Recently the public’s eye was drawn to the heroism of 1st Lieut. Erwin Bleckley of Wichita, who was remembered there on October 6th. His story is part of the lore of The Lost Battalion, one of the most widely known events involving the U.S. Army in World War 1. Unlike the Sgt. York site the location of this action is well-known, lying in rugged wooded terrain unchanged from 1918, except for the size of the trees. However, the land is privately owned and sometimes not accessible to visitors. If you are able to get in, there are still visible remains of rifle pits. If not, the monument shown above is on the nearest road.
Don’t know story of the Lost Battalion? There are several choices, including: a film made in 1919, the 2001 film starring Ricky Schroder , and a brand-new documentary (it isn’t free). Don’t have that much time? Alternatively, here’s the Cliff Notes version.
It begins with the 77th Division, popularly known as “The Statue of Liberty Division”, which was composed of draftees, many from the New York City area. The 77th was the first all-draftee division to land in France, and it was also the first all-draftee division to engage the enemy, at Chateau Thierry in July, so it was regarded as ‘experienced’ and entrusted with the left flank of the Meuse Argonne Offensive, which began on Sept. 26th, 1918.
Charles W. Whittlesey was a Harvard-educated lawyer who was commissioned a Captain in the new 308th Infantry regiment, part of the 77th. So it was, after six days of combat, on October 2nd Major Whittlesey was in command of a mixed force of 554 men, consisting of the remnants of nine companies. Although war correspondents dubbed the unit the “Lost Battalion”, it was substantially smaller than a battalion. Also, although the reporters played up the NYC connection, not all of Whittlesey’s men were from New York; due to attrition they had received replacements, including a whole company of California National Guardsmen from the broken-up 40th Division.
On that morning Whittlesey’s force advanced forward through the Charlevaux Ravine, their objective a German supply line behind the ridge. Because the units on their flanks failed to make headway on the higher ground, Whittlesey’s troops went too far and were pinned down by fire from the 200 meter heights. Their hastily-dug rifle pits weren’t strong defenses but nevertheless they fought off the Germans, even a flame thrower attack. They were shelled by their own artillery, who didn’t know their position.
Food and ammunition were in short supply. Bandages were taken off of the dead and reused on the wounded. Water was available only by crawling under fire to a stream in the valley. Telephone cables were cut, every runner dispatched either became lost or was captured and they ran out of carrier pigeons.
By now, you ask: how does Kansas get into this story?
Attempts were made to locate Whittlesey’s force by air and then to drop ammunition and medical supplies to them. The drop zone was later estimated to have been 350 by 50 yards. Most of these packages fell into German hands and it became obvious that the pilots would have to fly extremely low to succeed.
On October 6th, 2nd Lieut. Erwin R. Bleckley and his pilot 1st Lieut. Harold E. Goettler, of the 50th Aero Squadron, took off from Remicourt to make an air drop. Bleckley was a Wichita bank teller who had joined the Kansas National Guard in June, 1917 and by October, 1918 was an artillery observer riding in the back seat of a DH-4.
After their own aircraft was shot up and had engine trouble, Bleckley and Goettler volunteered to make a second run using another plane. According to observer accounts, this time they came in at tree top level, turning, side-slipping, climbing and diving to avoid German machine gunners who at times could actually fire down them. On a reverse pass their luck ran out. Goettler was hit and the DH-4 continued dead-stick and crashed several miles away in territory held by French troops.
Goettler was dead and Bleckley mortally wounded. There is a story that before he died Bleckley gave the French a map with the Lost Battalion’s true positions marked on it.
The Germans invited Whittlesey to surrender. It was reported by the press that he replied “You go to hell!”
On the 8th relief arrived. Of the original 554 men, 107 were dead, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded. Only 194 walked out.
Whittlesey was swiftly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMOH). On Armistice Day 1921 he was one of the pall bearers for the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Seventeen days later he disappeared from a ship bound for Cuba, considered a suicide.
Eventually there were seven CMOH’s awarded for the Lost Battalion incident. Two of these were to Goettler and Bleckley. Although not awarded until 1922, theirs were chronologically by date of occurrence the first CMOH’s to U.S. Army aviators.