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Wichita Group Seeks To Honor World War I Medal Of Honor Winner Erwin Bleckley

Courtesy U.S. Air Force

The heroism and sacrifice of Erwin Bleckley has faded into the shadows of history.

Greg Zuercher and other directors of the Bleckley Airport Memorial committee want to change that.

They want to create a memorial for Bleckley, a native Wichitan, that would be displayed at Eisenhower National Airport.

"Well, he just inspires me," Zuercher, a veteran, said of Bleckley. "He just absolutely inspires me."

Bleckley, an aviator, died in 1918 during World War I while trying to locate and help rescue the Lost Battalion. The battalion was cut off and surrounded by German forces during an American offensive in the Argonne Forest of France.

Bleckley and his pilot, Harold Goettler, returned from an initial attempt to find the Lost Battalion with their plane badly shot up. They got another plane and went back out.

"His courage is just absolutely off the charts in my book," Zuercher said.

"Who volunteers for a second, more dangerous mission after getting about 40 rounds shot through your fuselage in the morning mission?"

Both men died; both were awarded the Medal of Honor.

From the National Medal of Honor Museum:

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.

Credit Courtesy U.S. Air Force

The city later renamed a street for Bleckley, and a stone marker honoring him rests near the Dole VA Hospital on Kellogg.

Zuercher wants to do more.

The centerpiece of the display would be a vintage plane that is the same model Bleckley was flying in when he was shot down. It would be accompanied by a bronze statue of Bleckley and other historical artifacts.

The committee plans a fundraising campaign to purchase the plane and design the memorial. That could cost from $750,000 to $2 million, Zuercher said.

The city says it is amenable to the idea if it can find an "appropriate location" for the plane and if installing the memorial "can be accomplished without hindering other airport operations or functions."

Zuercher said the committee would like to dedicate the memorial on March 23, 2023. On that same day 100 years earlier, Bleckley’s parents received the Medal of Honor awarded to their son.

"When I think of Erwin Bleckley, I think of that biblical statement in the New Testament, 'Greater love hath thee than he who lays down his life for his friends,'" Zuercher said.

"To me, that is Erwin Bleckley to a T."

Tom Shine is the director of news and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @thomaspshine. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.