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Harlan Blankenship always dreamed of flying

December 24, 2007

By Jen Bakken
Staff Writer

Airplanes often fascinate young boys.

Watching them take off, soar through the sky, and land is exciting to youngsters who are daydreaming.

As a 7-year-old boy in 1931, Harlan Blankenship would spend hours thinking about and drawing airplanes.

“I’d ask my dad to take me to the airport,” Harlan said. “I’d tell him I needed to get a closer look at the engine to be able to draw more details.”

Once at the airport, the good-looking pilots with their helmets and leather jackets captured his attention. They always seemed to be taking pretty girls in their planes, too, and this seemed like the perfect job to him.

He knew someday he would fly.

Once, with a group of boys ranging in age from seven to 12 years old, he worked feverishly to make an airplane out of a big box.

They added wings and wheels. Taking their plane onto the roof of a barn seemed like the perfect plan, at the time. They expected to each take a turn soaring off the roof and out over the nearby field.

Unfortunately, there was a huge pile of horse manure by the barn and that is exactly where their cardboard plane took a nosedive.

This didn’t deter Harlan – he still knew someday he would fly.

Enlisting in the service at the age of 19, during World War II, he hoped to learn to fly planes. Taking some flying instruction, his squadron started with 350 people, but only half went on to extensive training.

The ones who had college educations were picked to fly airplanes, and since Harlan had only a high school education, he wasn’t picked. Instead, he became a controller for the US AirCore.

Sent to New Guinea with the 49th Control Squadron, he went with groups up into the mountains. With their vans stationed in different parts of the mountains, his group monitored all aircraft frequencies.

If the planes had trouble, they would call for help. With some planes having been shot at, having wounded on board, being low on fuel, or with an engine down, sometimes nights became pretty lively.

“They all wanted headings from us, they wanted to know how to get back,” he recalled. “Some of these guys were really excited – you know, they were screaming and crying.”

Picking up the positions of planes in trouble, the pilots would then be put in contact with the center. The center was a large building, with a map on a big table, and a bunch of men standing around it.

The men had sticks representing the location of all planes in the air. The center would divert the planes to the correct airport. With bombers using nearly 160 gallons of gas per hour, low fuel was often a problem.

When he first arrived overseas, on a ship with 10,000 soldiers, he had to be taken to the field hospital for appendicitis. After having his appendix removed, it took 23 days for him to recover and his wound to heal.

With malaria a constant threat, they used sleeping nets to keep away mosquitos, and were given little, bitter-tasting pills to prevent the disease.

Harlan was overseas for three years without returning home to even visit his family. During this time, he had many experiences, resulting in countless stories to tell. Some memories are just coming back to him now.

“Things are coming back to me,” he said. “I can even remember names and faces. I had forgotten about them for years and years. Now, they are flooding back and I don’t know why.”

One such recollection was his experience in a small convoy of ships traveling to Hollandia, New Guinea. During this five-day trip, they would usually go into a harbor at night and wait to travel until morning. However, this time, they decided to sail all night, possibly due to fear of Japanese submarines.

It was incredibly dark out in the ocean, and there were 150 people on board the ship. While Harlan laid on the forward part of the ship, in front of the captain’s place, he heard a strange throbbing noise.

At first he dismissed it, but when it became louder, he jumped up and yelled at a friend sleeping nearby. This friend, however, was a deep sleeper and Harlan began jumping and yelling.

All of a sudden, out of the darkness appeared the biggest prow of a ship he had ever seen

“I yelled, ‘There’s something out there,’” he remembered vividly. “I even thought about jumping off the ship.”

Lights turned on, loud horns went off, and they were able to turn the ship without a second to spare. The water from the holes of the big ship soaked them, but they escaped without a scratch.

Then, looking out into the sea, they noticed lights coming on all over the place. They couldn’t believe their eyes as they realized they had run into a big fleet of American ships. If it weren’t for Harlan’s keen ear or his yelling and jumping around, there would have surely been a deadly collision.

As if that experience wasn’t intense enough, the next morning they arrived on the beach of Hollandia, and traveled by truck up through the mountains.

Nearly 70 men held on for dear life on the narrow road. The driver seamed crazy to them, and over the edge of the road was a 5,000-foot drop, straight down.

While cruising around a sharp corner, another truck came at them. They thought they’d never make it to camp.

After 30 hair-raising miles, they arrived, but this trip really bothered Harlan, and he still shakes his head, to this day, when he thinks about it.

While he recovered from his petrifying ride up the mountains, a group of engineers were preparing for their trip down the narrow road.

