By Fred “Crash” Blechman
If you went through military flight training many years ago, you may be wondering what happened to your fellow aviators. Or you may have gone through general aviation flight training and would like to contact some of those you trained with. Or you may just want to find old school chums. Years ago it was somewhat difficult to find your old friends, but today it’s relatively easy.
Way back in the fall of 1948, I entered Navy Pre-Flight School at Pensacola, and earned my pilot wings of gold in August 1950. I was immediately sent to Fighter Squadron Fourteen (VF-14 “Tophatters”) for two years, flying F4U-5 Corsairs off a half-dozen carriers on many local and two extended Mediterranean cruises. A few years ago, I wondered what happened to several of the guys with whom I went through flight training, and many from my squadron in the fleet.
Where were Eddy Balocco, Jack Eckstein, Herb Graham, Don Hubbs, Neil Armstrong, Ken Schechter, Andy Siebert, Al Dewar, Steve Odrobina, Jerry Bell, and Joe Akagi, whom I knew in flight training? Where were “Doc” Mossburg, Merle Rice and Felix Craddock, the others in the four-plane division in which I flew? How about Jim Morin, Don Flynn, Skipper Bob Coats, Don Ross, A.G. Wellons, Charlie Moore, John Wachtel and George Maige, some of those I flew with in VF-14? Well, I found—or found out about—all of these and many others
One became the first man on the moon, and one became an admiral. Several became Navy captains and several flew combat missions in Korea. Many became email contacts. Some I later met at reunions or for personal visits. Two didn’t even know who I was! And a number of them are now deceased.
Before you can start to find someone, you must first make a “target” list with as much information as you can find. Certainly, right off the top of your head you’ll remember some guys (or gals) you’d like to locate. Start with those, and then add to your list. If you’re computer literate, once you’ve made the list, you can use the Internet to home in on likely prospects. It may take some persistence, phone calls, or post cards to pin down the latest location of these people. Then you’ll call or write them and perhaps get together. Some will be very responsive, and some not. Some will remember you clearly, and some won’t remember you at all!
For example, it’s common in the Navy for “cruise books” to be produced on extended cruises. On my two Mediterranean carrier cruises with VF-14 (“USS Wright” in 1951 and “USS Wasp” in 1952), each had a cruise book. Typically, aside from the many pictures and stories about ports visited, there will also be a roster of personnel. I still have those cruise books. They’re a great resource for recalling old buddies, and provide a starting point for finding them.
Of course, some have died, and most have moved. But many, after their military service, return to their hometown, or nearby. Even if they don’t, there are frequently relatives who are still in their hometown that can lead you to the one you’re seeking. Certainly, your high school and college yearbooks are a source for names and faces, since most have photos and home addresses. Even if you haven’t personally saved them, you’ll find some classmates that have—and that leads to reunions, and reunion rosters.
Some military units keep a history, and some individuals do it on their own. Former VF-14 “Tophatter” Robert Holmbeck has compiled a list of senior Tophatters. Although this list included VF-14 pilots going back for many years before I joined the squadron, I located several of my old flying mates, among them “Cookie” Cleland, Jesse Hopkins, Dale Fisher and Don Ross. When I called Don, whom I’d had no contact with in 42 years, I simply asked, “Is this retired Navy Captain Don Ross, the world’s best Corsair pilot?” His immediate reply, with no hesitation, was “Freddie Blechman!” He recognized my voice! Eerie! Although his home is in Virginia, we’ve gotten together several times at reunions.
Once you find one buddy, they may still be in touch with others. All you have to do is ask. That’s how I found Carl and Merle Hilscher. I was in flight training with Carl, and used to date Merle before he married her! I found Jim Gillcrist through his brother, retired Rear Admiral Paul T. Gillcrist, who wrote a great book, “Feet Wet” (perhaps the best flying book I’ve ever read!). Recognizing the last name, I wrote Paul and he put me in touch with his older brother, Jim.
I found my old VF-14 skipper, retired Captain Robert C. Coats (Navy WWII 10-plane ace) by contacting Tommy Blackburn (former WWII VF-17 Navy captain, now deceased) after reading his exciting “The Jolly Rogers” book. Skipper Coats put me in touch with A.G. Wellons, who retired as a Navy captain.
I knew that my roommate throughout most of flight training, John “Jack” Eckstein, was from Massillon, Ohio. I kept meaning to try to find him (our last contact was over 20 years before, when he was still a commander in the Navy), but I kept putting it off. Finally, one evening about 14 years ago, on a whim, I decided to try to find Jack using my computer. In those days, CompuServe had a people-search called Phonefile. I requested all Ecksteins in Ohio—153 of them! Scrolling through, I found a John Eckstein in Massillon, Ohio. Worth a try. I called; the woman who answered turned out to be Jack’s mother!
“Where does Jack live now,” I asked. “Oh, he lives in Virginia. Has a vineyard,” was the reply. “Can I have his number?” I asked. “Well,” Jack’s mother replied, “I can give you his number, but he’s not there now. He’s on a trip to Chicago, but it just so happens that he stopped by this evening to visit, and right now he’s across the street visiting his sister.”
I got the number and called. Can you imagine Jack’s surprise when I called him after 20 years of no contact, and when he was hundreds of miles from his home? He was shocked! Jack retired from the Navy as a captain. We’ve gotten together several times since then.
Another contact through CompuServe’s Phonefile was Ed Balocco. I went through flight training with Ed, who became a Marine combat fighter and attack pilot in Korea. I had lost track of him, but I knew he was from Antioch, Calif. I found a sister, who directed me to Ed, now a lawyer in nearby Walnut Creek, not far from Antioch. I called Ed and said, “Hi, Ed! This is Fred Blechman. Remember me?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then blurted out, “Freddie Blechman! Sure I remember you. I talk about you all the time!” I was shocked. Talks about me all the time? Huh? I hadn’t had contact with Ed in 42 years. Why would he talk about me? I asked him why. “Oh,” he replied, “I tell people about the skinny kid from New York who went through flight training with me, then went on to fly Corsairs off carriers—and didn’t know how to drive a car!”
It was true. Funny what people remember. I learned to drive a car after about 30 carrier landings. I flew up to Oakland to see Ed, and showed him pictures I took of him in flight gear in 1950. We had a fabulous personal reunion—and I got a fantastic personally-guided tour of the San Francisco area. We’re still in frequent contact.
Phonefile found me another old friend. He and I used to go flying in rented planes when we went to school at Cal-Aero Technical Institute in Glendale, Calif., in the late 1940s. I found Ugo Sbaraglia in Santa Barbara. It was easy. He was the only Sbaraglia in all of California! We got together several times before he passed away about eight years ago.
In more recent years, the Internet has exploded with search engines that allow you to find people. One of the easiest to use—and it’s free—is www.people.yahoo.com, which also allows you to find email addresses. If you have difficulty, professional searches on www.yahoo.com and www.google.com can find out all kinds of people information for fees as little as $10.
Once you think you’ve found someone on your list, you can call or write. Calling can be expensive, especially if you have a long list of “possibles.” In that case, I send inquiry postcards, like “Are you the Don Flynn I flew with in VF-14 in 1950/51?” If I’m pretty sure I’ve got a “hit,” I call and surprise them with a blast from the past!
Sometimes a phone call can be embarrassing! I found a former petty officer who was my right-hand man when I was education and training officer in VF-14. We worked closely together for two years. I called him. He didn’t remember me. I wrote him. He never answered. So be ready for some disappointments. Some you contact will not care at all. Others will be excited to get together and hash over old stories.