Blackwell J. Hawthorne, 87, for two years a World War II POW and for 10 and a half years the Director of Advertising at the Falls Church News-Press, died at his North Arlington home on the eve of his 88th birthday after a long illness last Friday night.
A graveside service for Hawthorne with a military contingent will be held Saturday, Jan. 23, at 10 a.m. at the Oakwood Cemetery on N. Roosevelt St. in Falls Church. It will be followed by a memorial service in the historic chapel at The Falls Church, where Hawthorne was a member for many years, at 115 E. Fairfax St. at 11 a.m.
Hawthorne is survived by his wife of 58 years, Elizabeth Hawthorne, and was the father of five daughters, one deceased, and a son. His four surviving daughters – Diane, Laura and Marion Hawthorne and Julia McDonnell – all live in Northern Virginia and assisted their mother in attending to his needs in his final days. His son, Blackwell Jr., lives in Montana and is currently in Northern Virginia, and a fifth daughter, Nan Hawthorne, is deceased.
Hawthorne came to work at the News-Press at age 76 in October 1998. He continued his employment with the newspaper until March 2009, when his illness prevented him from coming to the office. For many years until the advertising department began to add additional sales executives, he single-handedly built the News-Press‘ advertising base. His name remained on the News-Press masthead until this week.Popular with the entire Falls Church business community, and a regular fixture at all News-Press public events and the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheons, social mixers and annual banquets, Hawthorne was remembered in remarks by News-Press owner Nicholas Benton and Chamber chairman Dr. Ralph Perrino at the Chamber’s luncheon this Tuesday, and a moment of silence was observed on Hawthorne’s behalf.
In recent weeks, Hawthorne agreed to two extensive interviews at his home with News-Press reporter Dean Edwards. Edwards wrote up his account of the conversations is as follows:
Several weeks ago, the News-Press sat down with Hawthorne to allow the longtime Northern Virginia resident and World War II veteran to share stories from his experience in newspapers and as a prisoner of war in the last years of Nazi Germany.
Born Jan. 16, 1922 in the heart of Virginia tobacco country, in the town of Kenbridge, two hours south of Richmond, Hawthorne was one of four boys who helped their father maintain the family tobacco farm.
Despite growing up around tobacco, managing day laborers and preparing the tobacco leaves himself, Hawthorne said he was never a smoker, finding cigarettes “were not my sort of thing.”
In 1937, Hawthorne traveled to Virginia Beach where he worked as a drug store clerk and making saltwater taffy, spending the summer of 1938 in the pantry of a hotel on Atlantic Avenue.
The experiences “taught me more than anything about the livelihoods of average Americans,” Hawthorne said.
In the prelude to U.S. involvement in World War II, Hawthorne shared a common experience of men his age and joined the Virginia National Guard in 1939, where he served for three years.
The 22-year-old then decided to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1942, and with his skills as a typist, Hawthorne was sent to Marpa, Texas, the first of many stops across the United States in his training to become a pilot.
Serving as an Army office clerk, Hawthorne took a test to qualify as a pilot, noting that “the only way to get into flying was by becoming a cadet.”
His first training assignment sent him to balmy Miami at a boot camp where the young Hawthorne was drilled daily before getting the chance to attend a technical school to learn the basics of flying. Given a choice of schools, Hawthorne picked the University of Vermont in Burlington, an experience that Hawthorne recalled as one of his fondest.
“We used to wake up early as a group and sing some tunes on the way to class,” Hawthorne said. “Those classes were such a revolution in how I learned things. The instructors would use projections on a screen to explain their trade, and I thought it was the greatest learning tool I’d ever seen.”
Hawthorne took several courses in biology and chemistry while in Burlington, and he learned how to fly as well. “I had to compensate for my lack of depth perception,” he noted. “I had to learn how to keep the plane steady for landing without bouncing the plane.”
Following training school, Hawthorne was sent to Nashville, Tenn. “They were backed up with pilots,” he recalled. “So they told us that the way to get us onto a crew was to sign up for gunnery school.” Gunners would man the gun turrets of the U.S. bomber fleet, which played a crucial part in the Western theater of World War II, with the destruction of German air bases and armament factories.
Hawthorne endured numerous tests during gunnery school, having to take guns apart and then reassemble them while blindfolded. Then the gunners were put on to trucks and taken in circles around stationary targets to practice firing at the airplanes they’d be fighting over Germany.
“Man, those guns would get so hot,” Hawthorne said. “You’d fire a couple rounds, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, and then have to give the gun a couple seconds to let the chamber cool down.”
