ABOUT Highest Possible Courage
This painting honors Erwin Bleckley, one of three American National Guard aviators to receive the Medal of Honor during the 20th century. In October 1918 during the rescue of the famous “Lost Battalion” (1st Bttn, 308th Inf, 77th Div), a group of soldiers had gotten completely cut off and pinned down in a deep ravine in the Argonne Forest during Pershing’s 600,000 troop offensive by the American Expeditionary Forces. 2nd Lt. Bleckley, a field artilleryman from the Kansas National Guard, was an aerial observer attached to the Army Air Service’s 50th AeroSquadron. He and other airmen of the 50th had been assigned to locate and resupply the desperate group of American ‘doughboys’ in the ravine. Having failed to do this on their first mission of the day, Bleckley and his pilot, 1st Lt. Harold Goettler, had volunteered for a second go at it.
Flying barely above the treetops in the steep ravines, they drew intense enemy fire while making several passes over the area where they expected to find the troops. German machine gunners fired down at the flyers from the ridges above their fragile DeHavilland aircraft as well as from below. Badly wounded and with their plane riddled with holes, pilot Goettler died shortly after making a forced landing near a French outpost. As French troops reached them, the mortally-wounded Bleckley passed along to them the notes from this mission, which narrowed the search route for the Americans. Their mission underscored the importance of observation aviation to allied ground forces during World War 1 and each was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for their courage and sacrifice. The painting Highest Possible Courage was created in 1996, and was commissioned as part of the National Air Guard’s Heritage Series. It has been released by Liberty Studios in 2009 as a canvas giclee.
Side Note of Interest: Another interesting anecdote of this story is that of WWI’s most famous carrier pigeon,“Cher Ami”. Before the 50th AeroSquadron was sent out, the men of the Lost Battalion sent out several of these trained note-carrying birds, each of which were shot out of the sky by the Germans before they could get out of the ravine. Their last bird, who they’d named Cher Ami (Dear Friend) was wounded during its frantic flight, but did make it to its destination, aiding the allies in their search. The bird was also awarded a medal, and today is stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian.