by lyle e davis
A lot of us have wanted to fly ever since we were kids. I imagine the desire rests in every single young person. Some of those young people realize that dream, others just continue to dream.
I was one of those kids who always dreamed of flying. I had applied for helicopter training while in the Army but the eye doctors impressed upon me it was probably a pretty good idea to be able to judge height if you were flying a chopper. I have an eye condition that precluded me from flying in the military because I have no depth perception.
After the military service I had pretty much put the idea of flying up on a shelf, along with other dreams. Then a good friend, Gary Evans, told me one day that I would never learn to fly.
Steam came out my ears, and I began to breathe fire. “I’ll show him,” I thought. And I did. I signed up for flying lessons and got my private pilot’s license in less than a year. (And I never took Gary for a plane ride either! And the eye restrictions are not as strict for a private pilot as it is for the military).
Flying comes to each of us in a different way.
There was another young kid who thought of flying. He did far, far more with it than I did. He’s a well known pilot to a lot of old time pilots from North County. Went by the name of Bill Blackwood.
Bill got the flying bug when he was seven years old and flew with his barnstorming pilot of a father, “Sideslip Blackwood,” as they would perform at airshows where the railroad worker and daredevil dazzled crowds with barn-storming and flying circus antics.
Fast forward to Bill’s young adult years. It turns out Bill was at Pearl Harbor, on board the USS California, but as a sailor, not as a pilot. That would come later. He had been in the Navy for four months and had just finished breakfast on the morning of December 7, 1941, when he noticed dive-bombing airplanes over nearby Ford Field.
USS California, hit by two Japanese
torpedos, is sinking;
The Empire of Japan's Imperial Navy Japanese bomber pilots receive their orders on board an aircraft carrier prior to commencing their mission of bombing Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku hoped that a quick, surprise attack on the U.S. fleet would make the Americans petition for peace, leaving the Pacific open for the Japanese expansion.
Here, a recollection of Bill’s own words, as he described his experiences in a meeting with long time friends, retired Escondido attorney, Graham “Kim” Fleming, and Bill Wagner. The meeting took place at Champion’s Restaurant in Escondido on June 7, 2001:
“I was 19 years old, a sailor in the Navy, stationed aboard the USS California which was tied up at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. My first realization that we were being attacked was looking across the harbor and seeing two planes over the air field at Ford Island. The lead plane dropped a bomb that landed on the beach just beyond the airfield. A plume of dirt and smoke came up from the explosion. I thought to myself, ‘that’s great precision practice bombing but it sure is risky.’ A week or so earlier, our planes were doing training maneuvers similar to what I was seeing over Ford Island. I saw the red circles on the wings of the planes, but that was consistent with a training exercise since half the force in the training exercise often poses as the enemy and they even can change their identification markings. Then I saw the bombs falling from the second plane and pieces of aircraft being thrown high in the air from the explosions. I knew than that this was real.
The torpedo planes came in across the water. Several of our battleships were lined up in a row so as to give them easy access to shore services. That made easy targets for the enemy. I saw the Arizona hit. It was a huge explosion. It almost raised the ship out of the water. Its ammunition hold must have been hit. The Oklahoma was hit and soon rolled over. Chaos reighned. No commands were given. Every man had to decide what to do himself. There was a machine gun mounted on the signal bridge of the California where I happened to be. I had never fired one before. The ammunition for the larger guns was locked up below decks where it was stored for safety reasons. Only small caliber ammunition was accessible in the vicinity of that machine gun. I got to the machine gun and stood in position to fire it when the senior petty officer tapped me and asked if I had ever fired one before. I said no, and he immediately took control of it and told me to direct his fire when I saw an airplane. The sky was thick with smoke which obscured the oncoming planes. When I could see a plane through the haze I would tell the gunner the general direction in which to fire. I don’t know whether we hit any enemy planes or not. I was able to direct the gunner through the phone set that each of us were wearing. Then a bullet hit the plug outlet of the phone system which ended our teamwork.
I saw four planes coming in to the field on Ford Island. They had their wheels down and their landing lights on. They were obviously friendly. I assume they were from one of our carriers off shore. Then someone fired at them and every gun in the vicinity opened up. None of them made it. There were panicky gunners everywhere. It was later reported that Honolulu had been hit by the Japanese. The Japanese cared nothing about the hotels and shops in Honolulu and would not have wasted their resources on such targets. What hit Honolulu was shells from five inch guns fired from our own ships trying to hit planes at low elevation. Five inch guns are designed mainly for ship to ship combat, not anti-aircraft. To shoot a five inch gun at an aircraft is a sign of desperation.
