WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Throwing supplies to troops below while traveling 125 miles per hour in an open-air biplane, that was the mission in WWI.
It was the first of its kind in combat history, and a Wichita man was there.
Now, the Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation is on a mission to ensure a piece of history flies the skies of Wichita all to honor 2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley.
Retired Lt. Col. Doug Jacobs started looking into Bleckley’s life when he realized how few people knew who he was.
“I started doing all this research, and now, he’s become part of my life,” Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation Member Doug Jacobs said.
“That’s the youngest picture that I have seen of Erwin,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs has been sharing Bleckley’s story for nearly three decades.
“My effort is to keep Erwin alive,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley, and his best friend Frank T. Priest, were the first to enlist in the F Battery of the Kansas National Guard when it was formed in Wichita.
“His history is part of Wichita’s fabric of history,” Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation Member Greg Zuercher said.
Jacobs read from Bleckley’s diary, ‘I received a cablegram from home, and comma father.’
Bleckley was documenting in his diary in France where he had already volunteered to fly.
“It has the half wing of the air observer,” Jacobs said.
The aviators job was to direct the pilot where to fly, they were attached to the 50th Aero Squadron.
“Erwin would direct him where to go,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley was also in charge of running the machine guns in the back of the plane.
“Whenever they got into a situation with enemy aircraft, he would help defend the airplane,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley and his pilot were sent on a very important mission, to get supplies to some of their own.
“This is the ravine, where the Americans were trapped,” Jacobs said.
They were the Lost Battalion, more than 500 soldiers, surrounded by the enemy.
Jacobs said they had a general idea of where the men were, but the forest was so thick, they couldn’t see the troops.
He says the Army had a plan of attack.
“Trying to drop packages to the guys who were down in this foliage,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley documented the drop to the “dough boys”, on the front lines, in his diary.
“This was the day they did that first resupply, combat supply, in history,” Jacobs said.
This illustration shows Bleckley and pilot Harold Goettler in their plane number 2.
“They both got down out of the airplane, and they were both kind of dejected,” Jacobs said.
He said even though they did hit the target, the enemy got all the supplies, and they knew it wasn’t the Americans because they were being shot at.
“When he got that glimpse of those guys, in the field below him, and he said we’re so close,” Jacobs said. “He saw someone on the ground that didn’t shoot back at him and that’s why he was so tied to the fact.”
“He didn’t want to live with himself the rest of his life, saying what if I had gone back, I had the chance to do something, to save my fellow Americans, and I passed it up,” Zuercher said.
He said that’s when Bleckley used his math background to figure out where they needed to go next.
“Then they volunteer for a second, much more dangerous flight, flying lower and slower,” Zuercher said.
“Their airplane was so shot up, 40 some holes, that they couldn’t fly it,” Jacobs said.
“Who goes back after the first mission they had about 40 rounds shot through the fuselage?” Zuercher said.
Bleckley knew they were close, and was determined to find the men.
“He actually went to his tent and wrote his will, because he wasn’t, he did not think he was coming back,” Jacobs said. “He was sacrificing everything in his World.”
Bleckley and Goettler borrowed a plane from pilot Frank Pickler. He was from Leon, Kansas.
“This is the individual’s airplane, number 6, that he borrowed, to go up and fly,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley is quoted as saying, “We’ll make the delivery or die in the attempt”.
“That was the field that was used at Remicourt, for their last flight,” Jacobs said.
Goettler was shot and killed, by machine gun fire.
Jacobs said witnesses accounts state the plane was flying straight, before it took a turn.
“That’s where they crashed the plane,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said when it went down, Bleckley was trying to fly it from the backseat.
“He really didn’t know how to fly, he wasn’t trained as a pilot,” Jacobs said.
He was a skilled air observer, and because of what they did more than 500 soldiers’ lives were saved.
“Can you imagine what 500 lives would replicate today, and their children and their grandchildren?” Jacobs questioned.
He said all these years later, it would be hard to even measure the impact.
“People who have helped society, simply because a couple of guys, decided to take this last flight,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley died at the hospital, on October 6, 1918. He’s buried at Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in France.
“From the Congress to Erwin Bleckley, 2nd Lt,” Jacobs said.
Bleckley was one of eight to be awarded the Medal of Honor for that same incident, and he’s the only recipient from Wichita, from WWI.
“He’s one of the greatest heroes in American military history,” Zuercher said.
That’s why the Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation has purchased a DH-4 aircraft.
“It is going to be restored to air worthy status,” Zuercher said.
The plane is Number 6, the same plane Bleckley went down in.
“This is going to help tell that story,” Jacobs said.
“It will fly around the skies of Wichita, for hopefully decades to come,” Zuercher said.
They said it’s all about paying tribute to an aviator, a hero.
“That’s why I think it is probably one of the last pictures ever taken of Erwin,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs believes that because of an entry in his diary, where he talked about getting a new identification card, and it would be his last.
“Written on Sunday, October the 6, 1918,” Jacobs said.
He said the toughest part of reading the pages of Bleckley’s diary is knowing how the story ends.
“Every day that I read this, it is like he’s alive,” Jacobs said.
“It’s time, we are just taking care of unfinished business for Erwin,” Zuercher said. “That is all we are doing.”
The Bleckley Airport Memorial has officially purchased the plane.
They have plans to bring it back to Wichita, where it will be restored to fly, by local machinists, engineers, and others.
“It is to memorialize Erwin forever for what he did for this city, and flying it, and making it airworthy seems to be the best way to go about that,” Zuercher said.
If you want more information about the foundation and how you can help them fly the historic plane once again, just click here.