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WWI aviator remembered in France for his heroic actions

A French community honored the bravery and tenacity of a former Kansas Guardsman and his pilot on Wednesday, more than nine decades after they died in World War I.

Lt. Erwin Bleckley, a Wichitan, and Lt. Harold Goettler, both members of the 50th Aero Squadron, died while trying to find the American 77th Division "Lost Battalion" on Oct. 6, 1918. They were able to provide key information that helped locate and rescue the battalion.

During a mid-morning ceremony Wednesday, the city of Remicourt dedicated a plaque to Bleckley and other heroes of the 50th Aero Squadron. The plaque will be displayed outside the town's mayor's office.

Several Kansas National Guard members and officials attended the event. They also visited the site where Bleckley and Goettler crashed and placed a wreath on Bleckley's grave at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.

"This important ceremony honored the memory of a great American and a very deserving Kansan for the greatest sacrifice anyone can ever make," Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, Kansas adjutant general, said in remarks relayed in an e-mail from France by Sharon Watson, director of public affairs for the Kansas Adjutant General's Department.

After his death, Bleckley received the Medal of Honor and was inducted into the Kansas National Guard's Hall of Fame.

Bleckley's niece, Nancy Erwin of Shreveport, La., attended the ceremony.

While she was growing up, the Bleckley family did not talk much about her heroic uncle, she said. Although she knew what had happened, she did not understand the sacrifice he made until recently.

"I wouldn't be here today, my family wouldn't be here today, if there weren't young men who were willing to do this, to give their lives in defense of liberty," Erwin told Watson.

Bleckley was serving as the plane's forward observer that day. He is credited with dropping supplies of chocolate, bandages and ammunition from the cockpit to the Lost Battalion soldiers, marking the first time a ground unit was supplied by an airplane.

The crash site is being considered as a world heritage site by the French government in preparation for centennial events linked to World War I.

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