They’re the greatest generation. They all rallied and 16 million people in uniform went off — all between the ages of 17 and 22 — to something uncertain.”
He intends to keep honoring these men and women until he can’t anymore, he told the News-Press, and at age 79, he’s still not slowing down.
But his museum takes energy to maintain and keep up. He added that while the war relics mean something to him because he knows everything about them, “to a lot of other people, this is just stuff.”
The pandemic halted a lot of his work as well, as the local cemeteries don’t allow events or even so much as a flower bouquet yet. That being said, Mr. Blankenship is considering — COVID permitting — both a Fourth of July and a Memorial Day celebration on the Fourth with flyovers, speakers and the Santa Barbara Choral Society.
“My son says to me, ‘You’re way too patriotic,’” Mr. Blankenship said, referencing his war museum, American flag flying high outside his home and more. “But, you’ve got to have some. It’s not like what the Germans or Japanese had, this blind dedication, but it’s a sense of duty and service. Do your part.”
And that’s the message he wants to keep sharing with the younger generations, especially on days like Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the Fourth of July.
“There’s some people that are just born with a warrior spirit. I don’t have it, but I do recognize it and I do understand it,” the veteran said. “Men and women sort of rise to the occasion, because there’s nothing like having somebody shoot at you and try to kill you, but some people thrive on that.
“You feel that sense of accomplishment when you put that airplane on that carrier deck and you know you’ve arrived … I feel like I need to honor the veterans, because we did, at that time, put our lives in harm’s way, whether you flew airplanes or whatever you did.”