Early Life and Joining the Navy

The F4F and Loss of the USS St. Lo (CVE-63)

Rescued by the USS Dennis (DE-405)

Going Home and Looking Back

The Future Depends on the Past

Kamikaze Attack

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Astley Blackwell, Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1925. During the depression his family lived with his grandparents because his father did not have a job. His grandfather was an engineer with the Southern Railroad. They lived with his grandparents until he was seven years old at which time they moved to a town called Eastville, Alabama where his father went to work for the WPA [Annotator's Note: Works Progress Administration]. Things were rough for them. They did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Everybody was in the same boat during the depression. They sometimes shared and bartered things with their neighbors. A few years later, Blackwell's father got a job with a guy who ran a cotton gin and a grocery store. He was a book keeper. In 1939 he got a job in Lockhart, Alabama and that is where they were living when Blackwell went in the Navy at the age of 17. Blackwell was walking from a service station to an ice cream parlor when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. He did not know what it meant. After the attack, everybody that was of age left. The recruiter who signed Blackwell up was from Evergreen, Alabama. He told Blackwell that if he joined the Navy he would go to boot camp then would return home on leave. Then he would go to school then again return home on leave. This did not turn out to be the case. The first time Blackwell came home on leave it was survivor's leave. The Navy did not honor any of their promises. The only school he attended was firefighting school and all of the training he got was on the job working on aircraft. Blackwell took 13 weeks of boot camp in San Diego. After boot camp he was sent to Alameda, California where he was assigned to VC-65 [Annotator's Note: Composite Squadron 65 (VC-65)]. Blackwell traveled up and down the state of California training. He was in the squadron until he went aboard the ship [Annotator's Note: USS St. Lo (CVE-63)]. After going aboard, he was transferred to the ship's company but still had the same job. He was a plane captain for an F4F [Annotator's Note: Grumman FM-2 Wildcat fighter aircraft].

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[Annotator's Note: Astley Blackwell was a plane captain servicing Grumman FM-2 Wildcat fighter aircraft aboard the USS St. Lo (CVE-63).] The F4F was a tough little plane. When they were at Saipan they would come back with palm leaves on their wing tanks. They would chase trucks down dirt roads. Sometimes they came back with holes in them. Blackwell shipped out of San Diego. He was ready to go when he shipped out. Boot camp got them ready to fight. The ship made a trip to Australia before he reported aboard. When the ship returned to San Diego the squadron went aboard. They were off Saipan for 30 days before any troops landed. There was one pilot in the squadron who Blackwell was friends with. The day the ship was sunk none of the planes came back. The planes were in the air when the ship was sunk and they had no place to some back to. Blackwell does not know what happened to any of them. After Saipan, they went to Leyte Gulf. Their planes were flying over the Philippines dropping out flyers stating that MacArthur [Annotator's Note: US Army General Douglas MacArthur] had returned. One night, an announcement was made letting them know that the Japanese fleet was nowhere in sight and that the troops ashore were meeting very little resistance. The message was broadcast around midnight. About four hours later 16 inch shells started dropping all around them. They immediately went to general quarters and started launching planes. Blackwell stayed up on the flight deck most of the time. They had been fighting the Japanese fleet all morning and had secured from general quarters when Blackwell saw the enemy plane flying toward them like it was going to land. The plane flew right into the middle of the ship and penetrated to the hanger deck. There were torpedo planes on the hanger deck that all started blowing up. After the kamikaze struck, Blackwell got up on the flight deck and started across it. Guys were jumping from everywhere. As he passed the forward elevator it blew up. He continued on to the forecastle then climbed down on the anchor and jumped.

