2nd Lt. Erwin R. Bleckley was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in December, 1922. (Courtesy photo)
Second Lt. Erwin R. Bleckley, a U.S. Army Air Service observer, and his pilot rose above the call of duty, flying close to the tree tops over enemy positions entrenched with rattling machine guns during two attempts to help save more than 500 American Soldiers who were completely surrounded. Their actions of heroism were recognized with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. It was World War I, and aerial tactics were relatively new.
Erwin R. Bleckley of Wichita, Kansas, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery of the Kansas National Guard in July 1917. He was sent to France in March 1918 as a member of the 130th Field Artillery and when the Air Service announced a need for artillery officers to train as aerial observers, Bleckley volunteered for observer’s school. He completed the course and was attached to the 50th Aero Squadron for combat duty Aug. 14, 1918.
Bleckley flew his first combat mission on the opening day of the St. Mihiel offensive on Sept. 12, 1918. Less than a month later, he and the pilot he served with, 1st Lt. Harold E. Goettler, were dead.
On Oct. 6, 1918, near Binarville, France, in the Argonne Forest, Bleckley and Goettler were flying in a DeHavilland DH-4, open-cockpit biplane, on a second voluntary mission of the day in attempting to locate and drop critical supplies to a battalion of U.S. Army Soldiers who had been cut off and surrounded by the Germans. The American Soldiers were from the 77th Division, historically known as “The Lost Battalion.” During a five-day siege, the Soldiers were slowly succumbing to the enemy’s grip and needed immediate assistance.
Bleckley and Goettler had completed an earlier mission in the day and landed with numerous holes in their aircraft from gun fire from the enemy. They repaired the aircraft and prepared for a second mission. Their commander warned a second try would be more difficult and hazardous. It is reported Bleckley said they’d make the aerial delivery or die in the attempt. They departed the aerodrome late in the afternoon, determined to find and assist surrounded soldiers.
Flying low and just clearing the tree tops, they were looking for the Soldiers who occupied an area that was approximately 350 yards long and 50 yards wide. They carried bundles of medical supplies, chocolate and cigarettes. A bullet struck Goettler in the head as the plane was brought down by enemy machine-gun fire from the ground. The DH-4 crashed inside Allied lines and Bleckley was thrown from the plane. His unconscious body was picked up by American and French soldiers and rushed to a hospital, but he died of internal injuries while en route.
For heroism in the face of intense enemy fire, Bleckley and Goettler were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in December 1922. Following the war, Bleckley’s remains were permanently buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery at Romagne, France.
Sources compiled from the Air Force Historical Studies Office, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Kansas Army National Guard, the National Guard Bureau and the American Battle Monuments Commission.