An Alaskan Legend and Hero
It’s said that some of the strongest people on earth are the quietest. This holds true for men and women alike where physical and mental strength is concerned. Many such folks walk amongst us totally unnoticed. They do not seek special recognition. They’re content in their accomplishments, requiring no public accolades or praise for ego’s sake. I met such a person. His name is Percy John Blatchford.
Let me give you a quick background on the man.
Percy was born in the village of Golovin, Alaska, October 9, 1920. His parents were Jenny and Charles Blatchford. By age 13 both of them were gone, and from that point his grandmother raised him in the tiny village of Elim. Percy was a full-blooded Inupiaq and proud of it. He was an accomplished whale hunter providing meat for his family and many others. At an early age Percy’s mother informed him he’d be in the military for a long time. When asked how she knew that the woman replied, “Jesus told me!”
Percy served in the Army during WWII. He was part of an elite force of men known as “Castner’s Cutthroats.” These troops, under the command of Colonel Lawrence Varsi Castner, performed reconnaissance missions on the Aleutian Islands. At that time they were regarded as the most dangerous guerrilla fighters in the world. After a six-year stint in the Army Percy enlisted in the Air Force working in surveillance and pararescue. What I found most interesting involved him helping to train beluga whales for the Navy. With attached electronic devices they were used for eavesdropping on enemy ships and submarines.
Before retiring from the military in 1972 he had 30 years of combined military experience. Afterwards Percy helped design the WWII memorial in Washington D.C.. President Reagan presented him with the prestigious “Medical Medal of Merit.” Percy Blatchford was an Alaska legend before I was born.
I was employed as a partsman for the State of Alaska Department of Transportation, State Equipment Fleet when I first encountered Percy. The year was 1982. He was a heavy equipment operator assigned to the road maintenance section. Percy stood on the opposite side of a parts counter curiously peering at me. I was new to the shop and I’m sure he was puzzled at my being there. The man was built like a tank. There was something unique about his look that immediately caught my eye.
I don’t recall what Percy wanted that day, yet I do remember his smile. With native accent he asked if I was the new kid in town. Evidently he’d listened to the Eagles a time or two. When I replied, “Yes,” he shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. I’ll never forget that handshake. I’m no slouch in the strong claws department, but Percy had mine beat by a country mile. The man’s hands were huge and rock hard.
I still visualize Percy in his orange coveralls driving the Etnyre Black Topper—a diesel powered truck holding a large black tank of heated oil or tar for crack sealing roads. Percy and co-worker, Eddie Berkley, generally manned it. Their attire as you can imagine was stained with drops of gooey tar. The seat of their vehicle was dotted with the same.
I worked with Percy for approximately 7 years. Over that period I heard nothing but praise: his work ethic was stellar, he was a mentor to those around him, he had a sympathetic ear and offered words of wisdom in helping to solve problems. There was one occasion where he stood between two bigger fellows about to duke it out. Most likely he saved them from being fired.
The person who taught me the most about Percy Blatchford was my good friend and next door neighbor, Bill Devine. Percy and Bill served together in the Air Force. They were involved in clandestine missions of all types. Bill would never tell me exact details of their assignments, but did say they carried no identification in the event of capture. Laos and Cambodia were mentioned. He chuckled after saying, “If I told you I’d have to kill you!” They kept in contact after retiring, and Bill considered Percy one of his closest friends.
One of the herculean things I remember about Percy was his ability to lift a 55-gallon drum of cleaning solvent into the bed of a pickup without the use of a crane or lifting device. When co-worker, Lawrence Everett, first told me that story I rolled my eyes. Such a drum weighed approximately 350 pounds. Over time, more and more of Percy’s co-workers came forth claiming it was true. Only after viewing him do it with my own eyes did I become a believer. At that point Percy was 62 years old, something a stranger would have never guessed. Percy carried his age better than most. He had a dignified persona along with having a well-sculpted brawny physique.
Bill Devine told me about Percy being dropped by helicopter in a mountainous, totally inaccessible region of the Philippines. A military plane had crashed and Tech. Sgt. Blatchford was the most able to reach the site. He was highly trained in all phases of rescue, having over 200 parachute jumps under his belt. The lone pilot of the downed aircraft was dead. Several days later Percy arrived at a helicopter pickup zone, having single handedly carried the man’s body down the mountain.
Percy was the heavyweight boxing champ of Alaska in the 1940s. He often sparred or gave boxing tips to Eddie Berkley, Lawrence Everett, Roger Strickler, and Bruce Hannan. Those Anchorage residents were avid participants of the sport. Bruce (K.O.) Hannan was an Alaska heavyweight champ himself during the 1970s. Each man mentioned they’d never want to actually fight Blatchford. There was ample reason for it!
During WWII, besides being a legendary soldier, Percy Blatchford is reported to have sparred with world renowned boxer, Joe Louis. Several articles written about him mention this. More than likely Percy was instructed not to hurt the fabled boxer. It was no secret Percy broke four ribs on one of the toughest men in the Army during a match. Joe Louis was a valuable asset to the war effort. His enlistment in the service helped boost troop morale, along with bringing in needed monetary donations. The United States could ill afford for mighty Joe to be hurt.
