So Much More Than a Sack of Rice

I opened my newspaper this morning, to read Jeff DeBlanc's obituary.

"Most people live their entire lives without knowing exactly what they're worth. I know exactly what I'm worth - a ten pound sack of rice."

That was DeBlanc's favorite story, one he never failed to tell reporters, including me, about the great adventure of his life.

It started January 31, 1943 when a 21-year old Marine aviator took off from Guadalcanal in his F4F Wildcat fighter to escort a flight of dive bombers on a mission to the northern Solomon Islands. In the course of a few desperate minutes, then-Lieutenant DeBlanc shot down five Japanese aircraft, before being shot down himself. For his courage and skill, he would later receive the Medal of Honor. But the part of the story he liked to talk about, came after he parachuted into shark infested waters and swam through the night to a Japanese occupied island called Kolombangara (if you've ever seen the original version of King Kong, you know what Kolombangara looks like. I saw it on an NPR/National Geographic Radio Expedition in 2002, when I accompanied Robert Ballard on a search for John F. Kennedy's PT-109, which sank about ten miles off shore. When I arrived, Ballard pointed to the astonishing volcano that seemed to leap out of the water and said "Skull Island, right?").

Anyway, Jeff DeBlanc found himself in the hands of a group of islanders who were well aware of his value. Rather than turn him into the Japanese, they traded him to another tribe for that ten pound sack of rice. They cared for his wounds and eventually arranged a transfer by outrigger canoe to a Navy flying boat than got him back to a hospital on Guadalcanal just in time for his 22nd birthday.

I spoke with him five years ago, for a story on the battle for Guadalcanal that I did on that trip to the Solomons. Along with the ten pound sack of rice, the part that's stayed with me, was his vivid memory of his diet and its effects. Marines ate beans for just about every meal on Guadalcanal in those days, and he asked me to imagine what that felt like in an unpressurized cockpit at fifteen thousand feet.

DeBlanc eventually retired with the rank of Colonel, and spent most of the rest of his life teaching math and science to high school students in his native Louisiana.



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I don't doubt DeBlanc's observation about the rice, but his story, as told, makes Solomon Islanders seem more venal than necessary. I'm an anthropologist and spent a long time in the Solomons (mostly on Bougainville) and often talked about what it was like for the local people during WWII.

They did the best they could. Imagine what it was like to have two large, lethal, foreign armies fighting a war where you live. You have no idea what the war is all about, except that it involves people fighting to control your own territory -- to what end, you don't understand except in practical terms. It's not as though they were incapable of understanding -- Solomon Islanders are smart people -- but that Japanese or Americans would sit people down and teach them history, international politics, and military strategy is unthinkable.

An important practical issue was, for everybody I ever talked to, which side to support, when supporting either side could easily mean death. It's nonsense to imagine that tribespeople would make political choices -- US/Australia vs. Japan. The important choice, for nearly everybody, was always -- how can we get out this alive? Which side is more likely to win out here, in our territory?

So although I wasn't there, I can assure you that whatever went on between the two tribes was much, much more complex than giving or getting a bag of rice in exchange for a young Marine.

Sent by Don Mitchell | 8:02 AM | 11-27-2007

R.I.P. Jeff DeBlanc He was my grandfather, and he was a very great man. He will surely be missed, but my family and I can all agree that he lived an extraordinary life, and not just because of the Medal of Honor.

Sent by Michael DeBlanc | 9:11 AM | 11-28-2007

Mr DeBlanc was my Geometry and Math teacher. He was an excellent teacher, passionate and inspired. He made Math fun. He never mentioned his wartime experiences, it was only afterward that I found out about his incredible life. He was an amazing man.

Sent by Chris Brown | 4:46 AM | 12-11-2007

I had the extreme pleasure of having Mr. Jeff Deblanc as my math teacher. A movie should have been mad about this man as he was not only an extrodinary teacher, but was extremely comical and I actually looked forward to attending his classes. He would talk about his experiences only if you asked him to do so and would last the remainder of the class.Years after graduation I am proud to say Mr. Jeff or Mr. "D" as we knew him, was my friend. Looking forward to meeting you again Mr. D.

Sent by Ronald "Ronnie" Bonvillian | 2:38 PM | 2-1-2008