Sept. 29, 1918: Frank Luke Jr. shot down, dies from wounds
This week 95 years ago the leading ace of the American Expeditionary Force was killed in combat in northern France during World War I.
Frank Luke, Jr., the son of German immigrants, was a 20-year-old Phoenix native. He excelled in sports, the rough-and-tumble life of a copper miner, and boxed in bare-knuckled matches. He enlisted in the aviation section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and underwent flight training in Texas and California before earning his wings and commission as a second lieutenant in March 1918.
World War I had been raging for four years before Luke arrived in France in July 1918. It was an artilleryman’s war. Part of the heavy artillery system of the day was observation balloons. Filled with hydrogen, these balloons were highly flammable and heavily defended from the ground and air. Because of the danger, most Allied fliers shied away from attacking balloons.
Luke attacked and destroyed a balloon Sept. 12 and received his first aerial victory credit, and the nickname the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”
He chose to attack at dawn when the balloons were moving skyward to start the day’s artillery observation or at dusk when they were being hauled down for the night. He used the dark to camouflage his approach or escape, depending on the time of day.
In the beginning he flew with his close friend, Lt. Joseph Frank Wehner. Wehner flew cover while Luke attacked the balloons. Only six days later, while carrying out that maneuver, Wehner was shot down and killed. Luke turned on the attackers and shot two of them out of the sky. He then turned his attention back to the balloons and downed two of them.
Luke had few friends among the pilots. He was seen as arrogant. He had a tendency to fly alone and disobey orders. His grief over Wehner only deepened his loneliness.
The day before he died he landed at a French aerodrome due to engine trouble instead of returning to his home base at Rembercourt, France. When he arrived at Rembercourt the next morning, the squadron commander refused to believe he had had engine trouble, accused him of going AWOL and threatened to place him under arrest. Luke took off without authorization and flew to see his group commander at a forward airfield near Verdun. The group commander cancelled the arrest order.
That evening, Luke took off on his last flight. When he arrived in the area of Dun-sur-Meuse, Luke attacked three balloons. Eight German aircraft attempted to shoot him down, but it was the heavy ground fire that hit him, probably from a hilltop. One round entered his right shoulder and passed through his body. As he looked for a place to land, he strafed a body of German troops before safely landing the aircraft in a field near Murvaux, France. He got out of his aircraft, drew his pistol and fired as German infantry approached. He then died from his wound.
Frank Luke, Jr. was the first Airman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He received it for his exploits, especially for the mission that took his life. After the war, his remains were moved to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. America bestowed many honors on Luke, not the least of which was Luke Air Force Base being named in his honor.