After 60 Years, Air Force Veteran Gets Korean War Medals

LOWER POTTSGROVE, Pa. -- It was not until he was an adult and went on a fishing trip to Canada with his dad that Ronald G. DeBlase Jr. heard any of the stories about his father's Korean War service with the U.S. Air Force on Okinawa.

"There was a Marine on the trip who had served on Okinawa and he and dad started talking and all of the sudden, I heard all these stories I had never heard before," DeBlase said of his father.

More of that history was revealed Wednesday when a U.S. Congressman stopped by the Hilltop Road home of the elder DeBlase and delivered four medals earned during that time in the Pacific -- more than 60 years after he earned them.

"I had no idea I had these coming," said DeBlase, 86, as U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello delivered the medals at a dining room table surrounded by family reporters and countless cameras.

But his son Mike knew.

"I was looking through his discharge papers and I saw that he had earned these medals. I'm not working right now, so I figured what the heck, I've got time," Mike DeBlase said.

He contacted the Veterans Administration in Chester County, obtained and filled out all the forms and sent them off to the appropriate office in Illinois.

"And that's where they got stuck," Mike DeBlase said.

"So I did what they always tell you to do, I called up my congressman and I'll tell you what, three days later I got a call from Illinois and they said they were working on it."

The medals Costello delivered were the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korea Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal.

"By my way of thinking, we're here to honor this gentleman and recognize his service, but also to make those children or grandchildren out there who have parents or grandparents who did serve and who may not have service medals, but earned them, aware that my office, this is what we do, we can obtain those medals for those who have earned them," Costello said.

"I think its very important for recognition as well as for the sake of family history, and passing down from generation to generation, those badges of courage, those personal stories and that sense of family history that I think all of us hold near and dear," he said.

For his part, DeBlase —who was discharged with the rank of master sergeant — regaled his visitors with a number of those personal stories, several of which involved not being entirely sober.

He served for four years with the 47th Air Rescue Squadron, attached to one of four bomber squadrons at the Madera Air Base in Okinawa.

Special B-29's were fitted with metal boats that could be dropped into the sea should a bomber be downed by enemy fire.

"Every day they would head out and we would follow them out," DeBlase recalled.

"When we got to Korea, we would peel off and circle over the ocean waiting for them to come back. And if any of them had to ditch in the ocean, we would drop the boat down for them."

Luckily, they never had to do that, and they never lost a bomber under their care.

"I only saw one MiG and the pilot was Russian. You could see he wasn't Korean, but he just flew by us," DeBlase said. "I think the fighter pilots had cleared most of the MiGs out by then."

But in point of fact, DeBlase wasn't supposed to see any of them.

"I wasn't supposed to be on the flights, but sometimes one of the crew members would get drunk the night before and be too hung over, so me and a couple of other guys would cover for them so they wouldn't get court-martialed," he said with a smile.

DeBlase said he joined the Air Force because he learned on a cross-Atlantic voyage how much he hates being on the ocean.

"When I got back, my dad said the draft board was looking for me, so I went right down to Philadelphia and signed up for the Air Force, because I knew I didn't want to be in the Navy," he said with a laugh.

But he didn't escape a sea voyage entirely.

"They still shipped us to Okinawa by ship and my buddy and I we weren't going to go, we were down at the pier, waving at the other guys getting on the ship and then the MPs came and threw us on too," DeBlase said. "I was so sick. I didn't know you could get that sick."

When he returned to the U.S., he was discharged in San Francisco and made his way back to Lower Pottsgrove where he got work in the plastics department of the plant that at the time belonged to Firestone Tire.

For 26 years, "long enough to get a pension," DeBlase worked third shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"It was by choice. I wanted to go hunting and fishing," said DeBlase -- although his son Brad joked it might have been to avoid "having to deal with all five of us."

In addition to his three sons, DeBlase has two daughters, Kim and Jill.

The family was out in force not only for the presentation of the medals, but for his 86th birthday, which was last week.

"Hell, I never thought I'd live this long," he said gruffly -- although he couldn't quite hide the smile.

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