There were 75 engineers about to return home from the war. Unfortunately, this group of men didn’t make it back to their families. In the same place where Harlan had feared for his life, these men perished when they went over the steep edge of the mountain.

“To this day, I think of those 75 going over the edge,” he said with sadness. “They didn’t deserve that.”

Another time, the landing ship tank (LST ship) he was on became grounded before it got to the shore of Leyte Island in the Philippines. The only way they could unload the big ship was to sandbag.

In the meantime, there were air raids, and the Japanese had planes bombing them. With gun placements all over their ship, they returned fire.

“It was like a hail storm, stuff was falling on the ships,” he said. “If you weren’t underneath a truck or something, you’d get hit and be dead.”

With 800 ships on a 140-mile front, this was a big operation and Harlan admits, “death was there all the time.”

In front of the ships was a road, followed by rice patties that were about almost a mile across leading to low-lying mountains.

The Japanese were coming out of the mountains and trying to cross the rice patties, but they were all shot.

The next day, Harlan and his group went to get the rest of their supplies from the ship, and looked out over the rice patties.

“We were so young and naïve, we wondered what all the bumps out there were,” he said. “Then we figured out it was dead Japanese. The loss of life they took in those rice patties was unbelievable. To this day, I have visions of that, you know.”

As he looks through his scrapbook, full of amazing black-andwhite photographs, Harlan has a story or memory for each one.

Some pictures he took himself, but a photographer he shared a tent with shared his pictures with him, as well.

“He even has a horrible picture of a group of Filipino men holding the head of a Japanese man,” said Alice, Harlan’s wife of almost 59 years.

When the war ended, Harlan returned to Minnesota, where he attended flight school and finally realized his dream of flying.

It was while working at the Staples airport as a flight instructor that he met Alice.

Alice has her own war stories to tell. Living in France, her teenage years were spent under the control of the Germans.

She has vivid memories of not having much food or clothing, and horrific bomb attacks.

After school, she would have to travel by streetcar, then by train to the country for food, returning with blisters on her feet.

Some of her family members were injured during this time, but luckily, they all survived.

Awhile after the war ended, she came to the United States with her parents. Working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Staples, Alice didn’t speak a word of English.

Learning to speak the language on her own was difficult, but soon, she understood enough to be able to waitress.

This is where she met the love of her life, Harlan, who came into the restaurant for lunch one day.

“Soon, he was coming in for lunch every day,” she smiled at the memory. “Sometimes he’d be in for breakfast, and sometimes both breakfast and lunch.”

Married April 18, 1949, the couple raised five children while living in different cities throughout Minnesota including, St. Cloud, Brainerd, and Chanhassen.

Alice stayed home to raise their children while Harlan had a few jobs before landing at the Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, where he was a flight instructor and examiner for 25 years.

In 1999, the couple moved to Delano because they wanted to be out in the country.

Being a flight instructor was a dream come true for Harlan, although the position created more hair-raising experiences for him and, of course, more stories to tell.

Once, while giving lessons in a seaplane, the engine quit a few hundred feet after take-off. In front of Harlan and his frightened student were just homes and power lines.

“All I remember is him saying ‘Harlan, Harlan, it quit!’” he recalled.

Able to make a right turn, they went across a small field and crashed into the trees.

Trees were smashing left and right. Suddenly, a huge tree hit the left wing, causing an abrupt 180-degree turn.

Amazingly, they escaped without a scrape after crawling out of the smoking plane.

Another time, he had repeated problems with a particular plane, but mechanics couldn’t figure out how to fix it. Every time he and a student would go up in the air, the engine would quit in less than two hours.

Repeatedly, he had to force land the plane before a mechanic found the problem. The primer lines had never been installed properly, and when they were fixed, the aircraft was fine.

Harlan made approximately 60 forced landings during his extensive 25,000 hours of flight time.

Forced landings weren’t the only alarming moments he had as a pilot. One time, he fell asleep and almost didn’t wake up.

As his student kept asking questions, Harlan found himself nodding off. After dozing off many times, he was able to land the plane at the last second. Later, he realized it was a carbon monoxide leak in the back of the plane, where he was seated, causing his sleepiness.

In 1972, Harlan was recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as flight instructor of the year.

Once a boy who dreamed of flying, the plaque he received from the FAA is a possession he takes great pride in.

Though Harlan is no longer a flight instructor or examiner, having retired in 2004, he still has the flight simulator he used at home to teach his students.

The couple has 13 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and they both have many tales to share with all of them.

Two of their grandsons are currently in the service, and one is even flying airplanes. Just like his grandpa – he wanted to fly.