Second Lieutenant Erwin Russell Bleckley

Medal of Honor
US Air Service

Second Lieutenant Erwin Russell Bleckley MoH

Second Lieutenant Erwin Russell Bleckley MoH.

Erwin Russell Bleckley of Wichita, Kansas was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Kansas National Guard Field Artillery in July 1917. He was sent to France in March 1918, and when the Air Service needed artillery officers to serve as aerial observers, Erwin Bleckley volunteered. After training, he was assigned to the 50th Aero Squadron for combat duty in August 1918 and on 12 September 1918 he began flying missions as an observer with pilot Lieutenant Harold E Goettler at the outset of the SAINT MIHIEL Offensive.

On 2nd October 1918, General Pershing ordered the US 77th Division to drive into the Argonne Forest, which resulted in elements of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 308th Infantry becoming surrounded and cut-off by strong German forces in a ravine deep. These men became known to history as the Lost Battalion. They were soon out of food and in desperate need of medical supplies. Half their number were either dead or wounded, and they were quickly running out of ammunition to repel the continuous German attacks. It was to be six days of horrible suffering before American forces could break through to their rescue.

On 5th October Major General Robert Alexander, the 77th Division’s commander, requested the assistance of the 50th Aero Squadron to assist in delivering supplies the beleaguered defenders who by now were being cut to shreds by machine-gun fire from the heights surrounding the ravine and by grenades, flame throwers, and misdirected rounds of their own friendly artillery. The 50th Aero Squadron responded in what is believed to be the first sustained attempt at aerial resupply of a ground unit. Flying through fog and rain, pilots of the 50th pinpointed the surrounded men. Intense ground fire downed three DH-4s, which crashed near Allied lines at a cost of one dead and two wounded.

On the morning of 6th October 1918, the DH-4 flown by Lieutenant Goettler with Second Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley as observer-gunner tried once again. They unsuccessfully attempted to drop food and ammunition into the ravine, but had to abort their attempts as their aircraft got badly shot-up.

Second Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley in his DH-4

Second Lieutenant Erwin R Bleckley in the observer’s seat of his DH-4.

After their battle-damaged DH-4 had been patched up, Lieutenant Goettler with Second Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley returned late that afternoon to try again. They had hoped to come in at 1,000 feet, but the clouds and fog forced them to make several low-level runs through a barrage of enemy fire. They were determined to get their small load of supplies to the desperate infantrymen and Lieutenant Harold Goettler made a final run into the ravine at treetop height. Enemy machine guns firing down from cliffs along the ravine tore into their plane and both men were badly wounded. Lieutenant Goettler, despite his wounds, managed to fly their battered DH-4 close to the French lines where they crash landed. Harold Goettler was killed and his unconscious observer, Erwin Bleckley was thrown clear. Unfortunately, this intrepid airman died before the French soldiers could get him to a hospital.

For their heroism in the face of intense enemy fire, Second Lieutenant Erwin R Bleckley and Lieutenant Harold E Goettler were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in December 1922. Second Lieutenant Erwin R Bleckley's citation reads:1

"2d Lt. Bleckley, with his pilot, 1st Lt. Harold E. Goettler, Air Service, left the airdrome late in the afternoon on their second trip to drop supplies to a battalion of the 77th Division, which had been cut off by the enemy in the Argonne Forest. Having been subjected on the first trip to violent fire from the enemy, they attempted on the second trip to come still lower in order to get the packages even more precisely on the designated spot. In the course of his mission the plane was brought down by enemy rifle and machinegun fire from the ground, resulting in fatal wounds to 2d Lt. Bleckley, who died before he could be taken to a hospital. In attempting and performing this mission 2d Lt. Bleckley showed the highest possible contempt of personal danger, devotion to duty, courage, and valor."

Lieutenant Harold E Goettler is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois.

Second Lieutenant Erwin R Bleckley is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, Plot F, Row 25, Grave 33.


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Last updated: 15th December 2018