Chad Felton — The News-Herald

Fairport Harbor police officers officially unveil the Colonel Donald Blakeslee Memorial Bridge sign at the Grand River during a recent dedication ceremony honoring the village’s decorated WWII hero.

The span connecting Painesville and the Village of Fairport Harbor along state Route 535 over the Grand River is now officially marked as the Colonel Donald Blakeslee Memorial Bridge.

The christening is the result of legislation (House Bill 276) introduced by state Rep. John Rogers, D-Mentor-on-the-Lake, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in March.

The honorary designation recognizes Col. Donald Blakeslee of Fairport Harbor, whose accomplished service as a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot in World War II earned him two Distinguished Service Crosses, eight Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and eight Air Medals.

“The state of Ohio commemorates Col. Blakeslee’s legacy of service to our country by designating this bridge — which serves as the primary entryway into Fairport Harbor, Donald’s birthplace and boyhood hometown — in his honor,” Rogers said. “To this day, Col. Blakeslee remains a legend among American airmen, and has been referred to as ‘Patton in a P-51 Mustang.’” 

Born on Sept. 11, 1917, Blakeslee’s exploits as an ace pilot, flying first for the Royal Canadian Air Force and, later, the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces Eighth Air Force, were performed in a tour of duty that included more combat missions than any other American pilot in the European theater in which Blakeslee logged more than 1,000 combat flight hours.

“Today’s fighter pilots, they shoot things down at miles away, they don’t see each other, but these (WWII) fighters, these guys were in dogfights,” Rogers said.

As a commander in the 4th Fighter Group, Blakeslee contributed to the outfit’s “elite reputation” as one of the most effective units of the Eighth Fighter Command.

In addition to becoming the first Allied airman to fly over the German capital of Berlin in March 1944, Blakeslee led a number of escort missions accompanying B-17 and B-24 bombers to critical strategic targets in enemy territory.

Blakeslee continued to serve in the United States Air Force after WWII, leading the 27th Fighter Wing in the Korean War, where his accolades included the Legion of Merit, an additional Distinguished Flying Cross and four more Air Medals.

All told, Blakeslee, who also served in Vietnam, spent 30 years in the Air Force. After retiring from the military, he moved to Florida.

Blakeslee died on Sept. 3, 2008, eight days shy of his 91st birthday.

“While both the colonel and his wife, Leola, are now interned in the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., his memory as a veteran, father, husband and one of America’s heroes lives on,” Rogers said. “It’s important that we remember those people that do so much, and this is just a small token of recognition to his service to our country and to us.”

A formal dedication ceremony was recently held near the north head of the newly identified bridge on the Fairport Harbor side of Grand River, a gathering Blakeslee’s great-nephews, Cliff, Craig and Chris, said he’d quietly, appreciatively wave off.

“He wasn’t about flash or attention of being in the spotlight,” said Craig Blakeslee, smiling. “We’re happy this has taken place, and he would be honored, but he’d also be a bit embarrassed. He wouldn’t like all the ‘fuss.’”

Reflecting on the canon of heroic American pilots, Lake County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Bob Gambol believes Blakeslee’s name rings as prominent, if not more, than those of Jimmy Doolittle and Amelia Earhart.

“Among those types of people, Blakeslee surpasses them as far as (his) dedication to aviation and fighting tyranny,” Gambol said. “His record as far as being a leader was recognized by (then-Gen. Dwight D.) Eisenhower.”

Gambol and Rogers added that Blakeslee was credited with 15-and-a-half aerial victories, and many times, would downplay his own actions, purportedly ascribing credit to one or more of his wingmen.

“By doing that, he ingratiated himself with his men,” Gambol said. “They realized he’d do anything for them. He was selfless. All he did was for others. Now, that’s a true leader. That’s a true hero.”

“He was selfless. All he did was for others. Now, that’s a true leader. That’s a true hero.”

Bob Gambol