He added it was easier for him to handle Army guns “being a farm boy rather than one of those city folk.”
“Growing up, we used to hunt with our father, and then when he’d be away from home, he’d entrust us boys with the shotgun,” Hawthorne said. “It was second nature to me, so it was amusing to watch them city boys with those guns, firing away till they got red hot.”
Hawthorne spent the next few months traveling to Lincoln, Neb., Casper, Wyo., and spent a couple of weeks in Denver, as part of his gun training.
Finally, Hawthorne shipped off on a train to New York City, where a fleet of U.S. transports would ferry Hawthorne to join the 445th Bombardment Group in Norfolk, England, on the southern coast. En route to New York, Hawthorne recalled seeing one of his brothers in Washington, D.C., at Union Station.
“Now, we weren’t supposed to be talking to anyone outside of the Army, but when the train had stopped on the way to Washington, I slipped a note to a guy standing outside the train and told him to call my brother and let him know I was on the next train in,” Hawthorne said. “When we got there, my brother and his wife had a whole bag of goodies for us on board. When the sergeant asked if I’d told him to meet me there, I said that my brother’s family came by the station all the time to see the troops off to war.”
Arriving in New York, Hawthorne said the phenomenon of people cheering them on from the high rises “was just such a sight to behold.”
“On board those transports, we’d hear the escort ships drop depth charges into the harbor where they were afraid German submarines might be hiding,” he said. “And, man, when those charges went off, they’d rattle you to the bone, but we’d just go on playing poker and keeping ourselves entertained.”
On base in England, where Hawthorne flew alongside Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart, as part of the 445th, Hawthorne served aboard a B-24 Liberator, one of the U.S.’s largest heavy bombers in the war. He recounted how “because of my Southern accent, they wouldn’t make me a radio operator so I had to man the lower guns aboard the B-24.”
It was during one of his missions over the factories near Hamburg, Germany that Hawthorne’s plane was shot down by a German jet plane – a late development for the German air force that caught Hawthorne and his crew by surprise. “It came out of nowhere from our blind spot and whizzed past us,” he said. “Next thing, the plane was rattling and I knew we’d been hit.”
As the plane began to descend, Hawthorne threw on his parachute packet which on an impulse he had nabbed from the base before leaving. “I hadn’t been given a parachute before taking flight, so I managed to find one and take it,” he said.
Hawthorne was fortunate: while the pilots had chutes and escaped, the bombardier and radio operator had no chutes and went down with the plane. As Hawthorne began to jump, he recalled the radio operator running up to him frantically, exclaiming, “I don’t have a chute!”
“It’s one of those memories I carry with me to this day,” he said, “whether I could have helped him strap onto my pack and take him down with me.”
Once landed in the middle of hostile territory, Hawthorne was escorted by a contingent of German soldiers and Hitler Youth, who he said “were barely 13 years-old.”
Interrogated and kept without food for three days in a German war prison, Hawthorne said the first drop of soup he tasted “was the best meal I have ever tasted. You go without food and not knowing whether you’ll ever eat again, and it’s funny what your tastebuds will do to food.”
Hawthorne was shipped off to a POW camp in northern Germany where he spent the remaining two years of the war. He recalled joining 10,000 fellow Allied soldiers – Americans, British, Australians, Canadians and Russians – for routine checks by the Germans.
“Americans weren’t trusted,” Hawthorne said. “They were always messing with the German guards during roll call.”
Hawthorne remembered spending most of his free time in conversation with other prisoners while in their barracks. There was “little time spent outside, due to the fear that we’d try to escape,” he said.
After being liberated by Russian soldiers in 1945, Hawthorne returned to Virginia Beach and eventually took up the offer of a college education funded by the GI Bill, attending business school at Bluefield College in Virginia.
He met his wife, Elizabeth, and raised a family in Northern Virginia, working in advertising departments for several publications, including the Alexandria Connection and the Fairfax Journal, before coming to the Falls Church News-Press.
In addition to his wife, son and daughters, Hawthorne is survived by a brother, William Hawthorne of Dundee, Virginia and was preceded in death by brothers Robert S and Richard C. Hawthorne. His is survived by grandchildren Anna and Jesse Yashinski, Dean and Susie Hawthorne, Grace Jackson and Madeline McDonnell.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in his name to the Wounded Warrior Project, P.O. Box 758517, Topeka, KS 66675. Funeral arrangements are being made by the Murphy Funeral Home of Falls Church.