Times Past

Trained at Hancock College, this Central Coast aviator became a hero in World War II

Everett Blakeley's plane, “Just-A-Snappin” collided with an oak tree along the runway at Ludham, Norfolkshire, UK.
Everett Blakeley's plane, “Just-A-Snappin” collided with an oak tree along the runway at Ludham, Norfolkshire, UK.

“Gopher Blakeley, that will be eight hours of ramp time this weekend.”

Everett Blakeley was in his junior year at the University of Washington in Seattle. World War II was going badly. It seemed as if Hitler might soon control Russia besides his conquest in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

Blakeley enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In August 1941, he received orders to report for primary pilot school training at Hancock Field in Santa Maria.

In May 1939, the Hancock College of Aeronautics became part of our nation’s preparation for war. It was one of 63 private flight schools that would eventually train some 200,000 pilots for America’s war effort.

Blakeley recalled how it all began: “Upon arriving at Santa Maria, I was greeted by the rather impressive gate at Hancock Field which read ‘Hancock College of Aeronautics.’ Upon reaching the flight line, I saw a huge row of Stearman P.T. — 13 primary flight trainers at the end of the ramp. Little did I realize how well I would come to remember that stretch of ramp, not for the aircraft, but for the many weekends spent ‘walking the ramp.’

“I was one of 57 aviation cadets drawn from various universities and nine freshly commissioned 2nd Lieutenants from West Point. Together, we comprised the Class of 42 C.

“The next three months were filled with an intense mixture of drill and discipline. We had classes in the morning and flight training in the afternoon.

“On weekends, we had to clear the demerits we had acquired during the week for infringement of rules. Some demerits were for trivial offenses such as being late for drill; clothes not being properly buttoned or failure to eat a ‘square meal’ in proper West Point fashion. This was where you were expected to bring your soup spoon up at a precise right angle.

“Demerits resulted in long hours of stiffly marching a long straight line painted on the ramp. Since misery loves company, we made lasting friendships passing one another or on breaks from our walk!

“Once, I was engrossed in practicing my instructions on a solo flight. I had gone some distance out over the bean fields and grazing hills of the valley. I returned at what I thought was precisely the prescribed time. I was fully satisfied with myself. Abruptly I was greeted by my flight instructor who bellowed out, ‘Gopher Blakeley, that will be eight hours of ramp time this weekend. You were exactly one hour late on return!’

“I had lost track of time. I had to pay the price by walking down ‘memory lane.’ I’m certain the punishment was well deserved since the base was about to send out a search flight for my Stearman trainer.”

Book author and retired Marine fighter pilot Jay A. Stout talks about P-51 fighter pilot and 55th Fighter Group Cmdr. Elwyn Righetti. Stout's biography of Righetti, "Vanished Hero," was published in November. See gun camera footage from World War

Blakeley, father of my friend and former student, former San Luis Obispo County Supervisor David Blakeley, would go on to pilot a B-17 that he named “Just- A-Snappin.”

On his 16th mission to bomb Bremen, Germany, on Oct. 8, 1943, flak and enemy fighters severely damaged his plane, and he had to return to base in England alone. His crew credited him with saving them. Nazi fire had damaged the hydraulic system that operated the brakes and the aircraft collided with an oak tree along the runway at Ludham, Norfolkshire.

There were 1,600 holes from bullets and flak in “Just-A- Snappin’s” fuselage and engines.

Another former student and friend, prolific author Jim Gregory, has just completed a new book titled “Central Coast Aviators in World War II.”

Gregory will be the speaker at the SLO Friends of the Library at Madonna Inn on May 3. For information, go to www.slofol.org. Reservations must be in by April 24.

We will give you a taste of Gregory’s Central Coast Aviators in World War II in next week’s Times Past.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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