Donald Dunwody Blackburn
Brigadier General, United States Army
Florida — Stationed in the Philippines before World War II, Army Lieutenant
Don Blackburn escaped capture during the fall of Bataan in 1942.
For the next 31/2 years, he helped rally Philippine troops and jungle tribesmen to fend off the Japanese until General Douglas MacArthur's forces liberated the island of Luzon in 1945.
The daring young soldier's tales of combat and survival recorded in his diary became the subject of a book, "Blackburn's Headhunters," and the 1959 film "Surrender -- Hell!"
Blackburn, who died May 24, 2008, at 91, went on to become a Brigadier General who helped establish the Army's elite Special Operations Forces, better known as the Green Berets. He also served as an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during his decorated, 31-year military career before he retired in 1971.
Despite Blackburn's brush with fame, much of what he did as a senior Army official and strategist remains top secret.
He was in command of covert unconventional warfare in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War to undermine the spread of communism, and later spent several years at the Pentagon and in other military roles in the Washington, D.C., area.
He was known for emphasizing strategic planning to minimize bloodshed. A counterinsurgency specialist, he relied on assessing the strengths and weaknesses of enemy forces to neutralize their strongholds rather than send troops into battle, said his son, Don Blackburn Jr. of Los Gatos, California.
"He's never been a warrior-type," he said. "The whole mark of my father's career was saving lives."
The elder Blackburn was instrumental in establishing Special Forces operations in Southeast Asia in the late 1950s. He returned to Vietnam in the mid-1960s to command their operations. He later served as assistant division commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division strike force at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and director of plans and programs for the Army's Office of the Chief of Research and Development.
He was awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and several other medals and ribbons.
Born September 14, 1916, in West Palm Beach, Blackburn grew up in Tampa and graduated from Plant High School and the University of Florida. He was attending law school at Columbia University and was a member of the ROTC when he enlisted in 1940.
He felt honored when his writings in the Philippines became the basis of a book, but was less impressed when Hollywood filmmakers embellished his story with fictional romantic subplots, said his daughter, Susan Douglas of Sarasota.
After retiring from the military, Blackburn worked for several years as a vice president for defense contractor and military think tank Braddock, Dunn and McDonald in Virginia.
He moved to Sarasota nearly 20 years ago to be closer to family. His hobbies included gardening and reading history books.
In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by five grandchildren.
He will be buried with full military honors at 11 a.m. 1 November 2008, at Arlington National Cemetery.
BLACKBURN, DONALD DUNWODY
BLACKBURN, ANN SMITH
Posted: 5 June 2008 Updated: 27 July 2009 Updated: 7 August 2010