Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn-Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero

Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn-Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero

by Mike Guardia

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Overview

The true story of the US Army legend who organized “Blackburn’s Headhunters” against Japan in WWII and went on to initiate Special Forces operations in Vietnam.

The fires on Bataan burned on the evening of April 9, 1942—illuminating the white flags of surrender against the dark sky. Outnumbered and outgunned, remnants of the American-Philippine army surrendered to the forces of the Rising Sun. Yet US Army Captain Donald D. Blackburn refused to lay down his arms. With future Special Forces legend Russell Volckmann, Blackburn escaped to the jungles of North Luzon, where they raised a private army of 22,000 men against the Japanese. His organization of native tribes into guerrilla fighters would lead to the destruction of the enemy’s naval base at Aparri.

But Blackburn’s amazing accomplishments would not end with the victory in the Pacific. He would go on to play a key role in initiating Army Special Forces operations in Southeast Asia, spearheading Operation White Star in Laos as commander of the 77th Special Forces Group and eventually taking command of the highly classified Studies and Observations Group (SOG), charged with performing secret missions now that main-force Communist incursions were on the rise.

In the wake of the CIA’s disastrous Leaping Lena program, in 1964, Blackburn revitalized the Special Operations campaign in South Vietnam. Sending reconnaissance teams into Cambodia and North Vietnam, he discovered the clandestine networks and supply nodes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Taking the information directly to General Westmoreland, Blackburn was authorized to conduct full-scale operations against the NVA and Viet Cong in Laos and Cambodia. In combats large and small, the Communists realized they had met a master of insurgent tactics—and he was on the US side. Following his return to the US, Blackburn was the architect of the infamous Son Tay Prison Raid, officially termed Operation Ivory Coast, the largest prisoner-of-war rescue mission—and, indeed, the largest Army Special Forces operation—of the Vietnam War.

During a period when US troops in Southeast Asia faced guerrilla armies on every side, America had a superb covert commander of its own. This book follows Blackburn through both his youthful days of desperate combat and his time as a commander, imparting his lessons to the new ranks of Army Special Forces.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504025041
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
Publication date: 11/24/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 113,187
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Mike Guardia is an internationally recognized author and military historian. A veteran of the US Army, he served six years on active duty as an armor officer. He is the author of the widely acclaimed Hal Moore: A Soldier Once . . . And Always, the first-ever biography chronicling the life of Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore, whose battlefield leadership was popularized by the film We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson. Guardia has been nominated twice for the Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Writing Award and is an active member in the Military Writers Society of America.
 
As a speaker, Guardia hosts the lecture series “Hal Moore: Lessons in Leadership,” which is available for presentation at schools, businesses, and civic organizations worldwide. He has given presentations at the US Special Operations Command and the International Spy Museum. His work has been reviewed in the Washington TimesArmchair GeneralARMY magazine, defenceWeb, and Miniature Wargames UK.
 
Guardia holds a bachelor of arts and master of arts in American history from the University of Houston. He currently lives in Texas.
Mike Guardia is an internationally recognized author and military historian. A veteran of the US Army, he served six years on active duty as an armor officer. He is the author of the widely acclaimed Hal Moore: A Soldier Once . . . And Always, the first-ever biography chronicling the life of Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore, whose battlefield leadership was popularized by the film We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson. Guardia has been nominated twice for the Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Writing Award and is an active member in the Military Writers Society of America.
 
As a speaker, Guardia hosts the lecture series “Hal Moore: Lessons in Leadership,” which is available for presentation at schools, businesses, and civic organizations worldwide. He has given presentations at the US Special Operations Command and the International Spy Museum. His work has been reviewed in the Washington TimesArmchair GeneralARMY magazine, defenceWeb, and Miniature Wargames UK.
 
