VFW "Over There" Post 112

Bleckley Day

On Saturday, October 6, 2018 - one hundred years to the day after his heroic actions of Erwin Bleckley in France - Wichitans, Kansans and people across the nation will gather in Wichita to honor and commemorate this Wichita born and bred hero.  An extensive program will involve Bleckley and Goettler family members and friends, a Bleckley biographer, historians, military leaders and personnel, Veterans and re-enactors, Medal of Honor recipients, local and state government officials, the Wichita aviation community, aerial flyovers of vintage and replica World War 1 aircraft, as well as business, civic, media, educational and clergy leaders and members.  Many Bleckley artifacts, such as his aviator’s equipment, diary, letters, photos and paintings of him, will be on hand. Efforts are underway to transfer to Wichita, via temporary loan, his Medal of Honor display from the National Museum of the US Air Force.

The Wichita Veterans Administration will host Bleckley Day events.  The main program will occur inside the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center auditorium, and a ceremony will be conducted around the Bleckley Memorial outside the main building - only a few feet away from the street renamed for him in 1932.  Future news releases will provide more details of the times, itinerary, speakers, dignitaries and historical items.  This event is open to the public to better promote Erwin Bleckley’s name and incredibly heroic legacy. 

VFW Post 112 is spearheading this effort to recognize Bleckley, but this event could not succeed without support from in and outside the Wichita community, from entities such as Midwest Corporate Aviation, McConnell AFB, Davis-Moore Auto Group, Signature Flight Support, KSN, Greteman Group, Air Capital Insurance LLC, PodPrint and LT Erwin Bleckley biographer, LT COL Doug Jacobs.  Those committed to perpetuating Bleckley's legacy are invited and welcome to assure Bleckley Day results in the best possible program. 

Bleckley Day has captured attention beyond Wichita and Kansas, and has grown to become a national and pentagon-level event.  Jerry Hester, a retired Air Force officer, Korean War Veteran and engineer with 35 years of defense industry experience on Air Force projects around the world, has history honoring Bleckley.  The US World War 1 Centennial Commission in Washington, DC., which consists of ten members, including Jerry, has approved and endorsed Bleckley Day.  Efforts are underway to bring to Wichita the only surviving, factory made, restored DH-4 - the type of aircraft that Bleckley and Goettler flew in France.  Mayors of several key French towns with connections to Bleckley's service will be informed and invited to Wichita. 

"We’ll make the delivery or die in the attempt.”  This statement, made by Erwin Russell Bleckley before his last mission, sums him up in a nutshell.  Bleckley, Wichita's only aviation Medal of Honor recipient, exhibited exceptional courage and selflessness a century ago in World War 1. Bleckley, an aerial observer and gunner, together with pilot Harold Goettler, went well beyond the call of duty and paid with their lives to locate and resupply a besieged American infantry unit.  The ‘Lost Battalion’, surrounded and cut off for five days by enemy forces, was being depleted in Soldiers' lives, ammo, water, food and medical supplies.  The unit occupied a ravine 50 yards wide by 350 yards long, amid hilly terrain covered by dense growth.  Their only communication was by carrier pigeon.  The urgency to find and relieve them was the only priority on Oct. 6, 1918 for Bleckley and Goettler’s unit – the 50th Aero Squadron. 

Bleckley and Goettler's first mission that day, in the early afternoon, attracted so much enemy fire that it grounded their aircraft.  Eleven other squadron sorties left and returned without success, all taking hits, grounding one more plane.  Amazingly, only one crewman was seriously wounded.  Bleckley and Goettler requested and were granted a second, more dangerous mission, in the late afternoon in a borrowed plane, with poor visibility in gloomy skies.  When Captain Daniel Morse, their squadron commander, warned their second mission would be the most dangerous and difficult of any attempted that day, Bleckley made his intention clear with his famous reply.  

They purposely flew slower just above treetop level to draw enemy fire to chart German positions and zero in on the battalion’s position by a process of elimination.  When Goettler was hit in the head and slumped on the throttle, it was left to Bleckley to use minimal flight controls to land the plane.  At the crash site, just inside Allied lines, the maps Bleckley marked were used by Anderson and Rogers the next day to help pinpoint the Lost Battalion.  Relief efforts that same day ended the unit’s six day ordeal.  The battalion on Oct. 2nd counted over 500 Soldiers.  On Oct. 7th, only 194 were left unscathed. 

What makes Erwin Bleckley special was not just what he did, but who he was that led him to display virtues such as duty first and self-sacrifice.  He deserves to be remembered and his life, service and sacrifice taught and preserved.  This year - the centennial of his exploits - provides the ideal opportunity to do just that.       

Bleckley is central in three of the most consequential, historical events of World War 1: the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the Lost Battalion and the US Air Service.  His story is compelling, and it matters in the early 21st century because the character traits and virtues Bleckley embodied are timeless.  They were on display throughout his life, no more so than on Oct. 6, 1918.  Bleckley Day will illustrate why his life and example remain relevant now and forever.