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Finding the Lost Battalion - Side Story: The 50th Aero Squadron’s Part

Insignia of the 50th Aero Squadronlockwoods helmet

Every division that attacked in the Meuse-Argonne offensive had an aero squadron attached to it. In the case of the 77th Division, this was the 50th Aero Squadron. The 50th traced it's roots to Kelly Field in Texas, where it was formed in August, 1917 and sailed for England in January, 1918. Their commanding officer was a tough, able young man, 1st Lt. Daniel P. Morse and the squadron was equipped with American built British DH-4 two-seater planes with the new V-12 'Liberty' engine. By September 23rd the squadron had taken up residence at an airfield near the town of Remicourt, south of the greater Argonne Forest and was making familiarization flights over their intended area of operations in borrowed French aircraft (to keep the Germans from finding out they were there until after the battle started) with the Statue of Liberty emblem painted on the lower wings to identify themselves to the 77th Division troops building up in the area below. Finding their way across the featureless green expanse of the forest proved to be a difficult prospect right from the start, and as it turned out would not get any better.

Their official designation was the 50th Aero (Observation) Squadron and, as the name implies, their primary duty was ground observation. Observation entailed primarily spotting troop and train movements behind German lines, and locating likely artillery targets and artillery emplacements. This information was then dropped at designated drop points set up by the 302nd Field Signal Battalion of the 77th Division for transmission to the appropriate unit it would interest, or 1st Army Air Observation drop points for the same use. However by far the squadrons most important duty over the great Argonne expanse would turn out to be infantry contact patrol. This was the location of the ever moving front lines by flying over the area the line was intended to be and then calling for signals from the ground troops by the use of a Klaxon horn or flares being fired off. Each headquarters unit of an infantry unit had a signaler attached to it whose job it was to carry a variety of signal panels made of cloth in various shapes and sizes. and flares in different colors and burn configurations The combination of the cloth panels laid out on the ground in certain combinations and configurations signaled to the airmen a wide variety of things: what unit the flyer was dealing with, their current location, the location of other elements of their units, supply needs, fire mission requests for the artillery., information to be communicated to Regimental or Division headquarters, etc... Much of the same information could be communicated through the use of flares of various colors, burn styles and numbers. All of the signaling configuration information was controlled by a code that was issued to all concerned before the start of the battle. In the case of the Headquarters Company/1st Battalion/308th Infantry Regiment, Major Whittlesey's signalman was Pvt. James Larney.

IMG 0098The 50th Aero kicked off their part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the morning fog of September 26th with a pair of general observation missions to report on the progress of the offensive and its effect on the Germans. These were followed by an attempted infantry contact mission. However, all missions launched were ineffective until later in the afternoon when the ground finally came into view clearly out of the fog and powder smoke from the intense artillery. Altogether, the Squadron would fly six complete missions that first day; half of which were observational and the other half attempts at infantry contact. The squadron would continue to fly missions each day of the offensive, but their DH-4's were plagued by a series of spark plug failures, leading to a number of abandoned missions and several hairy moments for aircrews. Further difficulties arose when the infantry refused to cooperate and acknowledge requests for positional signals. It was later reported that in some cases - particularly when they were in low lying spots with the Germans occupying hills above or operating known observations points in high trees ahead and able to see the panels as well - that the infantry units did not want to give away their position and thus center themselves for enemy fire. Other units claimed they were unaware that the flares issued could be used and seen in the day, and since no airplane had ever called for signals at night they considered the flares useless. Still other units had lost or never received the current code key and had no way to answer correctly the requests from the air. In time all these issues would be corrected, but it made for many difficulties in the first weeks of the offensive.

Private Larney, however, had the current code key, as well as his full compliment of panels on the evening he walked into the Charlevaux Ravine, though he did not have any flares (they had been ruined by the ever rainy weather and hard conditions of the the offensive in the morass of the Argonne). He was also keeping a diary of the entire situation and their movements in the offensive; something strictly against orders but an activity that was engaged in by scores of soldiers at the front. His diary mentions little about the air service and their attempts to contact his unit, but it does indicate that conditions were not conducive to any sort of signalling for a variety of reasons. Once in the Charlevaux Ravine though he does indicate seeing the air service flying over their position, especially one plane that repeatedly flew over their position during the disastrous 'mistaken barrage' of October 4th, when Major Whittlesey ordered him to "get the signal panels out". This he did, but to no avail - both his panels as well as at least two men using towels to try and signal the airplane, failed.

The Argonne, as seen from a 50th Aero plane.argonne in the air
As the situation in the Charlevaux deepened, General Alexander turned toward the air service for help late on October 4th, asking Colonel Frank Lahm, Chief of Air Service for the 1st Corps, that messages be dropped into the ravine informing Major Whittlesey of the efforts being perpetrated to reach him, as well as a resupply of carrier pigeons. The mission set out the next morning, in sloppy, fog shrouded weather and resulted in complete failure; the message and basket of pigeons floated down on their little parachutes into a French position some 8 kilometers to the south of the ravine. A second effort dropped three more streamers message bags actually over the ravine - but straight into German hands outside Major Whittlesey's bivouac outpost line, though no one at the 50th would ever know of either situation. Then that night, with the attempts by ground forces to break through to Whittlesey that day a palpable failure, 77th Division HQ requested that the 50th attempt a resupply effort into the Charlevaux position with ammunition, food and medical supplies, all of which were sure to be running low. For many years it has been believed that this was the first attempted major aerial resupply in history, but in actuality the idea had already been attempted during the Mexican Border Campaign in 1916, but with largely disappointing results. However, unknowing of any of this, the supplies were ferried over to Remicourt and Lt. Morse's ground crews spent that night packing and padding boxes to be dropped the next day while his air crews were up early planning missions.