Guardia holds a bachelor of arts and master of arts in American history from the University of Houston. He currently lives in Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Shadow Commander

The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn, Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero


By Mike Guardia

Casemate Publishing

Copyright © 2011 by Mike Guardia
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2504-1



CHAPTER 1

CALL OF DUTY

* * *

The morning sun beat down mercilessly on what little remained of Headquarters Battalion, 12th Infantry, and its commander, First Lieutenant Donald D. Blackburn, knew that time was running out. Crouching behind their hastily dug-in fighting positions, his young Filipinos — inaugural members of the Philippine Army — prepared to open fire on the Japanese landing craft barreling towards the shore. The enemy had been probing their coastal defenses for the past twelve hours, determined to crush the "speed bump" that lay between them and their conquest of the Philippine Islands. As he braced himself for the incoming wave of enemy troops, Blackburn began to wonder how he had gotten himself into this mess, or if he would ever live to tell about it.

The story of Donald Dunwoody Blackburn begins on the idyllic shores of the American Sunbelt. Born on September 14, 1916 in West Palm Beach, Florida, "Don" spent his formative years growing up in the suburbs of Tampa. He never revealed much about his upbringing, other than to say that it was typical of most boys growing up in western Florida. Indeed, the young man dedicated most of his childhood to swimming, sailing, and other nautical pursuits. In many ways, Don Blackburn was also a product of his time — his was the generation raised on the harrowing tales of the Great War, the decadence of the Roaring Twenties, and the bitter hardships of the Great Depression. And, like many young men of his day, he was fervently patriotic. From an early age he admired the sense of duty and patriotism that came with military service. Despite his childhood interest in water borne activities, Don found him self attracted to the culture and life style of the United States Army.

Graduating from Plant High School in 1934, Blackburn announced his decision to enroll in an Army ROTC program. That fall he matriculated at the University of Florida, pursuing a degree in Business with a minor in Military Science. He enjoyed college life, but admitted that "I squeaked by through the skin of my teeth ... I just wasn't motivated towards anything in particular, other than enjoying fraternity life." Nevertheless, his experiences as an Army cadet validated the passions he had had for soldiering. Excelling in many areas of his cadetship, Don was an active member in the Scabbard & Blade Society, and rose to the rank of Cadet Captain. After serving as an ROTC Company Commander during his senior year, Blackburn graduated in 1938 with a commission as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry.

Although he was an outstanding cadet, the Thompson Act of 1932 ultimately prevented Don from serving on active duty. A hallmark of an isolationist Congress, the Thompson Act limited the number of ROTC graduates who could enter active duty within a certain fiscal year. Unwittingly cast into the Army Reserve, Blackburn decided to make the best of it and begin searching for a full-time job.

As it was throughout most of the Depression Era, the best job opportunities were in the public sector. Coincidentally, Blackburn's uncle — a pioneer of early avionics — landed him a job with the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in Washington, DC. This job placement was fortuitous as it reunited Don with his former ROTC instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Claude Adams. Adams had just been transferred to the office of the Army Chief of Staff, only a few blocks away from the CAB offices. One summer night in 1940, while enjoying dinner at Adams' house, Don confessed that although he enjoyed his job at the Aeronautics Board, he regretted not being able to serve on active duty. Hearing this, Adams stopped him and said, "Well, Don, why don't you do it? Your name, in all probability, will come up for call to active duty this year [1940]."

Shortly before Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act (the first peacetime draft in American history), the Army had begun calling its Reserve officers into active service for a period of one year — renewable based on national security and manpower needs. Adams, however, cautioned Blackburn, saying that "If your name comes up this year, you're going to have to drop out of school." Blackburn had been attending night classes at Georgetown University Law School and, ideally, was to sit for the DC Bar Exam in less than a year. Nevertheless, he looked Adams straight in the eye and said, "I'd just as soon go on active duty."

In all, Blackburn had no reason to fear being left out of active service, for the political climate of 1940 was vastly different from what it had been only two years earlier. Isolationism still rang high in halls of Congress, but the ideology was quickly losing steam as Nazi Germany — which had inaugurated another European war on September 1, 1939 — advanced on all fronts. For the first time in nearly a quartercentury, the U.S. government authorized a full-scale increase in military spending. Meanwhile, across the pond, the British relied heavily on American logistics in their life-and-death struggle against the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. Still, many Americans hoped that the war in Europe would run its course without their involvement. The Empire of Japan, at this stage, was of little concern to anyone. Despite its recent aggressions on the Chinese mainland, everyone knew that the Rising Sun would never challenge the U.S. Navy.

