France to honor Wichita aviator

10/04/2009 12:00 AM

10/04/2009 6:14 AM

In the waning minutes of his life, Lt. Erwin Bleckley of Wichita stared down the enemy as every German rifle and machine gun within range turned loose on him.

At treetop level, he and his pilot, Lt. Harold Goettler, repeatedly flew their De Havilland biplane over the Argonne Forest in search of the Lost Battalion.

They had already used up one plane in an earlier attempt to find 700 trapped American soldiers who had spent five days without supplies and ammunition.

Mist and smoke covered the battleground as a sudden burst of enemy gunfire tore the tail off their plane and it tumbled from the sky.

So heroic and historic are Bleckley and Goettler's final moments, that France is honoring the two this week in Remicourt, 91 years after their deaths.

The event will commemorate and honor the Remicourt Aerodrome and the American aviators who were based there during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Highlighting the observation will be Goettler and Bleckley, who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their efforts to save the Lost Battalion. The site of their crash is being considered as a world heritage site by the French government.

"His story is really the textbook story of what it takes to earn a Medal of Honor," Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the adjutant general of Kansas, said of Bleckley. "It's when you knowingly take intrepid action that is all but certainly mortal risk to you.

"The fact he and Goettler get supplies to them, had already been shot at and landed one aircraft that day, then went back to the doom waiting for them, is a story for all of us to marvel at.

"And the fact he was from Wichita is something we can be proud of."

Erwin Bleckley

Bleckley was 5-foot-9 and good looking. The lanky Wichitan had an ability with numbers and a quick mind, and it didn't hurt that he was the son of prominent family.

His father, Col. E.E. Bleckley, was an assistant cashier of the Fourth National Bank. His mother, Margaret, was a founding member of St. James Episcopal Church.

He graduated from Wichita High School in 1913 and, like his father, was employed at Fourth National.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Bleckley, 22, immediately wanted to go. He was the second person from Wichita to enlist in the Kansas National Guard, joining as a private on June 6, 1917. Within a month of his enlistment, he was appointed a second lieutenant by the Kansas Adjutant General's Office.

He left Wichita in August 1917 for Camp Doniphan at Fort Sill, Okla., and by February 1918 had been chosen with 10 officers to go ahead of the regiment to France.

He returned briefly to Wichita before heading overseas.

He wrote in his journal, a copy of which is located at the Museum of the Kansas National Guard in Topeka:

"Called on lots of friends and had dinner at Wichita Club with Father. Frank and I had dinner at St. John's Bible Class at 6:00 both gave a little talk." Feb. 7, 1918.

For the next six days he continued to meet with friends, go to dinners and attend dances, socializing like a typical 20-something.

"John and I fooled around in afternoon. In Eve went to town met lot of the boys." Feb. 9, 1918.

On Valentine's Day 1918, he was back in Fort Sill. On Feb. 18, he wrote:

"Received word for oversea detail to get things together."

A hero goes to war

In 1923, five years after his death, Bleckley's family was presented the Medal of Honor — America's highest honor for military service. Only four were given to World War I aviators; he and Goettler received two of them.

"He was an inspiration to others, and he was one of the first men from Wichita to enlist in the Kansas National Guard when the nation called," said Doug Jacobs, curator of the Kansas National Guard Museum and the person who recommended Bleckley for the Guard's Hall of Fame.

Bleckley volunteered for aviation duty when he reached France, according to an article by Charles Gross of the National Guard Historical Services Division. Bleckley had originally wanted to become an aviator, but his parents objected, so he volunteered to be a forward observer with the Army Air Service.

As a forward observer, Bleckley had to mark on maps the precise locations of German batteries and compute the ranges for American guns.

In France, Bleckley would see and experience some things for the first time.

"Went through old Roman castle built by Julius Caesar. Very interesting. Saw dungeons where prisoners were kept."

He saw a vaudeville show in Paris, smoked a cigar and then began preparations for war.

On April 29, he wrote that the day was gloomy until he received mail. Enid Jackson, his fiancee, had written him a letter, the first he had received from her.

"It was written on Easter Sunday and believe me it was some letter," he wrote in his journal.

As the days and months went by, Bleckley's journal became more detailed and angst-ridden. He attended the funerals of friends and fellow aviators. On a daily basis, he saw the destruction of war.

Bleckley's death

"Up at 7 20 a.m. had breakfast. We were due to fly at 10:00 a.m."

—Last journal entry, Oct. 6, 1918

The men of the Lost Battalion had been stranded and cut off from supplies since Oct. 2, when it had been part of an advance signaling the start of the second Argonne-Meuse offensive. The battalion had pushed forward, becoming stranded and surrounded by Germans.

