By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“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 10 balloons, in
eight days. No other ace, even the dreaded Richthofen, had ever come
close to that.”
— Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, 26 kills, Medal of Honor, top American air ace of World War One.
“Fly on and fight on to the last drop of blood and
the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”
— Captain Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, 1917.
On Saturday, February 4, 2023, an F-22A Raptor stealth fighter from the 27th Fighter Squadron (“Falcons”) at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, using the radio callsign “Frank-01,” fired a heat-seeking, AIM-9X-2 Super Sidewinder missile at a 200-foot-wide, communist Chinese spy balloon at 58,000 feet altitude, six miles off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina. The balloon was shot down, scoring the first-ever, aerial kill for an F-22 fighter and for the improved, AIM-9X-2 missile.
The Biden administration had timidly allowed this Chinese spy balloon to cross virtually the entire United States of America for eight long days, from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the warm beaches of South Carolina, including passing directly over the Air Force Minuteman III nuclear missile bases in Montana and Missouri, before doing anything about it. In subsequent days, more “unidentified, flying objects” were shot down over northern Alaska, the Yukon Province of Canada, and Lake Huron, Michigan.
U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, commander of United States Northern Command, stated on February 6th, “The callsign of the first flight (over South Carolina) was Frank-01. The second flight of F-22s was Luke-01. Frank Luke, Medal of Honor winner in World War I, for his activities that he conducted against observation balloons. So, how fitting is it that Frank-01 took down this balloon in the sovereign airspace of the United States of America?”
In March 1918, young Frank Luke, Jr., age 20, a second-generation, German-American from Phoenix, Arizona, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Aviation Section, U.S. Army Signal Corps, after pilot training in Texas and California. He soon deployed to Issoudon, in western France, where he was assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group, 27th Aero Squadron, which was equipped with French-manufactured, SPAD S.XIII C.1 fighter planes (Luke’s plane was serial #S7984) made of wood and fabric, and producing 220 horsepower, each apparently armed with one Vickers .303-caliber machine gun (on the right side) with 400 rounds of ammunition, and one similar-looking, Colt/Vickers Model 1918 11mm machine gun (11x59R French Gras, or .433-caliber, on the left) firing incendiary rounds for attacking German observation balloons.
Luke wrote to his sister, “I will make myself known, or go where most of them do,” and immediately began to exhibit an arrogant attitude that was not well-received by his squadron mates or commander, who called him “wild and reckless.” He had a “cowboy” tendency to fly alone and disobey orders, often flying missions without permission or without filing a flight plan, and was considered to be utterly fearless.
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of September 1918, Luke, now age 21, and his good friend, Second Lieutenant Joseph Frank “Fritz” Wehner, a fellow German-American, began attacking highly-flammable, hydrogen-filled, German Drachen (“Dragon”) observation balloons in northern France, with their squadron under official orders to do so. It was an extremely dangerous assignment, because the balloons were heavily defended by 20mm (Becker M2) and 37mm (Maschinen–Flak/M-Flak, or Krupp SockelFlak L/14.5) antiaircraft gun batteries on the ground, and could be quickly reeled in from below.
First Lieutenant Jerry C. Vasconcells, Luke’s flight commander in the 27th Aero Squadron, said on September 11th, “Any man who gets a balloon has my respect…They’re the toughest proposition a pilot has to meet. He has to be good, or he doesn’t get it.”
The U.S. fighter pilots typically flew in pairs, with one SPAD fighter going in low, to attack the balloons at dusk or nightfall, and one going high, to protect the balloon shooter. Luke and Wehner flew from Rembercourt, France, on September 12, 1918, scoring Frank’s first confirmed, balloon kill, resulting in an awe-inspiring, white-hot fireball that he flew through, nearly burning him alive.
He landed near Dieulouard, and an American infantryman asked, “What’s wrong; you hit?” Luke replied, “Did you see me nail that balloon over there?” The stunned soldier responded, “See it?! How could any of us miss it? How you ever managed to get out of there…?” Two U.S. infantry officers signed eyewitness statements to confirm his kill.
On September 14 and 15, he added five more balloons to his tally, with five total kills required to become an “ace,” and earned his first Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the Army’s second-highest award for exceptional valor in action. The citation read, “For extraordinary heroism in action…near St. Mihiel, France, September 12 to 15, 1918. Lieutenant Luke, by skill, determination, and bravery, and in the face of heavy enemy fire, successfully destroyed eight enemy observation balloons in four days.” Luke became well-known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”
Then, on September 16, Frank and Fritz flew together again, bringing down two more German balloons. Wehner had racked up six confirmed kills to his credit (one Fokker D.VII and five balloons) in just three days, also earning the DSC. But on September 18th, they were jumped by eight Fokker D.VII German fighters near Étain, France, and Wehner was shot in the head and killed by Lieutenant Georg von Hantelmann, a young, German ace with 15 kills to his credit (he survived, ending the war with 25 confirmed and five unconfirmed aerial victories). He was murdered in 1924, at age 25.