In his conversation with Adams, Blackburn expressed a desire to go to Fort Benning, Georgia — the "Home of the Infantry." According to Blackburn, "It so happened that General Embrick, the CG [Commanding General] of the IV Corps Area located in Atlanta, was in town. Since Adams was in the Chief's Office, he talked to Embrick and it was arranged that in September — this was then August of 1940 — I would receive orders to go to Fort Benning," orders which assigned him to the 24th Infantry Regiment.

Assuming his role as a nowactive duty lieutenant, Blackburn was sent to the Communications School on-post and was appointed as a Battalion Signal Officer. For the first few months at Fort Benning, Don lived the life of a typical bachelor until one night (at a local dance) when he won the affections of a young lady named Ann Smith. The young belle was introduced to him as the girlfriend of one of his former classmates from the University of Florida. But Blackburn, smitten as he was, pursued the young woman until she finally relented. They began dating in November 1940 and by the following summer they had set their marriage date for September 1941. Destiny, however, was about to throw them a curveball.

After returning home from maneuvers in Louisiana, Blackburn discovered that his active duty tour had been extended. He wasn't surprised. In fact, he had seen it coming. As the situation in Europe deteriorated — along with continuing tension in Asia — there was hardly a Reservist whose tour hadn't been extended. But shortly afterward, Blackburn recalled that "a notice appeared on the regimental bulletin board asking for volunteers for the Philippines." He didn't think about it again until the next day, when Second Lieutenant Harry Kuykendall barged into his tent and asked, "Did you see that?"

"Yes," Blackburn grumbled.

"Did you volunteer?" Harry asked him.

"Hell no!"

"Neither did I, but I know they're going to volunteer me."

"What makes you think so?" Blackburn said.

"It's just fate."

Unfortunately, fate cast a grim shadow on Don Blackburn that day, as the next morning he discovered that his name (right alongside Kuykendall's) was on the list of new officers reassigned to the Philippine Islands.

Blackburn was not amused; he couldn't go to the Philippines, he was getting married. "And I hardly knew where the Philippines were," he added. Phoning Lieutenant Colonel Adams to tell him the news, Blackburn was surprised when Adams congratulated him on the new posting. An assignment to the Philippine Islands was every soldier's dream, Adams said. Tropical beaches, warm weather, and the "Pearl of the Orient" — he should be so lucky. And "if anything's going to happen," he told Blackburn, "it's going to happen in Europe, and not in the Philippines." Be that as it may, Blackburn still had a fiancée. What would this do to his marriage plans?

Consulting with Ann later that night, Don told her, "You're going to have to hang in there, because I'm not going to marry you with me over there and you over here." He never mentioned the details of her reaction, but sufficed to say that Ann "didn't think it was such a hot arrangement." All things considered, however, Don knew it was for best. He loved her dearly, but until the situation overseas could be resolved, he simply wouldn't take the risk of making her a widow so early into her marriage. Sooner or later, he said, Americans would be in this war whether they liked it or not.

An American Commonwealth since the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines were in the midst of their transition to full sovereignty. In 1935, Congress had passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which set a ten-year timeline for Philippine independence and made provisions for establishing a new Philippine Army. To fill the ranks of this inaugural army, Philippine President Manuel Quezon drew personnel from the US Philippine Scouts and the Philippine Constabulary. The Philippine Scouts were a highly trained and well-equipped American Army unit in which all of the enlisted men (and most of the junior officers) were Filipino. The Philippine Constabulary was the national police force.

American forces in the Philippines fell under the jurisdiction of the United States Armed Forces — Far East (USAFFE). Commanded by an Army General (at the time, Douglas MacArthur), USAFFE encompassed all American ground forces, the Asiatic Fleet, the Far East Air Force, and the semi-autonomous Philippine Army. USAFFE's mission was to defend the archipelago and to train the new Philippine Army. To this end, the US Army sent thousands of its young officers to the Pacific to serve as low-level commanders and instructors in the Philippine Army.

