P-39 maintenance, 1942. U.S. Army Air Forces
Photo Caption & Credits

Namesakes: Samuel Keesler

Jan. 25, 2021

Iron Man

Keesler Air Force Base, in Biloxi, bears the name of a native Mississippian shot down and killed in World War I air combat.

That’s the short version of the final mission of Sam Keesler. The full version is considerably more technicolor in nature.

That story begins with the birth in 1896 of Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr. into a prominent family in Greenwood, Miss. His father was a wealthy cotton broker. His mansion was named “Cottonlandia.”

For all that, young Sam was down-to-earth and a natural leader; he was class president and salutatorian. Though small, he enjoyed a superb athletic career—not only in high school but also at Davidson College, where he was student body president.


Keesler planned to teach school, but, after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, he passed up college commencement and on May 13, 1917, entered the U.S. Army’s Aviation Section.

He received his commission in August and went to Fort Sill, Okla., for training as an aerial observer. In March 1918 he shipped out for France and, after undergoing training in aerial gunnery, joined the 24th Aero Squadron on the Western Front.

The Allies soon launched the big Meuse-Argonne Offensive and, on Sept. 14, Keesler flew his first mission. It was a dangerous job. Usually a pilot-observer team flew unescorted behind German lines to photograph or sketch enemy dispositions. On that first mission, Keesler’s aircraft took serious damage.

2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler, Jr. Keesler AFB

Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr.

  • Born: April 11, 1896, Greenwood, Miss.
  • Died: Oct. 9, 1918, near Verdun, France
  • College: Davidson College
  • Occupation: U.S. military officer
  • Services: U.S. Army—Signal Corps, Air Service
  • Main Era: World War I
  • Years Active: 1917-18
  • Combat: Western Front, Meuse-Argonne Offensive
  • Final Grade: Second Lieutenant
  • Honors: Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, World War I Victory Medal, all awarded posthumously
  • Resting Place: Thiaucourt, France

Keesler’s last flight commenced on Oct. 8, 1918, in the late afternoon. He and his pilot, 1st Lt. H.W. Riley, flew behind German lines and were returning home when they were jumped by four Fokker pursuit aircraft. The German leader dove and began firing.

What came next was a remarkable display of skill, bravery, and fortitude. First, Keesler returned fire and shot the leader out of the sky. In seconds, however, the Americans were raked by German gunfire, which disabled the airplane’s rudder and elevator and caused Riley to lose control of his aircraft.

Keesler suffered six bullet wounds in the chest and abdomen. Despite that, and even though his airplane was spiraling downward, he kept up a high rate of accurate fire, fending off the Fokkers all the way to the ground. After the Americans crashed, Keesler kept firing his mounted gun at the Germans, which were strafing the U.S. aircraft. Here, Keesler sustained a seventh bullet wound.

German soldiers captured Keesler and Riley, but no medical care came. Riley, who survived, later wrote a commendation letter, stating, “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.”

The Mississippian died the next day. He was 22 years old.

Some 23 years later, the Army Air Forces bestowed Keesler’s name on a new base in Biloxi. It has specialized in ground-trade training and features high-quality technical schools. Today, more than 400 instructors teach more than 30,000 students each year.             

BMT graduates at Keesler. Kemberly Groue/USAF

Keesler Air Force Base

  • State: Mississippi
  • Nearest City: Biloxi
  • Area: 2.8 sq mi / 1,784 acres
  • Status: Open, operational
  • Opened as Army Air Corps Station No. 8: June 13, 1941
  • Renamed Keesler Army Air Field: Aug. 25, 1941
  • Renamed Keesler Air Force Base: Jan. 13, 1948
  • Current owner: Air Education and Training Command
  • Former owners: Air Corps Technical Training Command; Army Air Forces Technical Training Command; Army Air Forces Flying Training Command; Army Air Forces Training Command; Air Training Command.
  • Home of: 2nd Air Force