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Frank Luke, Jr with his Spad XIII
Frank Luke, Jr with his Spad XIII
A simple telegram plunged America into the Great War. The Zimmermann telegram, intercepted by American intelligence in April 1917, revealed Germany’s efforts to encourage Mexico to invade the United States. For a towheaded kid from Arizona named Frank Luke, Jr., and other citizens of the states along the Mexican border, the threat of invasion was real and personal.

Anti-German sentiment swept the nation that spring. Sauerkraut became “Victory Cabbage”, the precursor to Freedom Fries, and suspicion fell on families of German descent such as the Lukes, whose name had been Luecke just a generation before. The immigrants’ son Frank Luke, Jr. had a lot to prove when he joined the Army a few months later.

By the time Luke completed flight training, received his commission, and joined the 27th Aero Squadron in France in July 1918, the surge of American forces onto the Western Front promised a swift end to the war – and the life expectancy of a pursuit pilot at the front was just three weeks. If Frank Luke was going to prove anything, he needed to work fast. In just a few months, he would demonstrate how well he could work under pressure, becoming one of the most decorated flyers of the First World War.

Friends and family in Phoenix, Arizona, remember Frank Luke, Jr. as a fast-talking, confident, impulsive young man. The Army experienced this side of Frank early on; swamped with volunteers, they did not immediately respond to his enlistment application, so Frank wrote to the Adjutant’s Office to pester them for a report date. He received his reply and reported for duty on 29 September 1917.

In those early days of aviation, pilots took to the air in boxes of thin wood and lacquered canvas. Seated behind an engine belching smoke and splattering oil, pilots flew with a gas tank wedged under one arm, hand-pumping fuel as they kept a wary eye on their gauges. Even a small vibration could cause the fragile aircraft to shake itself apart in midair. The new Spad XIII pursuit planes were so unreliable that they posed a serious hazard to their pilots’ lives even outside of combat.

During flight training, Luke defined himself as a skilled and daring flier. Luke’s boisterous confidence followed him to his post in France, and his exuberant boasting of “I’ll get them Germans” quickly annoyed the seasoned pilots at Rembercort. They were even more irritated by his tendency to wander off from formation to hunt German aircraft, blaming engine trouble for his disappearance. He was an unreliable loner in the eyes of the other pilots, and his disappearances looked more like cowardice.

Frank Luke, Jr
Frank Luke, Jr
On 16 August 1918, Lt. Luke finally met the enemy when four German Fokkers cut through his squadron’s formation. Luke reported that he dove down on the last Fokker in the flight, shooting it right off the tail of his squadron commander, Major Harold Hartney. Major Hartney, who had seen the enemy aircraft behind him one moment and gone the next, accepted Luke’s story, but few others saw it or believed it. Frank Luke Jr. was branded a liar.

The start of the San Mihiel offensive on 12 September 1918 gave Luke his chance to prove his detractors wrong. To cover the advance on the ground, Lt. Luke’s squadron had been ordered to target and destroy German observation balloons. Observation balloons were rubberized silk bags filled with hydrogen, tethered to trucks or horse-drawn carts. A gondola suspended below the balloon held an observer equipped with a camera or a pair of field glasses. American pilots hunted them with incendiary bullets to ignite the flammable hydrogen gas. Spad XIIIs had to be outfitted with specialized machine guns to fire the rounds.

The Germans called the balloons Drachen, or Dragons, for their flammability and the roaring sound of their inflation; the Americans called them Sausages for their elongated shape. Whatever their name, these elevated observation posts had to be destroyed for the American advance to proceed. From aloft, balloon observers could see down into the American trenches, where troop movements were usually hidden from ground-level view. Observers could use this vantage to direct devastating artillery fire.

Drachen were among the toughest targets on the battlefield, even for the most skilled pursuit pilots. Located well behind enemy lines, they forced pilots to fly through patrolling Fokkers and over anti-aircraft emplacements just to get a shot at them. German fighter planes guarded the skies around the Drachen, and ground defenses included a battery of four to six anti-aircraft guns, accurate and deadly up to 14,000 feet. Low-altitude approaches faced Maschinengewehr 08 machine gun emplacements and a platoon of infantry, whose rifles could be lethal against wood-and-canvas planes.