The battleship Nevada was hit several times but managed to get under way in an attempt to get out of Pear Harbor and to the ocean. As it passed our ship, we gave it a rousing cheer.
The Japanese attack was thoroughly organized and executed. Each pilot obviously had an assigned target and the main targets were the battleships. When the Nevada got under way and headed for the passage to the open sea, the planes broke off from attacking their targets and concentrated on stopping the Nevada. The Nevada swerved and beached itself rather than sinking in deeper water and possibly bottling up the harbor.
Less than an hour after the first wave of the attack, rumors were running rampant. “The Japs have landed,” “They’re taking Honolulu.” We had no radio, we had no orders. We had no news or information as to what the real situation was. My ship was listing heavily to port. It had been badly hit. The big 16 inch gun turrets were turned to starboard to level the ship. Sailors all around us were abandoning their ships, some swimming in water with a heavy oil surface, some swimming in dangerously burning areas. I went below decks to get out of the thick smoke. I passed sailors huddled on the open deck with gas masks on, struggling to breathe. They didn’t know how to sue the masks properly. They hadn’t pulled off the protective seal over the air filter.
Below decks the lights went out and a young officer, Ensign Jones, made everybody grab the belt of the guy next to him and Ensign Jones led us in a single file toward our escape. A torpedo hit at the place where Ensign Jones was leading the procession. He was killed. He received the Medal of Honor, posthumously.
One hundred and eighty-three aircraft took part in the first wave of the Japanese attack. Here, Japanese aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier (reportedly Shokaku) to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. Plane in the foreground is a "Zero" Fighter. This is probably the launch of the second attack wave.
I groped around and found a ladder that took me to the main deck. A small boat came alongside where I was standing and they beckoned me to get in. As soon as I was on shore a marine thrust a fire extinguisher in my hand and directed me back to the ship. I have no recollection of the next five hours. I came through it somehow without injury.
There was no radio or telephone communication with the mainland. You couldn’t tell your family what happened or that you were still alive. There was also a general news blackout. The Navy had reported to my family that I had been killed in action. A month later my family learned I was still alive and in one piece.
While things were very fresh in my mind, I started a diary and thereafter made daily entries. This was actually against regulations because the US losses at Pearl Harbor were so grievous that the war department didn’t want the enemy to know just how successful its attack was. Because of the regulation I didn’t want to leave my diary behind when I took my first leave. At home, my mother got hold of the diary and was talking to neighbors about it. When I learned that, I decided to destroy it because after all it was a violation for me to have kept a diary. Now I wish I had buried it in a time capsule.
We weren’t heroes at Pearl Harbor. W didn’t volunteer to be in harms way. We were scared and confused. We did what we did under great stress, partly through training, partly through instinct for self preservation.
Kim Fleming would later say: “I’ve known Bill Blackwood for several years. We have palled around together, have gone for breakfast in his airplane and to a four day trip to Mexico. He never talked about this Pearl Harbor experience before. This chat came about because he was honored at Rotary for having been there.”
After the war, Blackwood would fly crop-dusters over the cornfields of Oklahoma. He would also fly a plane with loudspeakers, over small towns to advertise movies and other goods and services. Dottie Blackwood, his wife of 59 years, would fly with Bill at airshows and would experience such maneuvers as the hammerhead stall, where the plane is flown straight upward and brought to a stall before returning toward the ground in a spin.
In time, the Navy called him back into service and he went through flight training to serve in the Korean War. In 1962, during a training mission in Texas, he and a student were upside down and spinning at 10,000 feet when both of them ejected from the fighter jet. The tremendous force of the ejection broke Blackwood’s spine while he was still strapped in his seat. As a result, he lost the use of his legs.
After his recovery, the draw of being airborne drove Blackwood to develop hand controls similar to the devices disabled people use to drive cars. While Bill was now confined to a wheelchair, he still flew. In fact, in 1972 he founded the Southern California Wheelchair Aviators. The worldwide organization includes nearly 200 pilots, according to the group’s website. Blackwood provided inspiration for handicapped pilots around the world that the sky is not the limit if you’ll just try hard enough.
Blackwood and his wife, Dottie, lived in Escondido since 1964. He became a flight instructor at McClellan Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. In 1974 the FAA named him flight instructor of the year.
“Flying was his life,” said Dottie. “It was first and foremost. He loved aerobatics.”
Eventually, however, Father Time caught up to Bill Blackwood and his flying days were over. He suffered a stroke and a few months later, on January 11, 2008, Bill Blackwood passed away at the age of 85.