With his orders in hand, Blackburn departed Washington, DC on a train bound for San Francisco. The trip was quite an odyssey as most of the passengers were military personnel, and nearly all of them were headed to the Philippines. On arrival in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the train was boarded by a group of soldiers just in from maneuvers outside Camp Polk. From there, the trip took a rather interesting turn. In the tradition of easily bored young men, the new GIs invented outlandish ways to keep themselves entertained. Shortly after crossing into Texas, one fellow proclaimed, "Let's have a party ... I can't stand this thing." With that, he went rummaging through the baggage car and produced a banjo, some exotic booze, and a handful of hula skirts. Blackburn stood there in bewilderment as the young man proceeded to coax the few women on board to put on the hula skirts and start dancing. Booze and good tidings made their way around the passenger car as the train lumbered westward to California.

Arriving in San Francisco, however, the mood was decidedly different. The once joyful lot now somberly boarded the USS Holbrook en route to the Philippines. As it were, the passenger manifest included none other than the "barracks fortune-teller," Harry Kuykendall. Over the twenty-three day voyage, Kuykendall, once again, was up to his fatalistic fortune-telling. One day, in the ship's galley, Blackburn came upon "Old Harry" and found him reading a copy of Orphans of the Pacific by John Michener. Kuykendall said, "I've just been reading about these stinking barrios and all the disease over there, and I can see now that when I get there, I'm going to be put in one of these barrios and get some kind of tropical disease."

When the Holbrook finally arrived in the Philippines, Don told him, "Now Kuykendall, you read the good things in that book, because I'm not going to the awful places you've read about." Trying to inject a little bit of optimism into the somber fellow, Blackburn speculated that they might end up in Baguio together. Baguio, a city nestled within the mountains of the Cordillera Central, was home to Camp John Hay, one of the nicest military bases in the archipelago. Disembarking from the ship, the assignment orders were read aloud and the pair discovered that they were, in fact, assigned to Baguio. "See?" Blackburn told him, "I knew it — 'Lieutenant Kuykendall, Baguio'."

"Oh it won't last," Kuykendall interjected. "I'll end up in the stinking damn malaria-ridden country."

Blackburn tried to remain upbeat. Perhaps this year-long tour in the Philippines would pass without incident.

CHAPTER 2

OFF TO THE PHILIPPINES


* * *

After being fitted for nearly a dozen tropical uniforms, and sifting through the endless volumes of paperwork, Blackburn received his orders to the 12th Infantry at Camp Holmes just outside Baguio — about 175 miles north of Manila and nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. The regiment was one of four that belonged to the 11th Division (Philippine Army).

Arriving at Camp Holmes on October 23, 1941, Blackburn reported to Major Martin Moses, the Regimental Commander. Moses was an Infantry officer and a West Point graduate — Class of 1929. He had been in the Philippines for quite some time and had just earned his eligibility for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Rather short and slight of build, Moses' reputation belied his appearance — he was stern, direct, and spoke with the vigor of a man twice his size. He was polite, but not friendly. Reviewing Blackburn's orders, Moses gave him a look and said "Ok Don, you'll be an instructor for us."

"Instructing what, sir?"

"Communications and motor transport." Blackburn had a working familiarity with both subjects, so the job sounded all right. But what Moses neglected to tell him was that the battalion had no trucks, no radios, and no field manuals for either topic.

Early that afternoon, Blackburn arrived at the Headquarters Battalion to meet his new charges. The reception, however, was hardly enjoy able. Looking at the state of his men, Blackburn discovered that the Philippine Army was an "army" that existed only on paper. His young soldiers — most of them conscripts — were members of the Ilocano tribe. They were a strong and healthy bunch, but nearly half of them were barefooted — no money had been allocated for shoes. And what little equipment they did have were military hand-me-downs from the First World War. On his person, the Filipino soldier carried little more than a summer uniform, canteen, and rifle. The rifles, however, were Enfields — old British-model guns that hadn't been fired since the Treaty of Versailles. At first, he could hardly fathom it — the U.S. had been working on the Philippine defense project for the past six years, and this was the only progress they had made?

