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Lt. Keesler: The life and passion of a namesake

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

Keesler Air Force Base held the annual Air Force Ball Sept. 22 in celebration of the 71st birthday of the U.S. Air Force, along with commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Team Keesler’s namesake, 2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr.

Bill Keesler, first cousin twice removed of Lt. Keesler, visited the base to attend the event. He was also able to learn about the Keesler mission and the legacy 2nd Lt. Keesler had in the U.S. military dating back to 1917.

Second Lt. Keesler was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, April 11, 1896, to his father Gen. Samuel Reeves Keesler Sr. and mother Charlotte Parish Keesler. As the second child of seven, growing up at his family’s home, “Cottonlandia,” was a luxury because his father was not only the general at the local Army Reserve post but also a cotton broker.

Despite being small in stature, Keesler became well known for his athletic abilities int high school and college. Keesler also maintained high grades in his academics which led him to graduate from high school as salutatorian on May 26, 1913.

Keesler graduated from Davidson College on May 13, 1917, and postponed his dream of being a teacher to join the newly formed U.S. Army Aviation Corps following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany on April 2, 1917.

He attended Reserve Officer Training School at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and weapons training at Chickamauga Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On August 15, 1917, he was commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserves as a 2nd lieutenant.

In December of 1917, Keesler attended aerial observer school at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, to learn how to fly and shoot from a plane and perform aerial reconnaissance. Following graduation, Keesler was was assigned to Field 2 in Hempstead, New York, in March of 1918 and was quickly shipped to France to attend the 2nd Artillery Observation School as part of the American Expeditionary Force to be trained by the French and English for aerial combat logistics.

Keesler was assigned to the American Expeditionary Force’s 24th Aero Squadron in September of 1918 at the Verdun section of France on the Western Front. On September 14, Keesler flew his first mission over Germany to take photos of enemy movements and structures. During the mission, his flight lost two planes and their crews and Keesler’s aircraft sustained damage.

On October 8, 1918, the squadron commander, Lt. Maury Hill, sent three 24th Aero Squadron pilots to see Col. William Mitchell, Chief of Air Services of the First Army. One of the pilots selected was 1st Lt. Harold Riley. Riley’s observer was too sick to fly so he chose Keesler to be his observer instead.

The group received a briefing from Mitchell explaining that the drive on the American side of the Meuse River was progressing well but the slow French advancement on the east side was creating an opening for the Germans. Mitchell tasked the team to fly to the Boise de Consonvoy, a heavily wooded area in front of the French, to see what lay there so the French could advance and prepare artillery if necessary.

After the successful mission, Lt. Riley turned his plane around to go home but noticed four Fokker airplanes positioned in the sun in between his plane and the French border. Riley realized the only choice he had was to head straight for them hoping the sun would hinder them from chasing him as he flew past.

As they flew under the Fokkers, one came straight at them while firing their machine guns. Keesler opened fire, taking the Fokker down. The other three Fokkers fired and crippled one aileron and took out the rudder and elevation control, forcing Riley’s aircraft to crash.

Keesler was able to keep firing the mounted rear gun but had to be pulled out of the wreckage by Riley. The gunner had lost the use of his legs due to the six gun shots he took to the chest and abdomen. Riley carried Keesler to the edge of a small clearing to escape when Keesler was shot a seventh time, this time in the hip.

Keesler passed away due to sustained injuries October 9, 1918.

Although Keesler is gone his legacy of being a stellar athlete, excellent academic scholar and outstanding Army officer continues to live on in Biloxi, Mississippi, starting with the renaming of Army Air Corps Station No. 8 to Keesler Army Airfield on August 25, 1941.

On January 13, 1948, the airfield became Keesler Air Force Base, kickstarting the training mission it still carries on today. Today, more than 412 technical school instructors teach over 30 different Air Force Specialty Codes to 30,000 students annually, carrying on Keesler’s dream of teaching.

From the Defense Department’s only weather training school to the Air Force’s top military hospital, Team Keesler strives to not only work towards excellence but also teach others of the pride, precision and passion its namesake held true.

"It was gratifying as a relative for me to see that Keesler -- in training, in traditional events like the Air Force Ball and in other ways -- continues to remember Sam and to hold him up as an example of service and sacrifice for present-day members of the Air Force,” said Bill.