Storms battered the Western Front on 12 September. Lt. Luke spotted a Drache balloon hovering near the village of Marienville and dove on it from high above, swooping within yards of the top of the balloon, his left machine gun sputtering out incendiary rounds. After three close passes through a storm of German lead and shrapnel, the wet rubberized silk finally ignited, and a brilliant orange fireball marked Frank Luke’s first irrefutable kill.

Two days later, on a morning patrol with two other pilots, Luke attacked a Drache near Boinville and watched as it deflated and sank to smother its nest, too wet from the morning’s drizzle to ignite.

That afternoon marked the start of Lt. Luke’s partnership with his bunkmate and friend Lt. Joe Wehner, a mission that would establish the pattern for their flights together. Near the town of Buzy, Luke plunged down on a Drache while Lt. Wehner provided cover and lookout from above. The balloon went up in flames on the first pass, just as eight Fokkers swarmed the two American fighters. With both machine guns jammed, Luke could only retreat for the American lines while Wehner scattered the enemy.

Launching a typical German observation balloon.
Launching a typical German observation balloon.
The next night, Lieutenants Luke and Wehner took off at dusk. Flying over enemy lines in the gathering darkness was dangerous and unprecedented, but it guaranteed a chance of catching the Drachen crews off-guard. Luke and Wehner hoped that the distorting twilight would make aiming anti-aircraft guns harder and Fokker patrols less likely. The tactic was effective; three burning Drachen lit the French sky that night.

General Billy Mitchell himself arrived at Rembercort the following evening to witness the twilight Drachen hunt. The two pilots dove together on the first balloon and then separated as they pulled away to avoid the fireball. Lt. Luke killed a second Drache nearby, and Lt. Wehner destroyed a third in the opposite direction. The two landed at Rembercort just minutes apart, greeted by an awestruck General Mitchell.

The end of the San Mihiel offensive bought the First Pursuit Group only a brief respite. On 18 September Luke and Wehner were in the air again. Using their familiar tactics, the team destroyed two Drachen near the village of Labeuville, but attracted the attention of an entire squadron of Fokkers, Jasta 15. Most of the German squadron went after Wehner, an obvious target at higher altitude.

Frank Luke could do nothing to help his wingman. Two of the enemy fighters swooped in behind Frank, forcing him to focus on the immediate problem of survival. He turned and charged straight at them, machine gun bursts sending them both plummeting to the ground. When the dust settled, he searched the skies for Joe, but saw only the circling remainder of Jasta 15. Accustomed to being separated from his wingman in the chaos of combat, Lt. Luke turned for home.

Lt. Wehner would not meet his wingman back at Rembercort. A bullet from the guns of German Lt. George von Hantelmann had blown through the base of Joe Wehner’s skull and out the other side, taking his jaw with it. By the time his Spad slammed into the ground, the young pilot was already dead. His body was recovered after the war.

On his way back to the lines, Lt. Luke happened across two French fighters in pursuit of a German Halberstadt observation plane. Luke swooped in for his fifth kill that day. The mangled wreckage of the Halberstadt in a field near Rattentaut marked the moment when Luke passed Eddie Rickenbacker for the title of top American ace.

This moment made Frank Luke, Jr. a sensation in the Allied press, which was hungry for war heroes. The news coverage was a surprise to the Luke family in Phoenix and Frank’s young fiancee in California. For months his letters had led them to believe that he was still behind the lines, awaiting his chance at combat flying. He said that he did not want them to worry. There was little chance of that now.

Luke alongside his 13th official kill.
Luke alongside his 13th official kill.
When word of Lt. Wehner’s death reached the squadron, the loss of his trusted wingman and friend rattled the usually exuberant Lt. Luke despite his success. Major Hartney, now commander of the First Pursuit Group, sent the new Ace of Aces on a seven-day pass to Paris. Luke returned after only four days, citing “nothing to do.” Frank Luke was ready to be back in the air.

The day after his return to duty, he flew with a new wingman, Lt. Ivan Roberts. While Drachen-hunting over the Meuse, Luke and Roberts encountered a flight of five Fokkers. Luke destroyed one; distracted by combat, he did not see Lt. Roberts’s plane go down. Ivan Roberts’s body was never recovered.