Undaunted by the challenges, Blackburn solicited help from a nearby precinct of the Philippine Constabulary. Borrowing one of their patrol vehicles, Blackburn secured his battalion's first motorized asset. His next stop was the local bus company, owned and operated by Philippine Army reservist Bando Dagwa. "Without much discussion," Blackburn recalled, "Dagwa loaned me a pickup truck" along with instruction booklets on how to operate a motor vehicle. From there, the young Lieutenant Blackburn began making visual mock-ups of a steering column, gearshift, and clutch. Any part of the vehicle that he couldn't reproduce was drawn on the company blackboard.

Blackburn could deal with his battalion's supply issues. But the soldiers' discipline — or lack thereof — was a different matter altogether. In fact, long before Blackburn's arrival, "discipline" had become somewhat of a joke. In keeping with their tribal tradition, the Ilocanos wore their hair in long, flowing, black locks, well beyond the length of military regulation. To correct the problem, Blackburn armed his officers with scissors, ready to cut off the offensive locks at a moment's notice. The Ilocano officers, however, were laughably incompetent and had little sway over the men they were expected to lead. Since many of the officers would drink, gamble, and gossip with their men, the authoritative relationship had gone out the window.

Gathering the troops for their first round of instruction, however, Blackburn discovered an even greater problem. Nearly three-quarters of his men couldn't speak English. Aghast and frustrated, Blackburn enlisted the help of any interpreter he could find. But even with his interpreters, the task of instructing these young Filipinos seemed like an exercise in futility. They would laugh, giggle, and stand sleepy-eyed in front of Blackburn's mock-ups. They were so frequently inattentive and disobedient that he would have to curse and threaten them just to force their compliance. To make matters worse, none of the Ilocanos had ever driven a motor vehicle. To stem the tide of their inexperience, however, Blackburn said:

We jacked the back wheels up so the trainees wouldn't go over the side of the mountain while learning to shift gears. You can imagine trying to get the equivalent of a company trained on one vehicle, and me speaking only English!

Indeed, every day was a battle of wills as Don Blackburn tried to whip his disinterested soldiers into a cohesive unit. But he nonetheless persevered.

Adding insult to injury were Blackburn's living arrangements. He had a nice billet at Camp John Hay (on the other side of Baguio) but the commute into Camp Holmes just added to his frustrations. Camp John Hay was home to the elite Philippine Scouts and, by virtue of being an American outfit, the Scouts were privy to the best equipment in the archipelago. A majority of the Scouts at John Hay were Igorot tribesmen who, like the Ilocanos, were physically fit, but the Igorots were much more disciplined. Blackburn envied the officers who had been assigned to the Philippine Scouts; it always seemed that they had fewer headaches to deal with.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Shadow Commander by Mike Guardia. Copyright © 2011 by Mike Guardia. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Front Cover
  • Front Image
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1: Call of Duty
  • CHAPTER 2: Off to the Philippines
  • CHAPTER 3: The Road to Bataan
  • CHAPTER 4: Perilous Journey
  • CHAPTER 5: North Luzon
  • CHAPTER 6: Against the Tides
  • CHAPTER 7: Cagayan Valley
  • CHAPTER 8: Combat Operations
  • CHAPTER 9: New Beginnings
  • CHAPTER 10: Southeast Asia
  • CHAPTER 11: SOG
  • CHAPTER 12: Son Tay
  • Epilogue
  • Career Chronology
  • Bibliography
  • Copyright Page

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Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn-Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
rufus230 More than 1 year ago
My first thought about this book was Highly disorganized. However, the times, perils and excitements all occurred in highly disorganized times in a setting of great chaos. Welol worth reading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good profile on an interesting military leader that needs to be flushed out. I want to know more about this American hero's exploits. Missing is the meat and potatoes - so much more should have been included.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A little dry but well worth the read. This book fills in a lot that you Will never see in the American History books.