Ralph Cheli enlisted in New York City as a flying cadet in February 1940, and trained at Tulsa, Okla. and Randolph and Kelly Fields, Texas. He was commissioned in November 1940, served as a pilot with the 21st Reconnaissance Squadron in Miami, Fla., and attended the Chemical Warfare School at Edgewood Arsenal, Md. He served for a year or so with the 21st Squadron and the 43rd Bomb Squadron at, MacDill Field, Fla., then engaged in submarine patrol off the coast of Florida. He was promoted to first lieutenant in February 1942, and to captain that June. In July he was operations officer for the 405th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Field, La., going to Hamilton Field, Calif., with it the next month and then proceeding to lead a flight of B-25 bombers to Brisbane, Australia--first such group to reach combat in an overwater flight.
Major Cheli flew his first combat mission on Sept. 15, 1942, in a strike against enemy installations at Buna, New Guinea. By February 1943, he was promoted to major, being well on his way to 40 combat missions. During the highly successful Battle of the Bismarck Sea on March 3, 1943, he led his squadron in the first masthead bombing attacks ever executed during daylight against enemy shipping in the Southwest Pacific.
On Aug. 18, while leading a bombing and strafing attack on the heavily defended enemy airdrome of Dagua near Wewak, New Guinea, his plane was damaged by intercepting enemy aircraft. Only after the run was completed did Major Cheli relinquish the lead of the formation and successfully crash-land his plane He was captured by the Japanese and transported to the POW camp at Rabaul. He died March 6, 1944, when the enemy ship on which he was being transferred to Japan was bombed and sunk.
His Medal of Honor citation for the Aug. 18 mission reads, in part: "...Intercepting aircraft centered their fire on his plane, causing it to burst into flames while still two 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, Major Cheli instructed his wingman to lead the formation, and crashed into the sea."
See the full citation from Congressional medal of Honor Society.