The attempts though were a complete failure, as finding the Lost Battalion in the featureless expanse of the Argonne, even if they had a good idea of where they were, was difficult at best. While the flyers of the 50th knew where the Charlevaux Ravine itself was, pinpointing the actual position in the ravine occupied by Major Whittlesey and his men was another story all together, especially in the fog draped morning. The flyers of the 50th were forced to fly lower and lower to attempt anything like accuracy; since the 'ground pounders' wouldn't lay out panels, the flyers had to try and locate individual troops if they could and identify them by uniform, and at such heights this made them virtual sitting targets for ground fire, causing some nasty moments for the planes and crews. Despite these intense efforts, the result was that not a single package dropped between October 5th and October 7th ever made it into the perimeter of the Lost Battalion's bivouac. Instead, all the supplies fell into German hands, who would open up the packages from the hills above and tauntingly call out the contents of each in excruciating detail to the starved and hurting doughboys in the ravine below...

Lt. Harold GoettlerIMG 0068
The most important flights for the 50th would be those of October 6th however. One of those morning flights was piloted by Lt. Harold 'Dad' Goettler, a likable, slightly older man from Chicago, and his equally likable young observer (also known as 'back seater') Lt. Erwin R. Bleckley, from Wichita, Kansas. They were an experienced and dependable team with the squadron, and in fact it had been 'Dad' and 'Bleck' flying over the ravine that Pvt. Larney had been trying to signal with his panels under the rain of American shells on October 4th. Now, that morning of October 6th they had been over the ravine again attempting to drop supplies and had been all shot to hell for the effort; their plane being grounded by the squadron's chief mechanic upon landing. Further missions went out that morning, but it was clear that they weren't at all sure they were on target. Again, despite calls, no ground panels were being reported.

Lt. Erwin BleckleyNew LB 0015
However, Bleckley had thought he had seen something down in that ravine on their morning mission and with that in mind he and Goettler came up with an audacious idea, which they presented to one of their fellow teams: since Bleck was the only one who had seen anything at all, and since they weren't exactly sure where the trapped unit was, why not fly over the area where Bleck reported he had made the sighting and let the Germans shoot at them, thus identifying the correct position by pin-pointing German 'hot spots' on a map, which would obviously be surrounding the unit; thus finding the Lost Battalion by process of elimination. When the other team agreed to provide 'top cover' for the mission and Lt. Morse signed off on it, Dad and Bleck (using a borrowed plane, which was already gassed and ready to go) set out just a few minutes before their cover team did. As Morse saw them off, he warned them to be as careful as possible and Bleckley, shouting to be heard over the noise of the revving engine, told him, "Don't worry lieutenant. We'll find 'em, or we won't come back!"

A few minutes later they were making passes over the ravine and Bleckley was furiously marking hot spots on his map as the big DH-4 absorbed fire. It was a mission that couldn't last - and it didn't. While no one can ever know for sure what exactly happened we do have a pretty good idea, based on the report of an eye witness on the ground and knowledge of common squadron practices at the front. The ground witness, an American Field Service ambulance driver working with the French named William Ettinger, later told that the plane only made a few passes before its flight path grew erratic, turned away from the ravine and shortly thereafter nose dived into the ground. When Ettinger and a couple pals arrived on the crash scene, they found Goettler all but decapitated my an 'explosive' German machine gun bullet and Bleckley thrown from the wreckage; alive but clearly with massive internal injuries and needing expert care if he was to live. Ettinger got him into his ambulance and set off like a rocket for the nearest hospital: 110th American Evacuation Hospital at Villers-Daucourt, but Bleckley died in the back of the ambulance before they got there. They buried him in the little cemetery behind the hospital in grave #68 and the next day another ambulance team went out and picked up Goettler's body and he was buried next to his back seater, in grave #69.

Bleckley's grave at Villers-DaucourtIMG 0058
What happened in those last moments in the air? Well, it was common practice in two seater squadrons at the front that the pilots would give their back seaters some lessons in how to fly and land the plane, just in case the pilot should be wounded or killed. The DH-4 could, and often was, rigged at the front for 'dual control gear' in the rear cockpit; amenities were attached to the controls which would give the observer enough control over the plane to guide it to safety and land it, though there were no mirroring engine controls in the rear cockpit. This was necessary as on the DH-4, the two cockpits are too far apart for the observer to reach over the pilot in order to take control of the plane. We might then safely surmise then that Bleckley had control over the DH in those last moments. Seeing Goettler was killed (and his wound would have instantly provided absolutely no possible control over the plane at all), Bleckley would no doubt have put his dual controls to use, explaining the erratic behavour of the plane and the turn out of the ravine. Then, in all likelihood following the turn Goettler's body probably fell forward, pushing the control stick forward as well, and as the rear cockpit control stick would have been linked directly to the main one, Bleckley's stick would have been yanked from his hands, sending the plane heeling over straight into the ground from about 300 feet up or so.

Believed to be Goettler and Bleckley's crashIMG 0096
Late the next day Bleckley's map and personal effects were delivered to Remicourt, but by that time another 50th crew had 'found' the Lost Battalion and that evening relieving forces had broken through to Whittlesey's location. Obviously the 50th Aero Squadron hadn't "found the Lost Battalion" - but that didn't stop the newspapers from saying it was so. And while the men of the 50th all believed in their hearts to their dying days that they had had a major hand in rescuing Whittlesey's beset force, the facts speak otherwise. That said, Goettler and Bleckley's brave and audacious attempt at firmly identifying Whittlesey's location from the air in order to help relieve their situation some was nothing short of well above and beyond the call of duty. And as such, both were eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for their selfless bravery in the air over the Charlevaux Ravine. Few deserved it more.

Today Harold Goettler lies in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. Erwin Bleckley lies in France at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon.


50th article