Luke turned and entered a fierce dogfight, in which he shot down two Fokker D.VIIs (Germany’s very best and latest fighters), two Drachen balloons, and a Halberstadt CL.II observation aircraft as his 13th confirmed kill, scoring an astounding five ace-qualifying kills in a single mission! His incredible feat earned him a second DSC medal, with the citation stating that “Immediately after destroying two enemy observation balloons, Lieutenant Luke was attacked by a large formation of German planes…He turned to attack two, which were directly behind him and shot them down. Sighting an enemy biplane, although his gasoline was nearly gone, he attacked and destroyed this machine also.” Frank was now the leading, American ace of the war, the exalted “Ace of Aces!”
After Wehner’s death, Frank Luke flew alone for the next 11 days, adding one balloon kill and a Hanover CL.III aircraft kill (his 14th and 15th total kills) to his credit on September 28th. The next day, his squadron commander, Captain Alfred A. “Ack” Grant, threatened to arrest him for being absent without leave (AWOL). Despite this threat, Luke took off and flew to Verdun, where his sympathetic group commander, Canadian-born, ace pilot (six kills) Major Harold E. Hartney, canceled the arrest order and gave Luke permission to continue his successful balloon hunting along the Meuse River.
Hartney believed that Frank was shy and uncomfortable in social situations, and therefore preferred to be alone, which came across to the other pilots as conceit. He also believed that Frank Luke was a truly great pilot who was quite confident, perhaps overly confident, but decided to give him a chance.
“Okay,” Hartney declared. “You want those three balloons, go for it.”
Luke merely smiled in reply.
“Frank, one thing though…” Hartney cautioned.
“Yes, sir?” Luke inquired.
“I don’t want you going out until dark (to avoid enemy gunfire.) Wait until the sun drops, then do it the way you always have. Good luck!”
That same evening, Frank Luke, Jr., took off alone at about six o’clock PM, dropping a handwritten note over the American front lines to the U.S. 7th Balloon Company at Avocourt: “Watch for three burning Hun balloons along the Meuse. Lt. Luke.” He flew onward to attack the three balloons in the vicinity of Dun-sur-Meuse, six miles behind the German lines, and never returned alive. The American balloon company reported all three balloons being shot down in flames, but the exploding balloons attracted the attention of eight German fighters, and Luke was reported as missing in action.
The Stars and Stripes military newspaper reported on November 1, 1918, that, “Like a blazing meteor was the brief, brilliant career of Lieut. Frank Luke, Jr…reported missing since he vanished over the German lines…he had scored 18 victories…Lieutenant Luke was a reckless and trouble-seeking pilot, fond of lone, guerrilla warfare…far over the German lines, in broad daylight…two Boche balloons were seen to fall in flames. Seven minutes later, a third blazed and fell. Lieutenant Luke did not return. He had always been dead on balloons. There were 14 on his list of victories.”
It took two subsequent, French eyewitness affidavits (in 1919 and 1962) by numerous citizens of Murvaux to resolve the mystery: “Shortly after sunset on this same day, at approximately 6:30 pm to 7:00 pm, we saw an Allied pursuit airplane shoot down three German observation balloons in the space of just a few minutes…the third (Ballonzug 35, at 6:55 PM)…about two kilometers west of Murvaux (12 miles from the Belgian border, with a total population of only 141 in 2020)…German troops began firing at it with revolver cannons of approximately 20mm to 37mm caliber…However, the aircraft was so low that it appeared difficult to hit it with this cannon fire. It passed by the church at an altitude that was not much higher than the church steeple.
“About the time the airplane rolled out of its turn over the northern edge of the village, the pilot was apparently struck by the enemy gunfire (from the hilltop gun position above him), for the airplane suddenly went into a glide toward the ground…It banked slightly to the right, and then landed straight ahead at a point one kilometer west of Murvaux…its engine stopped…The place where the airplane came to a stop was north of both the Dun-Murvaux road (now Route D102) and the small creek (Ruisseau de Milly, or Milly Creek), which paralleled the road to the north at about 200 meters distance.
“German soldiers immediately headed for the airplane…Since they believed the pilot of the airplane to be the same one who had attacked them so often in the past, and who had caused so much damage and destruction to them, they wished to capture him before he escaped. The Germans were very afraid of this man and had previously vowed to shoot him down if given the opportunity. When they reached the plane about 10 minutes after shooting it down, the pilot was gone.
“Although it had begun to get dark, the German soldiers noticed a trail of blood leading from the aircraft southward toward the creek. The wounded pilot had crawled on his hands and knees approximately 75 meters to the creek…undoubtedly to quench his thirst…(or possibly) to hide in the bushes (and trees) lining the creek. As the German soldiers came down the slope and approached the creek…the pilot raised himself from the ground where he had lain wounded, drew his gun, and fired it (three times, reportedly) at the German soldiers. He immediately fell to the ground, dead (at 7:04 PM, two minutes before official sunset.)