Two days later, frustrated by inactivity, Lt. Luke took off at dawn without orders on an unplanned mission against a Drachen at Bantheville. He celebrated his kill by landing at a nearby French airfield for the night. Returning to Rembercort the next day, he reported to his squadron commander, Lt. Alfred Grant, who angrily grounded Luke until dusk. Another twilight Drachen-hunting mission was in the works, and Frank Luke was slated to fly it, if he could wait long enough.

Ignoring Lt. Grant, Luke took off for the squadron’s forward airfield. Lt. Grant phoned ahead, ordering the flight leader there to detain Luke. By that time, Luke was already on the runway again, with permission from Major Hartney to launch the mission a few minutes early. A year to the day after reporting for duty, and just a quarter of an hour before his scheduled mission, Frank Luke, Jr. took off from the forward airfield. He flew over an American observation balloon company, dropping a message canister with a white streamer. The note inside was an invitation to the show: “Watch for burning balloons ahead. Luke.”

Turning toward the Meuse River and the German lines, the men of the balloon company watched as Luke’s plane dove toward the Drachen hovering near Liny. A fireball blossomed on the horizon, followed a few minutes later by the fireball of Luke’s second kill near Milly. Luke then turned his Spad toward the village of Murvaux.

The Murvaux Drachen went down in flames, but instead of banking away to seek another target, Lt. Luke brought his Spad in for a rough landing on the outskirts of Murvaux, near Milly Creek. He had taken heavy fire from the Drachen’s ground defenses, and even Frank Luke could not fly far with a bullet lodged in his chest.

A man-carrying kite carrying a man.
A man-carrying kite carrying a man.
Drawing his sidearm, he emerged from his damaged aircraft and stumbled toward the creek, leaving his battered airplane behind. Some witnesses claim that Luke fired at approaching German troops, and others say that the enemy found him near death. Other reports from civilian onlookers portrayed the incident as a running gunfight between Luke and the Germans, a last glimpse of the Old West re-created in a quaint French village. Some added other details, like eight Fokkers in hot pursuit, two of which Luke shot down in his final moments aloft; they also claimed that he strafed a platoon of German troops on his way down. Regardless of the details, Lt. Frank Luke, Jr. died behind enemy lines with his pistol in his hand. A headline back in the United States proclaimed, “Luke Dies Fighting Entire German Army.”

Despite search efforts by his flight leader, Lt. Luke was listed as missing in action until after the war. His remains lay in a shallow grave in the churchyard in Murvaux, beneath a wooden cross naming him only “Unknown American Aviator.” After the Armistice, searchers identified his body by the serial number of the watch he still wore and by the tale witnesses told of his final moments. Today, Lt. Frank Luke, Jr. rests in an American military cemetery near the Meuse River.

Word of Luke’s promotion to First Lieutenant reached his squadron two days after his disappearance. Other accolades also arrived posthumously. Before Luke’s final mission, Lt. Grant had recommended him for a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the San Mihiel offensive. It was awarded shortly after his remains were identified. Following the war, Lt. Luke’s commanding officer recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits earlier in September. Frank Luke became the first Army pilot to receive the honor.

The perilous efforts of Lt. Luke and his fellow pilots prompted the Germans to rely more heavily on man-lifting kites for battlefield surveillance. On a breezy day a long train of air-catching apparatuses anchored to the Earth could dangle a “pilot” from a harness hundreds of feet in the sky. These presented smaller targets that could be more quickly winched to safety on the ground, but they were tricky to control and even more vulnerable to wind than the cumbersome Drachen. After World War I, balloons and kites drifted into aviation history as advances in design made airplanes a viable reconnaissance tool in their own right.

Frank Luke’s airplanes, however, tended not to survive his missions – he outlived five of them, and two wingmen, to die in combat as America’s Ace of Aces with eighteen confirmed kills. He left the title for fellow First Pursuit Group flier Eddie Rickenbacker to reclaim. Rickenbacker himself said, “Had he lived, he would have put me out of business long ago as America’s leading ace. I wouldn’t have had a show against him.”

Written by Kiona Smith-Strickland, posted on 06 December 2012. Kiona is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.
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