America’s second ranking ace in World War I, Frank Luke Jr. embodied the fighting spirit and public image of a fighter pilot of the time. He went after the toughest targets, heavily defended German Drachen observation balloons. They were protected by a ring of aircraft from planes attacking above the balloon, and balloon-mounted machine guns protected from attacks coming from beneath the balloon.
To attack a balloon was practically suicide. But Luke volunteered for these dangerous missions. Some surmised it was because of the easy confirmation as the fireball fell from the sky with a plume of smoke.
One of nine children of German immigrants, Luke was born in May 1897 in Phoenix. On Sept. 25, 1917, he enlisted in the Signal Corps’ Aviation Service and soon departed for flight training, first in Austin, Texas, then in San Diego.
Luke arrived in France March 19, 1918, and joined the 27th Aero Squadron at Saints on July 25 along with eight other replacement pilots. His exploits covered only a scant 17 days, but in this time, as records reflect, he destroyed 14 German balloons and four aircraft, earning him the title of the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”
Luke’s commander, Maj. H.E. Hartney, said of him, “No one had the sheer contemptuous courage that boy possessed. He was an excellent pilot and probably the best flying marksman on the Western Front. We had any number of expert pilots and there was no shortage of good shots, but the perfect combination, like the perfect specimen of anything in the world, was scarce. Frank Luke was the perfect combination.”
On Sept. 12, 1918, Luke shot down his first balloon. His last flight was Sept. 29. At least 13 people in a village watched his final blaze of glory. Even though he had been grounded by his commander, he obtained permission to go after three balloons near the Meuse. He was severely wounded by a German Fokker aircraft patrolling the skies after he downed the first balloon. Rather than returning to base for medical treatment, he continued toward the other targets, destroying them. He crash landed in the village of Murvaux, where he drew his pistol instead of surrendering. He was killed in a gun battle with German soldiers.
For three months, nothing was known of Luke, except that he had disappeared. For several months, his grave was marked with a wooden cross that read, “Unknown American Aviator.” American military authorities received confirmation of his death after the war was over. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Italian War Cross and the Aero Club Medal for Bravery. Luke Air Force Base is named in his honor.