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Hero of San Juan Hill, Filipino Insurrection led 1st American balloon corps in France

Hero of San Juan Hill, Filipino Insurrection led 1st American balloon corps in France

November 12th, 2017 by Michelle Brooks in Local News

A German immigrant, California's adopted-son Col. John Paegelow was wounded at San Juan Hill and brought peace to the Filippino Insurrection, before his notable World War I service as a balloon corps pioneer.

Paegelow was hand-picked by Gen. John Pershing, under whom he had served for many years in the Phillipines, to command the first American balloon squadron.

He trained alongside his men at Omaha, Nebraska, earning his own aeronaut license before his lighter-than-air battalion, comprised of 70 air corpsmen from St. Louis, arrived in France in December 1917.

The balloon observer's responsibility was to instruct the artillerymen on range and other information about the enemy.

The job was in a "particularly dangerous spot and (made for) an easy target," according to a 1944 St. Louis Globe-Democrat article.

Paegelow's balloon squadron was the first to attempt bombing ships at sea and targets on land, the Globe-Democrat said. He was awarded the purple heart and the Legion of Honor from France.

"(He) spent 16 days and nights during the San Mihiel battle without changing clothes," the article said.

A recommendation for Paegelow to receive the Distinguished Service Medal, said "he rendered invaluable service at the second Battle of the Marne, leading the first balloon wing he led 17 American and six French companies at St. Mihiel he personally explored the advance areas and directed the forward movement of the balloon corps in each advance, many times undergoing the most severe hardships under heavy fire from hostile artillery and machine gun detachments with utter disregard for his personal safety."

Paegelow served aboard his balloons in the Champagne-Marne defensive, the Aisne-Marne offensive, the St. Mihiel offensive and the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

From Paegelow's first four balloon companies in December 1917, the American balloon corps grew to 133 companies by June 1919.

On Armistice Day, the balloon section had 446 officers and 6,300 soldiers.

Balloon specialists were taught operation of balloon winches and telephone lines, look-out work, machine gunnery and radio operations. Up to 20 percent of the officers who attempted to qualify failed.

The Americans had 265 hydrogen-filled balloons. They lost 89 to enemy aircraft attacks, 35 to enemy fire on the ground and one blew across enemy lines.

One crewman died when his parachute was damaged by fiery debris and two were captured in the balloon that crossed into enemy lines. Another 115 observers made successful jumps from the basket with parachutes.

After the war ended, Paegelow was assigned as the commanding officer of the Army Balloon School at Langley Field, Virginia, in July 1919 and later Scott Field, Illinois.

Scott Field was the second largest balloon hangar in the world, when he took command in 1923. He retired from there in 1933, just four years before the lighter-than-air operations ended.

After retiring from the latter, he and wife Elia moved into her family's home in California.

On more than one occasion, Paegelow and his airship crew on maneuvers would pass over, if not stop at, his wife's hometown.

In November 1922, the crew were treated to a chicken dinner by the community before they returned to the Belleville, Illinois, base.

After the outbreak of World War II, he was involved with the ration board until dying of a heart attack in November 1944. Six planes from the Knob Noster air field flew over his funeral in the Masonic Cemetery.

Many of the men who became prominent or filled important posts during the second world war had been under his command, according to Scott Air Force Base history. That included four major generals, according to a 1944 California Democrat.

The Moniteau County Historic Society's Paegelow collection also includes autographed pictures addressed to Paegelow from notable flyers, like Charles Lindbergh and Charles Nungesser, one from explorer Admiral Richard Byrd and a letter from Amelia Earhart's mother.

"He knew all the well-known people of the day," Albin said.

The society holds hundreds of photos from Paegelow's collection, highlighting the work of the balloon corps from on-the-ground crewmen to aerial views of military targets.

An aeronaut and trained observer, Paegelow was not the only soldier with Moniteau County ties to serve in the World War I balloon corps.

A story told by volunteer James Albin goes that Albert Brooks Cole was in an observation basket when they took on heavy fire and he leapt out, landing safely on the ground.

Paegelow was born 1870 in Berlin, Germany. After a year's military service in his homeland, he immigrated to the U.S., bringing with him a degree in surveying from Heidelberg University.

He briefly worked for a New York survey firm along the Hudson River, then an economic downturn forced the young immigrant to return to military service as a private in January 1897.

His first duties were surveying for military bases in the American west. But he was soon part of the U.S. Army's 16th Infantry, serving in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. During the charge of San Juan Hill, he was wounded one-inch above his heart.

Upon recovering, he was commissioned a first lieutenant in July 1901 and deployed with the 16th Infantry to the Philippines during the Filipino Insurrection. He led scouting parties through the jungles and mountains, capturing rebel leaders.

And, he was the American officer who discussed cessation of hostilities with Gen. Ola in southern Luzan. At the surrender, the general presented his sword to Paegelow's wife, Elia Wood.

The couple met in the Philippines, where she arrived as a school teacher, contracted by the U.S. government, with three cousins. The couple married at the Tuguegarao courthouse March 12, 1902, as Paegelow had received orders to move out.

Rising to the rank of colonel, Paegelow attended the inauguration of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt and was an invited guest at the St. Louis World's Fair.

Gen. John Pershing, with whom he was on a rare first-name basis, made him the Military Governor of Mindanao in 1910, where he gained a reputation as "the miracle man."

He and Elia spent 18 years in the Philippines, until the U.S. entered World War I, when he was aboard the first transport back to the states to begin his trailblazing in the balloon corps.