Where the streets have historically relevant names (Part 1)

Where the streets have historically relevant names (Part 1)

Bleckley Drive is named in honor of Wichita native Lt. Erwin Bleckley, who died in a heroic relief effort in France during World War I. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some of Wichita's oldest and most well-known public thoroughfares — Douglas, Kellogg, Waterman, etc. — are named for individuals with considerable influence on (or, in some cases, popularity among) the local populace. In last week's Wichitarchaeology, we reported that Benjamin Hills development was named not for Wichita civic leader Ben McLean, but rather his grandson, Ben II, killed in World War II. Looking closer at a map of Wichita, other stories come to light. This is the first in a series exploring the namesakes of Wichita streets and places.

In 1923, sitting U.S. President Warren G. Harding, acting against the strenuous advice of his doctors, made a tour of the country, stopping in numerous cities including Hutchinson. Later on this same trip, in San Francisco, Harding suffered what was most likely a heart attack and died.

Several years later, a development was platted between Douglas and Kellogg on the north and south and East Street (now Edgemoor) and Oliver on the east and west. Among the planned street names was Harding, in honor of the stricken president. And while there is, in fact, a Harding Street running north from Third Street, it is not the street that was originally intended to bear that name.

Harding's place of honor on the Wichita grid was usurped by Lieutenant Erwin R. Bleckley.

Born to Wichita pioneer Col. E.E. Bleckley in the winter of 1894, Erwin Bleckley came of age as the city's burgeoning aircraft industry promised a future of excitement and freedom in the skies. He developed a fascination with airplanes, and expressed an interest in becoming a pilot, but his family wouldn't hear of it; airplanes were seriously dangerous in those days, and anybody who flew one voluntarily was considered something of a lunatic.

After finishing his schooling, Bleckley took a job as teller at Ben McLean's Fourth National Bank (now assimilated into Bank of America), where his father served as a vice-president. When the U.S. entered the "Great War" in April 1917, the young man felt the call of duty, enlisting in the Kansas National Guard in June. By July he had been given an officers' commission; by August, his unit had been called to Federal duty and moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to merge with the 130th Field Artillery, a subset of the 35th Infantry.

Bleckley, or "Bleck" as he was known by his pals, was assigned to France, arriving there in March 1918. The Air Service, a precursor to the Air Force, was just being organized and looking for artillery officers who could be trained as aerial observers. Bleckley volunteered. By August, he had been trained and assigned to the 50th Aero Squadron, known colloquially as the "Dutch Girl" squadron, at Amanty Aerodrome. Their planes were British/American hybrid Airco DH.4s.

Late September found Bleckley stationed at the aerodrome at Remicourt, where his squadron was flying missions in support of the 77th Infantry on the ground. The first week of October, several hundred men from the 308th Infantry Regiment were isolated and surrounded by German troops, trapped in a small area of land and unable to retreat. Their only means of communication with their superiors was carrier pigeon, and the message they managed to get through to headquarters gave the wrong coordinates for their location. These men were in dire straits.

Several of the Dutch Girl Squadron's missions to find and drop supplies to the "Lost Batallion" ended in tragedy with three ending in plane crashes and one resulting in an aviator being shot through the neck. On Oct. 6, Bleckley and pilot Lt. Harold Goettler took a DH.4 out to look for the missing men; on their return, the plane was riddled with bullet holes. Goettler also complained of issues with his plane's engine ignition system, which had been an ongoing concern.

Despite their misgivings, both men were determined to make another run, even when their commander recommended against it. They borrowed a plane from another pilot and took off one last time.

Goettler kept the DH.4 low in order to better spot the Lost Batallion as well as to increase the accuracy of the supply drop. This, however, brought them within easy range of ground fire, and the plane was hit many times. Goettler was shot in the head and died at the controls; the plane stayed aloft long enough to cross into friendly territory before crashing. Bleckley was thrown clear and survived the crash, but died on the way to a hospital in a car driven by French soldiers who had raced to his aid. He was 23 years old.

Lt. Erwin Bleckley's remains were buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Both Bleckley and Goettler were posthumously granted the Medal of Honor — the American military's highest award — for their sacrifice; Bleckley's was presented to his parents in a ceremony at the Wichita Forum in 1923. In 2009, a monument was dedicated in the village of Remicourt commemorating the bravery of the 50th Aero Squadron.

Bleckley's father, the Colonel, died in 1931, and then, as reported in the Dec. 10, 1932 Wichita Eagle, "American Legion post here has asked city commission to change name of Harding boulevard, now being built by the unemployed, to Bleckley Drive, in honor of Lt. Erwin R. Bleckley, Wichita youth shot down in the World War as he carried supplies by airplane to the Lost Battalion."

And so it came to be. And as perhaps a fitting coincidence, Bleckley Drive runs along the western edge the grounds of Wichita's Robert J. Dole Veterans Administration Medical Center, a.k.a. the V.A. Hospital.