After the exhibition match Joe Louis’ outgoing personality must have rubbed off on Percy as it did with many soldiers. Just like him, Percy saw fit in his later years to help young fighters. Percy Blatchford’s fighting nickname was ‘Noseemo.’ I’m not positively sure what the Eskimo interpretation is but I assume it’s, “Bad to the bone!”
The column written by United Press Sports writer Malcolm Donnelly on August 2, 1946, has Blatchford potentially seeking a match against Joe Louis. It’s clear from Malcolm Donnelly’s comments, plus Percy’s, that he’d been refrained from hitting Joe Louis. This takes nothing away from Percy’s extraordinary boxing skills. If you look at matches won vs matches lost, Percy’s record far exceeds that of Joe Louis. Percy “Noseemo” Blatchford never lost a fight!
In retrospect, if a Percy Blatchford vs Joe Louis bout had taken place, my opinion on the outcome is straightforward. According to writer Malcolm Donnelly, the fight couldn’t have happened until 1948. That was the year Percy was discharged from the Army. He would’ve been 28 at this time and in prime fighting condition.
Sports reporters have Joe Louis winding down by 1949. The wind pretty much had gone out of his sails. Not trying to tarnish the world champion’s remarkable career, but I believe Blatchford would’ve knocked Louis out in the third round.
Archived editions of newspapers throughout the country contain stories of Percy’s heroics and exploits:
On March 10, 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi, Percy instructed a group of Civil Air Patrol cadets in the skills needed to survive a plane crash. An article in the local Clarion-Ledger detailed how excited the students were to have Percy as their instructor. They asked him some unusual questions. One girl wanted to know why Eskimos rub noses. To paraphrase Percy’s blushed reply, “It’s hard to kiss when you’re wearing parka and fur trimmed hood!”
Another student inquired if he’d heard about a penguin laying an egg in Mississippi. With a laugh Percy answered, “Do you think it’ll hatch?” He went on to tell the young person he’d never seen a penguin, because penguins live in the
The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama) April 3, 1952 highlights Percy’s exploits during WWII, including some tasks he did before the war. Percy spent a short period of time gold mining and trapping before his military career began. Besides many things he was gifted in handling a dog team and a successful hunter.
Maxwell Air Force Base was Percy’s assigned base during the early 1950s. It was here that he taught other soldiers survival techniques. Percy was an expert survivalist knowing how to live off the land. Much of his survival knowledge he’d been taught by his parents and grandparents.
A story in the February 1952 “Outdoor Life” tells of Sgt. Percy Blatchford and Maj. Gen. J.H. Atkinson hunting brown bear. There’s a photo of the sergeant holding a 30.06 rifle along with several dead ptarmigan. Atkinson said Percy was so accurate, that he was able to pop heads off birds from a far distance with his high-powered weapon.
In an October 7, 1958 issue of Alamogordo Daily News (New Mexico), there’s an article about Percy helping save three men after their plane crashed near Unalakleet. The trio had walked away from the wreck and spent 10 days in the wilds until being rescued. All survivors were given life-saving medical treatment on the return flight. Percy was well trained in medical procedures.
On June 7, 1962, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Percy helped guide Gen. Curtis Lemay and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands on a successful hunt. Without Percy’s help more than likely the outing would’ve been a bust. Percy received a letter of recognition from Lemay for his assistance.
Percy did the same for Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle. He was Doolittle’s guide on stalking then shooting a polar bear. A signed letter from the famous pilot thanking Percy resides in the Alaska Veterans Museum.
An article in the November 8, 1964 Independent Press – Telegram (Los Angeles) has a plethora of information on Percy. It tells of 10 men crashing in a remote area near Nome. Eight passengers stayed with the aircraft while two decided to walk out. Percy and other rescuers eventually found the two men froze to death. The eight staying with the plane survived. Percy preached to students afterwards that remaining at a crash site was best.
This same L.A. newspaper article tells of Percy killing a brown bear with a single .22 bullet. He also held off a pack of wolves with the identical rifle. Evidently this was the only weapon he owned in his early years. Ironically, during Percy’s tenure as a “Castner Cutthroat,” the .22 rimfire was their weapon of choice.
In the 1970s, during an interview, Percy tells of having to help remove the remains of 12 soldiers killed in an airplane crash in Columbia. There was another rescuer with him named “Red” Willis. The bodies had been on top of a mountain almost two weeks in tropical jungle heat. Without going into gory detail Percy summarized what’d become of them. One of the crash victims was found perched on a log. The man appeared to be alive, but when Percy touched his face it was cold. The soldier had an open Bible in his hands turned to the 23rd Psalm. Percy picked the Bible up and read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures.”
Percy John Blatchford died at the age of 82 on January 12, 2003. His legacy is forever implanted in the mountains, tundra, and waters of The Last Frontier!