A new strategy during World War I involving the air and sky drastically altered the concept of warfare and allowed young men to rise in both fame and glory. These daredevils of the sky were known as aces, and while many of these men stood out on their own achievements, Frank Luke Jr. became the first United States airman to not only receive the Medal of Honor but to also obtain an unsurpassed feat during the war that not even the dreaded Red Baron achieved.
Born in May 1897, in Phoenix, Ariz., Luke was the fifth child of nine. He grew up with a love for sports, excelling in various activities that required heavy labor, such as bare-knuckle boxing. Upon the U.S. entering World War I, he enlisted into the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps on Sept. 25, 1917. The Signal Corps was replaced by the Army Air Service on May 24, 1918, making Luke a member of that branch. After receiving his pilot training in Texas and California, he was given a second lieutenant commission in March 1918 before deploying to France for additional training. Later that year in July, he was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron.
Luke was arrogant when it came to following the rules of the sky, occasionally flying alone and disobeying direct orders. These tendencies received criticism from his peers and dislike from superiors. However, the 27th was under standing orders to destroy German observation balloons, and Luke, alongside his close friend Lt. Joseph Frank Wehner, were extremely effective in completing that task. The two friends would continuously volunteer to attack these important objectives, even though they were heavily defended by anti-aircraft emplacements on the ground.
Though disliked by his peers and superiors for his brash behavior, he achieved results. There was a sense of luck to him as the average lifespan of a World War I ace/aviator lasted only eleven days to a couple hours, and Command was not going to squander his abilities or progress. Luke and Wehner had a slew of victories destroying the observation balloons, while Wehner acted as a layer of protection. However, tragedy struck as Wehner was killed in action on Sept. 18, 1918, in a dogfight with Fokker D.VIIs that were engaging Luke. In retaliation, Luke shot the two Fokkers down, as well as two balloons and finally a Halberstadt.
Either guided by grief or a sense of vengeance, up until his death on Sept. 29, 1918, in the span of 11 days, Luke was credited with shooting down 14 German balloons and four airplanes. This was not the first time he had gone on a rampage during his military career. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, said the following of a similar event that had happened to Luke earlier in his career: “He was the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life is one of the brightest glories of our Air Service. He went on a rampage and shot down 14 enemy aircraft, including ten balloons, in eight days. No other ace, even the dreaded Richthofen, had ever come close to that.”
During the first phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Luke flew on an evening flight to the front and attacked three balloons in the vicinity of Dun-sur-Meuse, six miles behind German lines. He dropped a message down to a nearby American balloon company, alerting them to his imminent attacks. He successfully shot down the enemy balloons but was severely injured by a single machine-gun bullet to the right shoulder. Luke landed his aircraft just west of a small village of Murvaux. He then strafed a group of German soldiers before making his way to a stream that led to the Meuse River. In that stream, Luke made his final stand as German infantry approached.
Luke’s body was retrieved two months after the Germans buried him. His remains were reburied in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. He received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions from Sept. 12 to Sept. 29, 1918, as well as a posthumous promotion to first lieutenant. Furthermore, he acquired two Distinguished Service Crosses and an Italian War Merit Cross during his service. Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., which has served as an Air Force pilot training installation since World War II, is named in his honor.
We honor his service.