Nearly half of the men were dead or dying. Those still alive were running out of water, food, medical supplies and ammunition.

Above them flew a lone plane. Bleckley urged Goettler to fly even lower so he could more accurately aim the bundles of chocolate, cigarettes, bandages and ammunition he was tossing to troops. It was the first time a plane had been used to supply troops.

A German spray of bullets tore the tail off the plane and one bullet found Goettler, instantly killing him. His body slumped over the plane's controls as it careered out of control.

From his seat, Bleckley tried desperately to regain control of the plane, but it crashed 600 yards behind the French lines in an open field.

When French soldiers found him, Bleckley was sketching a map detailing where Allied forces could find the Lost Battalion and indicating where German artillery positions were located. The information led to the rescue of what remained of the Lost Battalion.

One of the men who saw the crash and who drove Bleckley to a French hospital a few miles away described those events in a letter dated 1920.

"I drove as fast as I could and all I could think of was, 'God help me to get this boy back in time to be saved,' over and over again and cursing everything and everybody that got in my way," wrote L. Ettinger of Cincinnati.

"Was held up right outside of the Villers-Dancourt evacuation hospital by a damn French train for about twenty minutes. When we finally persuaded the engineer to move his train it was too late as they told me when they unloaded him that he was already dead."

But because of Bleckley's map, 250 men of the Lost Battalion were able to walk out of the Argonne Forest.

For Bleckley's family back in Wichita, the news was devastating.

Nancy Erwin, Bleckley's niece, lives in Shreveport, La. She said her father, Clarence, Erwin's younger brother, wanted to join the Army after his older brother went to war. Erwin Bleckley wrote numerous letters home, pleading with his parents to keep Clarence at home.

On March 4, 1923, in Wichita, the Bleckleys received their eldest son's posthumous medal. He was the first Wichitan awarded a Medal of Honor.

As they were presented the award, local newspapers reported that the lights in Wichita were dimmed as artillery men fired a three-gun salute.

Clarence Bleckley wrote years later what Erwin's loss meant to the family.

"It almost killed my father because he and my brother were very close... closer than he (father) and I were... they were more like pals than anything else. Dad played baseball and my brother used to go out and play catch with him.

"Dad died a few years after my brother was killed, and I think Erwin's death had something to do with it. Oh, he was so proud of him, but he just never could resign himself to the fact he wasn't ever coming home."

Margaret Bleckley, Erwin and Clarence's mother, went to France a couple of years after the war with a group of Gold Star mothers. She saw her son's grave and came home with peace of mind.

Leave him there, she would tell family, he is buried in a peaceful place.

91 years later

Bleckley's story is being told now because of the efforts of historians and the approaching centennial of World War I.

It's because of Jacobs and his research more than a decade ago in getting recognition for Bleckley by the Kansas National Guard. Bleckley had not been honored, in part, because the war ended a little more than a month after he died.

"I have not walked in his shoes but I have felt what he was feeling after reading his journal," Jacobs said. "He had feelings for this young lady. He had excitement for the war. He wanted to do something significant in the world. And, he was a 23-year-old kid who was scared in combat. I identified with him as an individual."

It's also through the efforts of North Carolinian Jerry Hester, a member of the League of World War I Aviation Historians. He didn't want to see Bleckley's efforts go unnoticed and helped organize the event in France.

Aviation historians such as Hester, along with the U.S. Embassy in Paris, the American Meuse-Argonne Military Cemetery in France, the communities of Remicourt, Bar-le-Duc, Givry-en-Argonne and Binarville, have scheduled a memorial observation Tuesday and Wednesday.

"I think people of this part of France... have respect for what your country did for us in World War I and World War II," said Fred Castier, assistant corporal general of the French Military Forces.

The memorial observation, Castier said, is the first time the French government will honor the American aviators of World War I.

The French government is gearing up for the war's 100th anniversary and is considering world heritage sites that help tell the story of the war, he said. The site where of Goettler and Bleckley crashed is among them.

Mayor M. Ghislain Deketele has proclaimed Wednesday a special day in the history of Remicourt. Dignitaries from the two governments, along with representatives from the Illinois Air Guard and Kansas Air Guard, and relatives of Bleckley and Goettler are expected to attend. Nancy Erwin, Bleckley's niece from Shreveport, plans to attend.

A bronze plaque inscribed with the exploits of the American aviators will be placed in Remicourt. Flying displays are planned by vintage and modern aircraft.

"It is important to keep this memory,'' Castier said. "We want to take the opportunity protect this site for future generations.

"These two pilots saved soldiers on the ground. They gave their lives for these soldiers. It's only proper. It is an important gesture."

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