As one of the most important training grounds for the United States Air Force, Keesler Air Force Base possesses quite a history. Yet, few are familiar with the man behind its namesake, 2Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr.
Keesler was born on April 11, 1896, in Greenwood, Mississippi to an affluent family. His father was a cotton broker and owned a mansion nearby nicknamed “Cottonlandia.”
Throughout his high school years, Keesler proved himself an exceptional leader, student and athlete. He continued his academic pursuits at Davidson College in North Carolina, hoping to one day teach in secondary schools. During this time he also served as president of the student body.
While Keesler pursued his studies, Europe became embroiled in the horrors of World War I. In the midst of the global conflict, airplanes emerged as a powerful tool of warfare, evolving from reconnaissance planes to heavily armed fighters and bombers engaged in dramatic aerial battles.
With the sinking of the Lusitania and German attempts to manipulate Mexico into attacking the U.S., America joined the Allied forces in April 1917. Although millions enlisted in the military, only a select few embraced the field of aviation.
Eager to contribute, Keesler enlisted on May 13, 1917, even skipping his college commencement to do so. He underwent training as an aerial observer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and was commissioned as an officer on August 15.
In March 1918, Keesler and other American service members bound for battle began arriving in massive numbers in France. There, he underwent advanced training in aerial gunnery and artillery fire control.
Assigned to the 24 Aero Squadron near Verdun in August, Keesler and his comrades conducted crucial reconnaissance and observation missions over German lines, providing invaluable support to the American and French armies.
On September 14, Keesler took off on his first mission, flying without an escort behind enemy lines on observation duties. He experienced his first taste of enemy fire and his plane was badly damaged by German forces.
In preparation for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the Squadron relocated to the Vivacourt Airdome on September 22. As the American and French armies assaulted the German front-lines, the Squadron supplied critical intelligence and photographic evidence of enemy positions.
On the afternoon of Oct. 8, Keesler and pilot 1Lt. Harold W. Riley embarked on a routine reconnaissance mission. However, they were swiftly confronted by four German fighters, outmatched and outgunned.
Riley attempted to disengage, but their plane sustained heavy damage to its rudder and elevator. Remarkably, even as their aircraft dipped toward the ground, Keesler continued firing his machine gun, managing to destroy one enemy fighter.
Both Keesler and Riley survived the crash landing, but Keesler had sustained six wounds to his chest and abdomen during the encounter. As they crawled out of the wreckage, a strafing run by one of the enemy planes injured both men.
While German soldiers took the men captive, the necessary medical attention was beyond their reach. Tragically, Keesler succumbed to his wounds the following day.
Riley, having endured his wounds and captivity, later recommended Keesler for a citation. Recognizing his exceptional courage, Riley even remarked that “Keesler received no medical attention and, although he must have suffered terribly, he showed wonderful self-control and won the admiration of all the German soldiers.”
Keesler was only 22 years old and is was buried at Saint Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial in Thiaucourt-Regniéville, France.
Keesler was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross for his extraordinary valor. In 1941, Army Air Corps Station No. 8 was officially renamed as Keesler Army Airfield in his honor. This eventually became Keesler Air Force Base.
Today, Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr. is remembered as one of Mississippi’s most prominent WWI heroes. His faithful service and ultimate sacrifice are remembered by the nearly 30,000 airmen who train at the base each year.
(c) 2023 The Sun Herald
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.