Lt. Keesler's story 'worthy of a movie'

BILOXI – Keesler Air Force Base bears the name of a native Mississippian killed in World War I after he was shot down on a reconnaissance mission behind German lines.
As is common for accounts from the early 20th century, details of the life of 2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr. of Greenwood differ between sources. The accuracy of documents from the period doesn’t approach that of today’s records. The basics, though, of his bravery behind German lines, as well as his leadership as a student and athlete, are a source of pride for his survivors.
“It is worthy of a movie, a decent, non-Hollywood movie,” said his nephew, Sam Pratt of Swannanoa, N.C.
He was the son of Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Keesler Sr., who had been commander of the Mississippi National Guard and mayor of Greenwood. Keesler Jr. was an athlete, scholar and student-body president at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. A Davidson archivist said most of the class of 1917 enlisted that year. Only 20 graduates attended the 1917 commencement. The rest had started their military training.
Keesler joined the U.S. Army Air Service in May 1917. Davidson President William Joseph Martin Jr. went to Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga., to deliver diplomas to Keesler and his classmates. At Ft. Oglethorpe, Keesler, 21, was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He trained as an aerial observer at Fort Sill, Okla., and shipped off to France in March 1918.
It was a dangerous job. The reconnaissance planes usually had just a pilot and an observer. They flew over enemy lines and the observer’s job was to sketch or photograph what they saw below. 1st Lt. Stuart Gilchrist, who knew Keesler while in France, wrote about the young aerial observer’s desire for perfection on those missions.
“I never saw a fellow who was more anxious to do his work well,” Gilchrist said. “A half-done or poorly done mission didn’t satisfy Sam. Perhaps Sam might have come back from the last mission if he had not wanted to do his best.”
Keesler’s letters home are typical of many from deployed soldiers. They were written by a young man eager to do his job, while thinking of those back home.
In one of his last letters, Keesler wrote his mother Sept. 25, 1918, about how his fiance, Fanny Walton, liked the engagement ring he had gotten her, but he also wrote of a mission that would send him across enemy lines the following day. It would be one of his last flights.
“I have been over the lines only twice so far,” Keesler wrote. “Here’s to hoping I get about 6 (German soldiers) and they don’t get me.”
Keesler and his pilot, Lt. Harold W. Riley, were on a mission behind German lines Oct. 8, 1918. They met heavy enemy fire. Riley’s version of the events that day is contained in a declassified Air Force document the Sun Herald obtained.
Riley said Keesler was shot six times, with wounds to the chest and abdomen. The Germans captured the two and Keesler’s fortitude as a wounded prisoner of war impressed his captors, Riley said.
Keesler died at a German field hospital the following day. He was buried in Thiaucourt, France, at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery with other U.S. soldiers killed on French soil. He was posthumously awarded the World War 1 Victory Medal with silver star device for gallantry.
When news of his death reached Mississippi, a long headline from Keesler’s hometown newspaper, the Greenwood Commonwealth, said the “death of this gallant hero soldier boy casts a shroud of gloom over the people of Greenwood, where he was born, reared and universally loved.”
In a somber tone, the Delta town’s newspaper reported the death of a popular local man, who was a member of a prominent family.
In November 1940, local Chamber of Commerce Secretary Tony Ragusin issued a plea to the War Department for Biloxi to be considered for a new base and offered use of what was then a city airport built in 1935. The city’s formal 685-acre offer included the Naval Reserve Park, Biloxi Golf Club’s links and clubhouse and the Wilkes Boy Scout Camp.
In March 1941, Biloxi officials learned the site had been selected for the new $10 million Army Air Corps Station No. 8 Aviation Mechanics School. It was named Keesler Field in honor of Samuel Keesler’s bravery in the air over France.
His descendants have been guests of honor at base events over the years and they feel a “deep connection” to the place. This relationship has brought comfort to the family.
Keesler’s great-niece, Keesler Cronin of Paradise Valley, Ariz., said she grew up hearing stories about his bravery.
“We grew up knowing he was a hero,” she said. “He was so young. There was nothing but goodness about him.”

Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

Michael Newsom/The Sun Herald