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Homer Hirt

Homer Hirt

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Jerry Blanchette and the USS ALASKA

(Note:  Jerry Blanchette, guest writer for the TIMES, has been featured in Profiles of Courage)

Jerry Blanchette was a young man of sixteen when he became drawn to ships of the United States Navy.  Portsmouth, New Hampshire has a long connection with ships and with seafaring, and Jerry, in the midst of World War II, felt a call.  He went to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the first Federal shipyard of the new United States in the early 1800s.  In Jerry’s time submarines were being constructed for his country, and he signed on to help build them.  He had tried to join the active Navy, but had been sent home, so he saw this as the second best option for service.

As the war ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender, Jerry Blanchette finally made it into the Navy.  He became a radioman. “I became a radio operator because my first assignment was on a heavy cruiser, and they did not call us ‘swabbies’ for nothing” Jerry said.  He then served in a destroyer, the USS Steinaker, in the Atlantic.  

And then Jerry Blanchette came home.  He became a brick mason, and worked construction, and eventually moved to Florida.  But then another kind of call came to him and to his wife Joy: the call of mission work.  Regular readers of his columns know about their service among the tribes of Brazil. 

Retired again, and living in Jackson County, Jerry keeps busy with a local church, where one day recently a visitor, the son-in-law of a member, told of being selected as commanding officer of the Gold Crew of the USS ALASKA (SSBN 732), a nuclear submarine. He invited Jerry to come to the change of command ceremony at Kings Bay, Georgia.

Nuclear submarines, the descendants of the World War II boats that Jerry helped build, have two crews, a Blue crew and a Gold crew, for they stay at sea six months at the time and the submarine must be ready to put to sea with a fresh crew after a day in port. The crew that is ashore trains so that they can be ready.

So, on a bright southern day in September, in southeastern Georgia, Jerry Blanchette stood proudly as Commander Craig Gummer was relieved by Commander Eric Cole as commanding officer of the Gold crew of  the ALASKA, a U. S. Navy submarine so unlike those in his memories of long ago.  

But, in a sense, the ALASKA and Jerry’s ships are alike.  Both were this country’s first line of defense, only with years separating them. Captain Cole and his crew are truly worthy to be recognized in the TIMES ‘Profiles in Courage’. 

And we, as citizens of this great country, can rest easy knowing that the Navy, as always, is in capable hands.

Primitive... The other side of SEAL Madison Parker

Last week the TIMES took you to visit Madison Parker, once a member of the U. S. Navy’s SEAL Team I.  Parker served his country and his Navy for twelve years and, like a Marine who is always a Marine, he is now and will always be a SEAL.

But Madison Parker, now living on the banks of the Chipola River near Marianna, has another side to his life, a side that few people know.  He studies and he practices the primitive life.  He builds tools, weapons, and essentials of life with anything that is around him - bits of iron, pieces of wood, strips of bark, and he builds them extremely well, many of museum quality.  

But the tools, the weapons, the flint and steel, and the baskets to hold them are not for museums or for hanging on walls.  “I don’t build these for wall hangers and decoration.  I build them to use, to exist in the wild.  I build them to kill game and to survive”, he said.  “I sell, for instance, slingshots, but I expect to teach the buyer how to survive with what I have sold him,” he went on.

His shop is open air, exposed to the elements, except for a roof and a roughcut wood floor.  On the floor sits a forge, fired by charcoal or propane, one of his concessions to “modern” convenience.  “I can, and often do, use a burning piece of log to heat the iron that will end up as a spear head” Madison explained. Alongside the forge is a shaving horse, a vise in reality, but unlike any you may have seen.  The design probably came over from Europe over two hundred years ago.  It holds, with foot pressure, an irregular shaped piece of hickory or oak, and the operator sits astraddle, and with a draw knife shaves down a piece of hard wood to make a handle for a hammer or the shaft of a spear or a bow that will take down large game.

The slingshots that Madison Parker makes and prefers to sell to a person who will use them to hunt are made by hand, and made slowly and carefully.  The body may be made of oak, but may well be laminated by a glued on (epoxy is the adhesive of choice) strip of mahogany from the Philippines or from South America.  The only concession is the rubber straps, once cut from natural rubber but now purchased from a medical supply house and then only of an assured quality that will last and last.  “These may well be passed on through several generations” he commented. The weapons begin at $45 and go as high as $150, but with each one the purchaser gets a course in holding, aiming and shooting.

We discussed primitive life, or what we know of it.  Madison Parker told of qualities of iron and sources that he has.  He buys some from flea markets, some he finds in junk yards or picks up from fields and woods.  “I fit in somewhere after the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age” he says.  He treasures everything that he builds, for it has his skills and his heart embedded in each piece.  I know.  I wanted to share what I had learned with an expert on marketing that I will meet with tomorrow, but I did not have my checkbook with which to pay for a slingshot (even if he would sell me one). I borrowed a couple of the beauties, but only after assuring him that I would return them “no later than two days from now”. 

I did not have the heart to tell him that I am eighty six years old and may not make it that far!

(Note:  If you are interested in Madison Parker and his skilled workmanship and his products, check out

Madison Parker... He Never Rang the Bell

SEAL training is beyond rigorous. 

 Those young men who wish to become U. S. Navy SEALS go into a six-month long training period that begins with Hell Week.  Hell Week is to test the candidate, both physically and mentally, for anything that his country might call on him to do.  He will swim two miles in open ocean, wearing fins.  He will do pushups and pull ups that seem beyond belief in number  and will run with more than- full packs and will do with a very minimal amount of sleep. He will compete with others and with himself, and at the same time will learn teamwork, for in combat he will depend on the man next to him… in the surf of a foreign beachhead… a foxhole in the desert sands… behind a blow-out wall in an ancient Eastern town.

Madison Parker’s class began with 140 men.  It ended with 14. Anyone could drop out by “ringing the bell”, an ever-present reminder of the way out.  If a man rang the bell the Navy found something else for him to do, but he would not be a SEAL. Madison Parker never rang the bell.

Parker came from Okaloosa County, a high school graduate, already wanting to be a SEAL. His true-life hero was a man who eventually lived, and died, in Okaloosa County, a SEAL by the name of Jose “Joe” Taylor.   Taylor was his mentor, as he was for many SEALS, from World War II, when they were known as UDTs or Frogmen, down through Vietnam.  Taylor served well, from those days down through Vietnam, earning the respect of generals and admirals, including the hero of the Inchon landing in Korea, Douglas McArthur, who relied on Taylor’s knowledge and experience in combat.

Madison Parker was a member off SEAL Team I.  He went where his country needed him……he served in the sea, and he served in the air, but most of all he served on the land….the land that was always inhospitable, to say the least.  And he was always ready. Madison Parker, like his mentor Joe Taylor, never rang the bell.

When I visited Madison Parker at his home near Marianna I saw what appeared to be a primitive area, no lawn, no easy life.  Madison continues to train would-be SEALS, young men who may have the drive…..but also may ring the bell. Some are under contract, many are not. A youth was running through the woods when I arrived.  He ran for a long time, with Parker telling him his “time” as he passed us. I hope he makes it, but he may “ring the bell”.

The Parker’s home is on pilings to protect it from the sometime high spring waters of the nearby Chipola River.  On the ground level is a primitive workshop, for that is what Madison Parker is about these days.  He picks up scraps of iron and pieces of wood and fashions spears out of them, beating the iron into shape, not on a forge but on a burning stump of a tree, as primitive man once did.  He selects fibers from the swamp plants and weaves beautiful but utile baskets from them.

Upstairs in his comfortable home he shows bows that he has made from hickory, gathered nearby, and quivers for arrows from tanned animal skins…beavers, mostly.  All are of museum quality, and worthy of the appreciation of artists and artisans alike. In a small room to one side rests his memories… of young men in combat gear, certificates of accomplishments from the years gone by, each telling a story to those who will listen, but more importantly providing telling the story  of Madison Parker, the man who never rang the bell.

The Corps!!

Today I sat in the TIMES office, across the table from Fred Fitzgerald, and we talked.  You probably know Fred.  He is pastor of Greenwood Baptist Church, and is active in the county, with the Civil Air Patrol and with veteran’s groups.  But you may not know him as a Marine.

There are some truths about the United States Marine Corps. They were true in the first days of the Corps, and they are true today.

The first is:  “Once a Marine, always a Marine”.

From the day that young Marine passes in review on his last day in boot camp, his back straight, his eyes “in the boat”, until he is laid to rest, he is a Marine.  The Corps permeates his life, personal and professional.  

Fred Fitzgerald is such a man.

His duty has led him to serve his country, and he has served it well.  Most of his assignments have been, strangely, aboard ships, the USS GUADALCANAL (LPH7), the USS Shreveport (LPD 12).  Many times he would be the only Marine aboard, surrounded by Sailors.  He served on the staff of an amphibious squadron, and he served well. 

His duty took him to Beirut, and to the port of Kuwait, and to Mogadishu, where he saw to it that Marines landed and performed their duties and had the stores they needed to fight their battles for their country. 

The second is:  “Every Marine is a rifleman”.

We spoke of training, both east coast and west coast.  Fred began as a recruit, and was a “mustang”, a man who went up through the ranks, all the way through the warrant officer levels into the commissioned ranks, and on each level his training as a rifleman stood him in good stead.  A private is a rifleman first, and an officer is a rifleman first.  In other services there are specialties.  In the Marines each man is a rifleman, first, last and always.  It makes a difference in combat. The Marines have a secret weapon, and that is the “Gunny”, the gunnery sergeant, who knows it all….and there is no equivalent in any other branch.  

Then there is “You can tell a Marine…but you can’t tell him much”.  The Corps trains its men, and trains them well. There is an aura there, whether the Marine is young or old.  The Corps has taught them and taught them well.  

We got a laugh out of this one:  “The Marine Corps is a part of the Navy Department…..the fighting part”.  But in many ways it is true.  We haul them to the beachheadss, and put them in small boats and send them ashore and go back to the sometimes tenuous safety of our ships. Only now there are no true beachheads like the ones on Guadalcanal and Iwo and Inchon.  The LPHs and LPDs carry them in and put them on aircraft  and fly them to their landing zone, but it is the same. 

Fred Fitzgerald left his home on the outskirts of Boston as a boy.  He became a Marine, and he ended up, after battles and travels, here in Jackson County.  He is a Marine, and he still serves. 

The last verse of the Marine Corps song goes:

      “If the Army and the Navy

          Ever look on Heaven’s scene,

        They will find the streets are guarded

           By the United States Marines”.

And, take it from an old Sailor, that’s good enough for me!

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