Ralph Cheli was a Major in the USAAF and served as the Commanding Officer of 405th Medium Bombardment Squadron flying B-25's in the Fifth Air Force in New Guinea.
Born in San Francisco, he attended Lehigh University as member of the class of 1941. With the start of US involvement in World War II, he left in his junior year to join the USAAF as an aviation cadet.
Previous activity on 38 combat missions, including conducting one of the first skip bombing raids against Japanese convoys, had earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Army Air Medal.
While leading his squadron in a dive to attack the heavily defended Dagua Airdrome near Wewak, New Guinea on August 18, 1943, intercepting enemy aircraft centered their fire on his plane, causing it to burst into flames while still 2 miles from the objective. His speed would have enabled him to gain necessary altitude to parachute to safety, but this action would have resulted in his formation becoming disorganized and exposed to the enemy. Although a crash was inevitable, he courageously elected to continue leading the attack in his blazing plane. From a minimum altitude, the squadron made a devastating bombing and strafing attack on the target. The mission completed, Maj. Cheli instructed his wingman to lead the formation, and he crashed into the sea.
Initially he was believed killed in the crash, but post war evidence indicates that he survived the crash but was executed in March 1944 by the Japanese while a POW on Rabaul. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. What are believed to be Major Cheli's and other similarly executed POWs remains are now interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
A fellow pilot said of Cheli's act, "I believe this action of continuing on the run, while fully realizing his critical condition, constituted one of the bravest deeds I have ever seen."
The Arnold Air Society chapter at his alma mater Lehigh University was named in his honor.
Major Cheli left behind his wife, Geraldine, and his mother, Mrs. Albert Micacchi.
- Looking Backward, A Lehigh University Scrapbook, Lehigh University, 1991
- Wings of Valor