Wichita’s forgotten hero of the Lost Battalion — and how local veterans are honoring him

Published: 12 November 2023

By Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying
via the Wichita Eagle newspaper (KS) web site

Haviland DH-4 that was assigned to Erwin Bleckley and Harold Goettler

The Haviland DH-4 that was assigned to Erwin Bleckley and Harold Goettler when they flew their first mission in search of the Lost Battalion on October 6, 1918. The plane was badly damaged so they borrowed a different plane for their fatal flight later that day.

Erwin Bleckley was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1923 for the bravery he displayed in World War I while trying to locate and resupply the famed Lost Battalion. But after a century, very few Wichitans know who this native son was. A group of local volunteers is working to change that.

One day, long ago, a daring young flyer from Wichita devised a plan that made his fellow flyers cringe. A suicide mission, they said.

Erwin Bleckley and his pilot, Harold Goettler, climbed into their warplane anyway. They had already been shot at — thousands of bullets from German rifles and machine guns — while trying to locate the so-called Lost Battalion. The Yanks, or Doughboys, as they called themselves, were roughly 550 guys surrounded in a French ravine, starving four days so far, shivering in rain, dying from explosions and bullets. The one thing they had going for them, said the historian Robert Laplander, was their fellowship of soldiers.

Erwin Bleckley was a First Lieutenant in the 50th Aero Squadron that searched for the Lost Battalion in the waning days of World War I.

Bleckley was 23.

The last thing the Wichita kid said, before he and Goettler took off, was to squadron commander Lt. Daniel Morse. Goettler had already cranked their DH-4 engine into a roar. Morse, so Bleckley could hear him, climbed up the side of the airplane and put his mouth where it almost touched Bleckley’s ear: “Good luck and be careful.”

“Don’t worry, lieutenant,” Bleckley said. “We’ll find ’em or we won’t come back.”

What Bleckley and Goettler did in 1918 earned both of them the Medal of Honor. It was selfless, clever, and more dangerous than even their fellows had thought. But as time passed in our distractable culture, what they did has been mostly forgotten.

One hundred years later, two old soldiers from Kansas said they’d see about that.

Carrying Memories

America has 18,250,044 living veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. Of those, 5,624,418 have a service-connected disability. There are 182,120 veterans who live in Kansas, and 33,020 who live in Sedgwick County.

Most did not see combat. Many did. Unless they wear old uniforms, we pay them no mind.

Greg Zuercher from Wichita led infantry soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. One guy he led, Army Sgt. Jessie Davila from Dodge City, was killed in Baghdad in 2006.

Zuercher says he carries Davila’s name in memory, along with Erik McCrae, a friend, an infantry lieutenant from Oregon, only 23, who earned a degree in applied physics and died in Iraq, killed by a roadside bomb. Zuercher entered the insurance industry after service; it gave him income and purpose, but not high purpose.

He missed the fellowship. So, he joined Wichita VFW Post 112 after he left the Army in 2013. He became a junior commander, “whatever that means.” In 2018 members talked about what they might do to help or inspire fellow soldiers.

Zuercher said: “What about doing something to honor Erwin Bleckley?”

And the other old soldiers said: “Who?”

Read the entire article on the Wichita Eagle web site here:

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