The army is no place for defiant people and those who do not want to follow orders, or so they say. Perhaps not until Frank Luke Jr. became a US aviator during World War I, entering with his arrogance and tendencies to disobey orders. Although when it comes to doing his job, he proved that he was more than capable and dedicated to the cause he was fighting for.

On His Way To Becoming “The Arizona Balloon Buster”

Born on May 19, 1897, in Phoenix, Arizona, Luke was the fifth child among the 9 siblings. He proved to be an active and strong young man— he loved hunting, was excellent at sports, worked in copper mines, and even participated in bare-knuckle boxing matches.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Frank was one of the many men who enlisted. In September that year, he chose to be part of the Aviation Section, US Signal Corps. After receiving his pilot training in Texas and California and being commissioned a second lieutenant in March the following year, he was sent to France to receive further training until July. He was then assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron.

An Honest Dislike For Excessive Discipline

As Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, fighter ace in World War I, described Luke,

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 fourteen enemy aircraft, including ten balloons, in eight days. No other Ace: Britain’s Bishop from Canada, France’s Fonck or even the dreaded Richthofen had ever come close to that.

And he was accurate. It all started when Luke witnessed a German plane shoot down an American observation balloon filled with morbid fascination. This, and the wrecked planes and dead pilots that he saw when he arrived at the Front, left an impression on him, vowing that the Germans would never get him that same way.

It wasn’t long before he landed when he engaged in his first aerial combat and landed his first bullet on August 18th. When he returned, he declared, “I’ve got a Fokker!” but no one seemed to be convinced, except for First Lieutenant Joseph Wehner, who would later become a good friend of his. From then on, his plan was to shoot down enemy balloons, regardless of how risky it would be.

And it was risky.  The balloons were used for observation of the front lines and to deny the airspace to enemy planes who would lose a wing if they caught the metal cables the balloons were attached to. You had to fly low to get a shot at these balloons which opened you up to murderous ground fire from anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and hundreds of rifles of troops on the ground.

Lieutenant Luke brought down three German observation balloons in thirty-five minutes., 1918
(National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He and Wehner continued to volunteer to attack these balloons. On September 14th, they were once again flying. On the morning patrol, he dove at a balloon near Boinville, ignoring repeated antiaircraft hits until the balloon finally went down on his sixth pass. In the afternoon, he was with Wehner when they struck another balloon. They were about to hit the third one, but his gun jammed, and they had to dive for safety. Not done yet, Luke asked for another plane so he could continue with his mission, but his commanding officer refused, saying, “I’m proud of you, Frank. You have just done the impossible!”

Defying Orders

Four days after, Luke and Wehner would fly their last flight together, as they were taking down balloons when six Fokkers bore down on him. The next thing he knew, he was witnessing Wehner’s plane descending in flames. Consumed by rage, he turned to Wehner’s attackers and shot down two of them in a matter of ten seconds. He then flew toward Verdun and spotted a German observation plane that he also opened fire on and took down. In a span of 10 minutes, he was able to shoot down two balloons and three planes.

US fighter pilot Frank Luke and his SPAD S.XII. (Dave Farquhar at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

His best friend’s death took a toll on him, and he was given a seven-day rest leave. On the night of September 27, he went to Toul airdrome after heading out without permission and taking down balloons. His commanding officer tagged him as AWOL. The next morning, he reprimanded Luke severely. As a response, he took off without permission and went once more to hunt for enemy balloons near Bétheniville. He was, of course, grounded by his commanding officer the next day. Perhaps it was his anger, or maybe it was because he felt invincible, but Luke once more took off and went after three enemy balloons near Dun-Sur-Meuse.

He then flew low over their headquarters and dropped a message: “Watch three Hun balloons over the Meuse. Luke.”

This was the last time they saw him, as he never returned from that mission.

What Happened To Luke?

It wasn’t until 1919 that authorities found his unmarked grave near Murvaux, France. According to the accounts of the residents, Luke’s SPAD was taken down by enemy Fokkers, and he was severely wounded in the shoulder. Despite that, he managed to take down two more balloons before he swooped down and killed six german troops in the street and wounded a like number. He then made a forced landing and crawled out to a nearby stream to clean his wounds or perhaps use it to escape. The German infantrymen closed in on him and demanded his surrender. Instead, Luke drew his .45 pistol and shot it out with the Germans until he took a bullet in the chest, killing him.

Frank Luke statue, Phoenix AZ. (Roger Noble Burnham (Life time: 1962), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Promoted after his death to 1Lt, Luke was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first Aviator to be so honored. It was presented to his father, Frank Luke, Sr., in May 1919.  He had also been awarded two Distinguised Service Crosses for valor.  1st Luke had only been oin combat three months. Luke’s exploits in the air became a model for fighter pilots in the infancy of the Army Air Corps and by extension the United States Air Force that grew from it after WWII. The Air Force has many heroes in its long history of combat in the sky, but Frank Luke may be unique among these many daring fliers by his combination of flying ability, aggressiveness, suicidal bravery and in the end a refusal to surrender to the enemy while he still possessed any means of resistance, even unto death.

His body is still buried in France, while back home in Arizona, Luke Air Force Base in Pheonix bears his name.