VFW in Kansas to honor WWI Medal of Honor recipient
By RAFAEL GARCIA | The Wichita Eagle | Published: August 10, 2018
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Bullets screamed by as the wooden DH-4 airplane skimmed the top of the French Argonnes forest in 1918. The airplane carried vital ammunition and supplies for the Lost Battalion — a group of more than 500 men in the United States 77th Infantry Division trapped and surrounded by German forces in the middle of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I.
Lt. Erwin Bleckley, a forward observer from Wichita, pressed his pilot, Lt. Harold Goettler, to fly lower so they could more accurately search for the battalion. Their low altitude drew gunfire, revealing German positions, and Goettler was struck in the heavy barrage, killing him instantly.
Bleckley attempted to fly the plane but crashed behind French lines. He died from injuries from the Oct. 6, 1918, crash, but French troops found Bleckley's marked-up map of the area, and despite heavy losses, 194 men were rescued the next day thanks in large part to Bleckley's maps. The pair of heroes would be awarded the Medal of Honor — two of just four awarded to World War I aviators — in 1922.
Now, nearly 100 years after Bleckley's death, members of Wichita's VFW Post 112 are hoping to bring back Bleckley's Medal of Honor display and the only remaining factory-built restored DH-4 airplane to Wichita for Bleckley Day on Oct. 6, Greg Zuercher, junior vice commander for the post, told The Wichita Eagle . The event will include flyovers from vintage and replica World War I aircraft, as well as remarks from members of Bleckley's and Goettler's families, historians, and local, state and military officials.
Getting the medal and the airplane to Wichita will take some work, Zuercher said. Bleckley's medal is currently on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, but the medal could be brought back through a temporary museum-to-museum loan.
"We're trying to bring that medal here for Bleckley Day, because we think there's more of a need to have that medal here in Wichita than Ohio on Oct. 6," Zuercher said. "After Bleckley Day, that medal will probably never leave the museum again, so this is the best excuse to get that history back to Wichita."
As for the airplane, logistics will be a bit more difficult, but Zuercher is hopeful the post can figure something out. The difficult part is getting the airplane to Kansas. The airplane is currently in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where a team of restoration experts has gotten the plane to take to the skies once again. The issue: The plane only flies for about an hour at a time due to safety modifications as part of the restoration, Zuercher said.
The post is trying to find a military transport mission that could bring the airplane to Wichita inside a C-130 airplane. With its wings removed, the DH-4 would fit inside the spacious C-130 and arrive at McConnell. The vintage airplane would then be towed to Jabara Airport, where Midwest Corporate Aviation has offered hangar space and fuel for the plane, Zuercher said.
He said a civilian transport could also be possible, although that would require the post to find a sponsor to pick up the cost.
Bleckley was born Dec. 30, 1894, in Wichita. He went through Wichita's public schools and worked as a bank teller at Fourth National Bank, the same bank where his father Col. E. E. Bleckley worked.
"He came from a good family, and from a good home," Zuercher said. "He was good-looking too, and he was engaged before he left for war."
At 22 years old, Bleckley rushed to join the Kansas National Guard in June 1917, becoming just the second person to join the Battery F, 1st Field Artillery Regiment, unit formed in Wichita. Within a month, he was appointed as a second lieutenant by the Kansas Adjutant General's Office, and by February 1918, he was headed to France.
"As I learn more of Bleckley, I see a man that took to military service like a duck to water," Zuercher said. "Other soldiers called him Bleck. He was good at whatever he did. He was a man's man."
Bleckley's family didn't want him to pilot airplanes in the military, so Bleckley volunteered to be an aerial observer with the Army Air service, a position in which he mapped out the locations of German batteries.
In the midst of the Meuse-Argonnes Offensive, which would be the second deadliest battle in American history, members of the United States 77th Infantry Division pressed forward in an attack on Oct. 2, 1918, until the unit had become surrounded by the dense Argonnes forest and German forces, cut off from support. The attack took its toll, and behind enemy lines, the unit was running out of food and supplies.
Bleckley and Goettler volunteered to help find the missing unit and deliver rations. They set off with 11 other sorties early on that Oct. 6 morning to try to reach the unit, which had been stranded for five days at that point.
Bleckley and Goettler would return from that first mission, although their first airplane would be grounded after being riddled with bullets. The pair went to their squadron commander, Capt. Daniel Morse, to request one more mission.
Morse told them that a second mission would be the most difficult and "exceedingly hazardous" of the day, to which Bleckley said: "We'll make the delivery or die in the attempt."
The two borrowed an airplane and took off a second time. Before leaving, Bleckey went to his quarters and wrote out his will.
"What that tells you, he had a pretty good idea that he was not going to come out alive," Zuercher said.
With Goettler dead in the pilot's seat, Bleckley took over control of the airplane during the ill-fated second flight. He'd had minimal flight training as an aerial observer, but he managed to crash behind allied lines with maps that would help pinpoint the batallion's location. Soldiers found Bleckley unconscious and barely alive, critically injured from the crash. They raced to take him to a French hospital nearby, but Bleckley died en route.
Bleckley's parents received his Medal of Honor at a ceremony in Wichita on March 23, 1923. Bleckley was the second Wichitan to receive the medal.
"His father never really got over his death," Zuercher said. "He eventually died of a broken heart in 1931."
Bleckley's mother would visit his grave in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France twice, deciding against bringing his body back to the U.S. — he was at peace, buried with his fellow soldiers.
In Wichita, city officials honored him by renaming Harding Boulevard as Bleckley Drive in 1932. The street runs by the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center. A statue on that street just north of Kellogg was dedicated to Bleckley that year, but work on Kellogg has since caused the statue to be moved. It currently sits near the flagpole of the medical center.
Bleckley's squadron was honored by the French town of Remicourt in 2009. A plaque in honor of the unit, citing Bleckey's and Goettler's sacrifice specifically, sits outside the mayor's office. During a memorial ceremony, Kansas National Guard representatives joined French officials in laying a wreath at Bleckley's grave and visiting his airplane's crash site.
With the anniversary of Bleckley's death coming up, Zuercher said the VFW post wants to make sure the Medal of Honor recipient's sacrifice is remembered. The post has talked to officials at Eisenhower National Airport about putting up a display dedicated to Bleckley.
"He's been largely forgotten," Zuercher said. "More people in Wichita know Bleckley Drive than Bleckley the man. He's someone that everyone in Wichita can be proud of, and we want to get his story into the private and public schools in the area."
Pilot Lt. Harold E. Goettler began flying missions with Lt. Erwin R. Bleckley, an observer, at the outset of the Allied St. Mihiel Offensive on Sept. 12, 1918. On Oct. 6, Bleckley and Goettler took off to search for the so-called "Lost Battalion" of American troops, who were cut off and surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest. Finding them, they dropped supplies despite intense ground fire. On their second trip, they flew very low to drop supplies more accurately. This time their DH-4 aircraft was brought down when rifle and machine gun fire hit both Bleckley and Goettler, the latter dying instantly. The plane crashed in Allied territory and Bleckley was thrown clear, but the unconscious observer died before French soldiers could get him to a hospital. They were each posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in December 1922.
U.S. AIR FORCE