Even at the young age of 21, Frank Luke was destined to be one of the greatest aviators of all time. Rickenbacker, the Ace of Aces for the United States, would say that 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…No other ace, even the dreaded Richthofen, had ever come close…”
Frank Luke’s Childhood
But before he would become a legendary aviator, Frank Luke’s life had humble beginnings. He was born on May 19, 1897 to German immigrants in Phoenix in what would become the state of Arizona. Luke was known as a loud and rambunctious child who liked to experiment. Luke was well-liked in school and participated in a number of school athletics.
Frank Luke: WWI Pilot
After school and US entry into WWI, Frank Luke became enamored with the idea of joining the air service and he enlisted in the Signal Corps at the age of 20. Like most American pilots he received flight training in the US on planes like the Curtiss JN-4 before being shipped out. He received his early pilot training at Rockwell Field in San Diego.
Starting in April 1918, Luke would receive more extensive pilot and combat training at Issoudun, the massive air base that the United States had established as a base in France during WWI. There pilots learned the mechanics of flying the hand-me-down French planes used by the US Air Service and the complexities of aerial combat, like machine gunnery.
In July 1918, Frank Luke was assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group 27th Aero Squadron. The unit was commanded by H.E. Hartney.
Frank Luke: Balloon Ace and Daredevil
Frank quickly overcame the challenges of being a new pilot. By early September 1918, he already had a number of aerial victories under his belt. The biggest of which being that he had gotten the covetous award of balloon ace – which meant that had he taken out at least five German observation balloons. A difficult task for any pilot and particularly one who had only been at the front for a couple of months.
Luke was known as a reckless and fearless pilot who preferred to fly solo missions rather than the relative safety of formations. He liked to pursue German planes in broad daylight, regardless of numbers, and was known to go over the German front lines in pursuit – behavior that was frowned upon given the risk of plane and pilot becoming prisoners of war.
On at least one occasion, Luke was caught in this behavior and reprimanded with a three-day grounding. His CO would recall Luke as being a fantastic pilot, but a poor soldier. Unfortunately, Luke’s willingness to press boundaries would catch up to him.
Frank Luke’s Death
On September 19, 1918, Luke was in the midst of a winning streak. He’d racked up numerous victories against the Germans and at a rate that no other aviator could outpace. He was already the Ace of Aces for the US forces, and on the fast track to becoming the greatest aviator in American history.
But on that September day, Luke had his plane prepped and set out alone. After an initial successful flight that involved one aerial victory, Luke returned to base for supplies before preparing to go out again. This time, Luke set out on a mission.
As he climbed over the American front lines, Luke dropped a note to the men below. “Watch for burning German balloons” was scrawled across the paper message.
German balloons were one of the most difficult targets of the war. Serving as elevated observation stations, balloons were often attached to trucks and surrounded by artillery. German air units were often close at hand, to be called up whenever enemy combatants came near. And despite being filled with flammable gas, the balloons’ outer shells were notoriously difficult to penetrate.
Taking down a balloon usually required multiple runs, all while dodging artillery fire and keeping an eye out for enemy planes. This many moving parts practically required a formation to be successful.
But Frank Luke had set out on his own, determined to complete the task alone.
His first run was successful, and it wasn’t long before a burning balloon could be seen in the distance over the Viller-devant-Dun.
And then another burned over Sassey.
And another over the Cote St Germain.
But German planes had been called to deliver a counter attack and Frank Luke was alone with a damaged plane in the air.
In an era when US pilots were not given parachutes, Frank Luke would have little choice but to attempt to land the plane. Undeterred, he continued to try and fight off the advancing units. He fired at German planes as well as German soldiers on the ground.
Injured and flying with a damaged plane, Luke brought his plane down near the small town of Murvaux, France. According to French onlookers, while waiting for the German’s to advance on his position, Luke crawled toward the stream just outside the small village. Some witnesses would say that he was there to take a drink of water, while others believed he was attempting to hide in the bushes scattered there.
French witnesses described the Germans arriving ten minutes later. When they followed the trail of blood to the stream, they found Luke lying next to it. Luke raised himself up from the ground and fired his pistol at the Germans in one last act of defiance. Witnesses stated that the Germans did not return fire, though other accounts of the incident state that they asked him to surrender and an exchange of fire may have ensued. Luke collapsed moments later as a result of the large wound to his chest that witnesses believed he’d received in the air.
Upon confirming his death, the Germans stripped Luke of his valuables and identification, with the exception of an Elgin watch that would later be used to identify his body. The next morning, the Germans ordered one of the Frenchmen in the village to cart Luke’s body to a burial sport with the help of several German soldiers. Frank Luke was buried in a shallow grave that had once belonged to a German officer with little ceremony. He was only 21 years old.
News of Luke’s death rattled other members of the air service, who despite his reckless and lone wolf demeanor had been a favorite among the men. Even his commander, Major H.E. Hartney, who had struggled constantly with Luke’s willful nature remembered him fondly: “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.”
Medal of Honor
Frank Luke was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and his award summarized his bravery: “The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Frank Luke, Jr., Second Lieutenant (Air Service), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Etain, France, September 18, 1918. Immediately after destroying two enemy observation balloons, Lieutenant Luke was attacked by a large formation of German planes, Fokker type. 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.”
Luke’s tallies in the air vary, as a notebook he kept on his person reportedly recorded 24 aerial victories while his official count is 18, including 14 balloons and 4 aircraft. The discrepancy could be accounted for by the way aerial victories were counted in WWI, which required ground personnel to sign off as witnesses to any count. Given Luke’s tendency to fly over enemy lines, its possible he scored several victories which would remain unwitnessed by Allied soldiers. In the end, only Eddie Rickenbacker would surpass him.