“We do not know whether the German soldiers actually called upon him to surrender, but we are definitely certain, beyond any doubt, that they did not fire their guns at the pilot. His last act was one of defiance, and he died as a result of his wound in the air, and not as a result of any wounds received on the ground.”
After the United States Army obtained sworn testimony from French and American sources, Frank Luke, Jr., was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. The presentation was made to his father, Frank Luke, Sr., in Phoenix, Arizona, in May 1919. The official citation reads: “After having previously destroyed a number of enemy aircraft within 17 days, he voluntarily started on a patrol after German observation balloons. Though pursued by eight German planes, which were protecting the enemy balloon line, he unhesitatingly attacked and shot down in flames three German balloons, being himself under heavy fire from ground batteries and the hostile planes.
“Severely wounded…and flying at this low altitude near the town of Murvaux… Forced to make a landing and surrounded on all sides by the enemy, who called upon him to surrender, he drew his automatic pistol and defended himself gallantly until he fell dead from a wound in the chest.”
Frank Luke, Jr., was the first American military pilot to earn the Medal of Honor, the first U.S. air ace in a single day, and the second highest-scoring, American ace of the entire war. Luke Air Force Base, west of Phoenix, Arizona, was named for him. Between September 12 and 29, 1918, Luke was credited with shooting down 14 German balloons and four airplanes, thus achieving 18 confirmed, aerial victories during just 10 sorties in eight days, an incredible feat, unsurpassed by any pilot in World War One.
His 1st Pursuit Group commander, Major Harold E. Hartney, stated that “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.”
The Germans buried him the next day in a shallow grave in Murvaux, where his body was retrieved, almost entirely intact, two months later by American forces, and reverently reinterred in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial at Romagne, about 10 miles to the southwest. French sworn, eyewitness affidavits tell the rest of the dramatic story:
“The German soldiers immediately searched the body, and found a notebook in which were notations…by the pilot, which indicated that he had shot down 24 enemy airplanes and observation balloons…A German soldier started to remove the watch from the pilot’s wrist, but a German officer told him to leave it on the body.
“Both the pilot’s features and the wound in his body were clearly seen by many of us in the village…The pilot had blue eyes and short-cropped, blond hair…there was only one (gaping) wound in the body. A large-caliber shell (20mm) had penetrated the chest near the right breast and came out under the left shoulder blade…over an inch in diameter where the projectile had entered the right breast and about two inches in diameter where it had come out of the back. His body was simply placed in the open grave, bare-headed and clothed in the same boots, trousers, and flying jacket as when the pilot died.”
An American Red Cross letter dated January 7, 1919, regarding an “Unidentified Aviator,” states that, “On his wrist (we) found an Elgin watch #20225566 (made in 1916)…The description of this aviator…and the fact that Lieut. Frank Luke dropped a note to a balloon company that day stating he was going to shoot down the balloons which were shot down making it almost certain that this officer was 2nd Lt. Frank Luke.”
In 1957, on the 39th anniversary of Luke’s death, the American 388th Fighter-Bomber Wing (flying F-100D/F Super Sabre fighters) from Étain-Rouvres Air Base, only 22 miles to the southeast, erected a bronze plaque on a monument just west of Murvaux to honor Luke’s heroism. It read, “In memory of Lt. Frank Luke, balloon-busting ace who critically wounded landed his SPAD (XIII fighter) 700 yards (incorrect; it was actually about 335 yards) north and was killed by German small-arms fire (also incorrect; it was a 20mm antiaircraft cannon), 29 September 1918.” That same monument was cleaned, sandblasted, and fully restored (with the help of 350 volunteers) by Saturday, November 18, 2000, after having fallen into disrepair, with a beautiful ceremony attended by over 100 people from various nations.
Frank Luke, Jr., was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant, and virtually all of his medals (including the Italian War Merit Cross) and awards were posthumous, so he never knew about any of them. He was certainly bold, brash, impetuous, outspoken, independent, perhaps even reckless, but also incredibly courageous.
In the very brief span of only 17 days in September 1918, the pilot rose from total obscurity to valiantly accomplish his squadron’s assigned, balloon-hunting mission with spectacular results, scoring an unprecedented 18 confirmed aerial kills in that very short time. According to his own notebook and French eyewitness, Luke also had at least nine more unconfirmed kills, deep behind enemy lines, ultimately at the cost of his own life. He was a genuine, American hero, and will be an inspiration to others for countless years to come.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served with three fighter squadrons in Europe (traveled to France) and the Middle East (two F-4E Phantom II squadrons in Germany, and one F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter squadron in Saudi Arabia), earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.