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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?").

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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.