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When Astley Blackwell got in the water he realized that his life belt had a hole in it. He grabbed a keg which had come out of a life raft and held onto it. A destroyer was trying to pick them up. Lines were being thrown from the destroyer to the men in the water. Blackwell came across three black guys who were wearing kapok life preserves and hung on to them until they were pulled out of the water about four hours later. The three black guys were at their first reunion in 1984. Because of the adrenaline, Blackwell does not recall being afraid. Blackwell was glad that the three black sailors were there. The ship was still underway when Blackwell jumped off and continued on away from them. He saw the ship as it slipped beneath the waves. It was a tough thing to see. While they were in the water they had to contend with sharks and Japanese planes that were flying around. Blackwell was relieved when he was pulled out of the water. The ship that picked him up was a destroyer escort that had been hit during the battle. About seven of the sailors on the destroyer escort had been killed. There were sailors lying all over the ship. Blackwell was rescued by the Dennis [Annotator's Note: USS Dennis (DE-405)]. Blackwell remained on the Dennis for about seven days. During the time he was in the water all he thought about was being rescued. Once aboard the Dennis they were all interviewed. They had to write a report about what happened to each of them. They were also examined for wounds and injuries. During their first reunion in 1984 the son of the captain was there and had all of those letters they had written.

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Astley Blackwell’s ship [Annotator's Note: the USS St. Lo (CVE-63)] was sunk on 25 October [Annotator's Note: 25 October 1944] and he got home on Christmas Eve. When he had gone into the water, he had on a rubber foul weather suit. He wore it for a week while he was aboard the Dennis [Annotator's Note: USS Dennis (DE-405)]. He was finally transferred to a transport ship where he got a new set of dungarees. During the week he was aboard the Dennis, all they had to eat were baloney sandwiches. The Dennis did not have the facilities that a larger ship would have. They were taken to Guam then from there to Pearl Harbor. Blackwell stayed in Pearl Harbor while their medical and pay records could be located. All they had was one set of clothes. Finally, they were put on the Franklin [Annotator's Note: USS Franklin (CV-13)]. The Franklin was an aircraft carrier which had been hit and had a huge hole in it. They were taken to Seattle where they remained for about six weeks. Being back in the United States was a very good feeling. Blackwell and another sailor went out to a restaurant one night after they had gotten some new clothes and each ordered six eggs. Blackwell went by train from Seattle to Chicago, then from there to Montgomery, Alabama. Seeing his folks was wonderful. When they found out they were going aboard ship they were given leave but guys who lived east of the Mississippi River were not allowed to go home. This was the first time Blackwell had seen his family since he went into the Navy. At the time, Blackwell was ready to fight the Japanese but he does not hold anything against them now. Blackwell left the service in 1946. He sees his service aboard the USS St. Lo as quite an experience. He made some good friends. He is still in contact with the wife of one of the guys he served with. It was an experience he will never forget. There were over 100 men lost when the ship was sunk. The majority of those were down in the chow hall. They had secured from general quarters and many of the guys and gone down to eat. Blackwell was most likely waiting for his plane to get back which explains why he had not gone down to the chow hall too. One time, they were landing planes at night which was another experience. A plane came in and hit the barrier and when it did, it cut the tail off of the plane in front of it. At the time Blackwell was up on deck folding the wings up on the F4Fs [Annotator's Note: Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft]. The propeller chopping up the tail sounded like a machine gun. When Blackwell heard it he hit the deck then rolled out to the catwalk. They had to push seven damaged planes over the side after that. On another occasion, a TBM [Annotator's Note: Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber; TBM was the designation given to Avengers manufactured by General Motors] landed with its guns still charged. When he hit the deck his guns started firing right over the heads of the sailors on deck. Blackwell is proud to have served aboard the USS St. Lo and to be a survivor. For him at 17 or 18 years old there was no fear. War was exciting.

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Astley Blackwell feels that it is very important for students to learn about World War 2. There is a museum at the base near Blackwell's home [Annotator's Note: the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida] that occasionally has seminars and speakers. When someone spoke about the USS St. Lo (CVE-63) Blackwell went to see him. The speaker went into details that Blackwell did not even know about. Blackwell met another survivor of the USS St. Lo there. It was very interesting. To future generations, Blackwell says that if it had not been for his generation, the following generations would not have a future. Blackwell worries about the future. He believes that the country is in bad shape. After Blackwell returned from his survivors leave he was sent to Ream Field, California and he was there when the war ended. From the back door of his barracks he could see downtown Tijuana. Then, they were sent to the desert to El Centro where they waited for their names to come up for discharge. They had to have enough points to go home. Blackwell was discharged in New Orleans at the Naval Air Station. At the time he was glad to get out but now wishes that he had stayed in. After leaving the service, Blackwell took advantage of the GI Bill and got an education. He also built a house using a GI Loan.

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