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story.lead_photo.caption Col. John Paegelow commanded the first American balloon squadrons to arrive in France in December 1917 during WWI. (Courtesy of Moniteau County Historical Society)

An adopted-son of California and a nationally-recognized veteran will receive due recognition for his impacts on early experimental aviation.

Col. John Paegelow, 1870-1944, and his work with the military's first balloon corps will be featured in a permanent display being developed at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, by Mark Wilderman, 375th Air Mobility Wing historian.

"The Paegelows were a prominent and dynamic couple, wherever they were," Library Director Connie Walker said." Their life together was eventful and they both left a legacy that will never be forgotten.

"Elia paved the way to provide library service through the Wood Place Library, and now the Moniteau County Library, which have both benefited by continued financial support from the Elia Wood Paegelow Estate and Foundation.

"The colonel was a pioneer in airship technology and his legacy will live on at the Scott AFB, as part of the 'Lighter Than Air' display being created at the base."

The young and adventurous Elia Wood had traveled as a teacher to the Phillipines, where, in 1901, she met the rising military leader and German immigrant Paegelow, who was commander of the American forces there at the time, historian James Albin said.

"Col. Paegelow was one of the top commanders of the American Forces in World War I," Albin said. "Moniteau County owes its beginning to the Wood family. Elia's grandfather Lashley Wood was most-responsible for the forming of Moniteau County as a separate county."

Col. John Paegelow brought over the 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. (Photo courtesy Moniteau County Historical Society)

Before he was with the airship program, the focus of the Scott AFB exhibit, Paegelow was wounded during the Spanish-American War Battle of San Juan Hill, Cuba, and brought peace to the Filippino Insurrection. During World War I, he was a balloon corps pioneer, hand-picked by Gen. John Pershing.

Paegelow's balloon squadron was the first to attempt bombing ships at sea and targets on land in 1917. It was involved in many key engagements during World War I.

After the war ended — 100 years ago Sunday — Paegelow was assigned as commanding officer of the Army Balloon School at Langley Field, Virginia, and then in 1923 to Scott Field, Illinois, where the second largest balloon hangar in the world was located.

On more than one occasion, Paegelow and his airship crews would fly training missions over California, landing in a nearby field to enjoy a homemade chicken dinner before returning to the airbase with whole turkeys for the ground crew, Wilderman said.

He and Elia retired to California in 1933, where they remained active in the community and supporting the military during World War II.

Recently, Wilderman visited California to get a better understanding of Paegelow. He saw the colonel's medals — including the Purple Heart and the Legion of Honor — on display at the Moniteau County Library, on loan from the Moniteau County Historical Society, before stopping at the historical society to get a copy of its holdings regarding the Paegelow family.

He hopes to return soon to read and copy the documents and photos at the society, Wilderman said.

Col. John Paegelow organized the first lighter-than-air battalion at Omaha, Nebraska, comprised of 70 air corpsmen from St. Louis. They arrived in France in December 1917, serving 19 months. (Photo courtesy Moniteau County Historical Society)

The society's Paegelow colletion includes autographed pictures addressed to Paegelow from notable flyers, like Charles Lindbergh and Charles Nungesser, explorer Admiral Richard Byrd and a letter from Amelia Earhart's mother.

"I think it's wonderful and appropriate, given he was the commander at the base for 10 years," Walker said of the exhibit-in-progress. "(Wilderman) said most commanders serve at a base for two to three years, so the colonel must have had a great impact during the "Lighter Than Air" history of Scott Air Force Base."

Wilderman also has collected interesting photos and history about Paegelow's work with the airship program.

"(Wilderman) shared early footage taken at Scott AFB, owned by the Smithsonian Museum, of airships that were being flown by and with the colonel on board," Walker said. "It was amazing to see how many airmen were required to catch ropes and tether the airship to the ground."

The airship era was 1921-37, Wilderman said. Paegelow was a key figure during two-thirds of that time, he added. He also oversaw the early stratosphere tests to break altitude records, now associated with the space program, Wilderman said.

The base historian has pieced together the history of this little-known part of military history through base archives that hadn't been touched in more than 40 years, he said.

"He's one of the experts in airships we didn't know much about," he said. Paegelow and Elia moved 69 times during their marriage and were always a "power couple" wherever they went, Wilderman said.

Paegelow, along with four other airship pioneers, will be featured in the exhibit to be placed along a high-traffic hallway in the base headquarters. Wilderman said the exhibit also will include original airship blueprints and a four-feet-long model of the 1923 airship hanger.

"History is written by the fixed-wing pilots," Wilderman joked. "There's a lot of cool stuff they did here. We'll bring out this entire era."

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