By Master Sgt. Matt McCoy, 184th Public Affairs
Local residents, representatives and fans of history gathered at the Veteran’s Administration on Oct. 6 to honor a fallen Wichita native, WWI aviator, and Medal of Honor recipient, 2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley, 100 years after he died in combat. The celebration, coined Bleckley Day, was hosted by the VA and coordinated by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 112.
“Erwin Bleckley is not just any veteran. He is, in my opinion, Wichita’s greatest aviation hero,” said Greg Zuercher, junior vice commander, VFW Post 112 and Erwin Bleckley Day coordinator.
The event included members of Bleckley’s family, speakers from several organizations, historians and historical artifacts, and a wreath-laying and flag-folding ceremony.
“A century ago today, almost to this very hour, I think, [Bleckley] was motivated to put his life at risk for one overriding reason,” said Zuercher. “Once he set his course, he was determined to move forward and live or die of the consequences. I think he left on that final flight with peace in his mind and heart, knowing he was doing the right thing.”
Bleckley enlisted in the Kansas National Guard in 1917 as the U.S. was entering the war in Europe. Upon his arrival in France, he volunteered to be an aerial observer in the 50th Aero Squadron.
In late September 1918, the 50th Aero Squadron became heavily involved in searching for the “Lost Battalion,” which had been cut off from allied forces.
On Oct. 6, Bleckley and his pilot, 1st Lt. Harold Goettler, flew multiple sorties in an attempt to find their comrades and drop supplies to them. During their first mission, their plane sustained heavy damage by enemy fire and was unable to fly.
Undeterred, the duo borrowed another aircrew’s DH-4 plane to try one more time before sundown.
Before heading out, Bleckley said, “We’ll make the delivery or die in the attempt.”
According to witnesses, the aircrew flew into a ravine at slow speeds to look for the Lost Battalion. It didn’t take long for a hail of bullets from enemy ground forces to riddle their aircraft.
Goettler was shot and died instantly. Bleckley took control of the plane well enough to get out of the ravine, but was unable to successfully land. He crashed the plane in a field and died shortly after.
According to some historians, before passing away, Bleckley relayed vital information about the location of the Lost Battalion,Medal of HoorMedal of Honor
which led to their rescue. For their selfless efforts, Bleckley and Goettler were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
“The fact that a man at age 23, who had everything to live for, risked it all to save soldiers on the ground,” said Zuercher, “that’s something that is awe-inspiring.”
Col. Mike Venerdi, commander of the 184th Intelligence Wing, Kansas Air National Guard at McConnell Air Force Base, related Bleckley’s aerial observation duties to the Wichita-based unit’s origins and current operations.
“[Bleckley’s] Airmanship forms a cornerstone of who we are as Kansas Air National Guardsmen,” said Venerdi. “The 184th Intelligence Wing began 77 years ago as the 127th Observation Squadron at the Wichita Municipal Airport, with a mission to observe and photograph enemy troops and activities, as well as provide overwatch for American and Allied forces.”
A century after Bleckley’s death, the 184th IW continues observation operations using multiple airborne reconnaissance and surveillance platforms.
“We trace our lineage of airborne observation even further back than 1941 and recognize the father of that is Kansan Erwin Bleckley,” said Venerdi. “While his heroism stands alone, the grit, determination and selfless service of Erwin Bleckley lives on in every Citizen Airman of the Kansas Air National Guard today.”
The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. A year later, the nation observed the anniversary as “Armistice Day” to remember those who fought in the great World War. In 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day to pay tribute to all American veterans, both living and dead.
Kansas National Guard units—Army and Air—celebrated Veterans Day and the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI at ceremonies across the state.