John Joseph Blanchfield, who led more than a hundred prisoners of war to safety in 1945, died Nov. 3 at Albany’s veterans’ hospital. He was 88.
Born in Schenectady, Blanchfield was raised in Amsterdam, the son of James and Teresa Blanchfield. James Blanchfield was circulation manager for the Recorder.
Amsterdam attorney Robert Going said Jack Blanchfield was one of his true heroes. Going has written an extensive account of Blanchfield’s wartime experiences for his forthcoming book, “Where Do We Find Such Men?”
Blanchfield graduated from St. Mary’s Institute and was attending Niagara University when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. Arriving in Europe in 1944, Private Blanchfield was assigned to General George Patton’s Third Army. Sent with another soldier to a forward outpost, Blanchfield’s comrade was killed and Blanchfield was captured Nov. 4, 1944.
The 20-year old remembered his last meal while with the American Army — pork chops, boiled potatoes and bread — during the months when he had little to eat and lived in brutal conditions. Blanchfield was 5 feet 4 inches tall when he enlisted, weighing 115 pounds. When he reached the American lines at the end of the war in Europe, he weighed 88 pounds.
Toward Christmas of 1944 he was taken to a POW camp near Dunnewald, Germany, where he and other prisoners worked on building a new road. When the road project ended, Blanchfield was returned to Stalag IIA in Neubrandenburg, 30 miles north of Berlin.
In early 1945, the Germans led Blanchfield and 160 others five miles away to a smaller camp for another work project. This time, the POWs were told to build concrete roadblocks to hinder the advancing Soviet army. Private Blanchfield, who by then had a working knowledge of German, was elected interpreter and camp leader by his fellow prisoners. The Germans called him Shorty.
The concrete roadblocks finally were finished, and the Germans organized a ceremony as the wooden forms were taken away. The barriers crumbled.
Going wrote, “The Americans watched with mischievous delight. Not a good idea to leave your starving enemy in charge of building your defenses.”
In late April, with the end of the war approaching, six German guards left the camp with their 161 American captives, led by Private Blanchfield. Five of the guards were overpowered the first night, one cooperative guard continuing with the Americans.
With Blanchfield in command, they headed toward the American frontline, along with many other refugees. A Russian plane strafed the road, causing many casualties. Thirteen of Blanchfield’s men hopped into a railroad box car heading west. A Russian plane bombed the train and the men were killed.
Blanchfield was sending out forward scouts, and one returned on board an American tank that led the former prisoners to safety.
Going wrote, “Mustering all their energy, they marched proudly and smartly. Bedraggled, tired, sore, hungry. Crying.”
Blanchfield never saw his men after they left Europe. He finally made it to his grandparents’ home in Schenectady on June 8. After fixing a flat tire, Blanchfield drove to Amsterdam the following day and spent the next night in his own bed on Trinity Place. He was 21. He was discharged from the Army as a corporal in December.
In 1948, Blanchfield married Patricia Ann Southard, who survives. He also leaves his four children and their families and two of his brothers.
Blanchfield was a manager for Nationwide Insurance and the owner of Work in Westchester Employment Agency. He was a former member of the Lake George Town Planning Board.
He was a spokesman regarding his war experiences on television, radio and at veterans’ events.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper.