Frank Luke, Jr.: The World War I Defiant Arizona Balloon Buster

The military is no place for provocateurs and those unwilling to follow orders, or so they say. Perhaps not before Frank Luke Jr. became an American airman in World War I, entering with his arrogance and tendencies to disobey orders. Although when it comes to doing his job, he has proven himself to be more than capable and dedicated to the cause he fights for.

On the way to becoming “The Arizona Balloon Buster”

Born on May 19, 1897 in Phoenix, Arizona, Luke was the fifth child among 9 siblings. He turned out to be an active and strong young man – he was fond of hunting, was excellent in 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 many men who enlisted. In September of the same year, he chose to join the aviation section of the US Signal Corps. After receiving his pilot training in Texas and California and being commissioned as a second lieutenant in March of the following year, he was sent to France for further training until July. He was then assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron.

An honest aversion to excessive discipline

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

He was the most daring airman and the greatest fighter pilot of the whole 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: the British Bishop from Canada, the French Fonck or even the formidable Richthofen had ever come close.

And he was precise. It all started when Luke watched a German plane shoot down an American observation balloon filled with morbid fascination. This, along with the destroyed planes and dead pilots he saw on his arrival at the front, marked him, swearing that the Germans would never catch him the same way.

He was quick to land when he engaged in his first dogfight and landed his first shot on August 18. When he came back he said, “I have a Fokker! but no one seems convinced except First Lieutenant Joseph Wehner, who would later become a good friend of his. From then on, his plan was to shoot down enemy balloons, no matter how risky that would be.

And it was risky. The balloons were used for observation of the front lines and to deny airspace to enemy aircraft which would lose a wing if they caught the wire cables to which the balloons were attached. You had to fly low to shoot these balloons which exposed you to lethal ground fire from anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and hundreds of rifles from ground soldiers.

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 those balloons. On September 14, they were flying again. While on morning patrol, he dove on a ball near Boinville, ignoring repeated anti-aircraft hits until the ball finally dropped on his sixth pass. In the afternoon, he was with Wehner when they hit another ball. They were about to hit the third, but his gun jammed and they had to dive to safety. Not done yet, Luke requested another plane to continue his mission, but his commander refused, saying, “I’m proud of you, Frank.” You just did the impossible!”

defy orders

Four days later, Luke and Wehner were on their last flight together, as they took off from balloons when six Fokkers swooped down on him. The next thing he knew he was witnessing Wehner’s plane coming down in flames. Rage-ridden, he turned on Wehner’s attackers and took down two in ten seconds. He then flies towards Verdun and spots a German observation plane on which he also opens fire and dismantles it. In the space of 10 minutes, he was able to shoot down two balloons and three planes.

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

The death of his best friend took a toll on him and he was granted seven days rest leave. On the night of September 27, he went to Toul aerodrome after going out without authorization and having taken down balloons. His commanding officer tagged him as AWOL. The next morning, he scolded Luke sternly. In response, he took off without authorization and set off again to hunt enemy balloons near Bétheniville. He was of course punished by his commanding officer the next day. Maybe it was his anger, or maybe it was because he felt invincible, but Luke took off once more and chased after three enemy balloons near Dun-Sur-Meuse.

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

It was the last time they saw him, as he never returned from this mission.

What happened to Luke?

It was not until 1919 that authorities found his unmarked grave near Murvaux, France. According to local accounts, Luke SPAD was shot down by enemy Fokkers and he was seriously wounded in the shoulder. Despite this, he managed to shoot down two more balloons before melting down and killing six German soldiers in the street and wounding as many. He then made a crash landing and crawled 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 pulled out his .45 pistol and fired it with the Germans until he was shot in the chest, killing him.

Statue of Frank Luke, Phoenix AZ. (Roger Noble Burnham (Lifetime: 1962)public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Promoted after his death to the rank of 1Lt, Luke was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first airman to be so honoured. He was presented to his father, Frank Luke, Sr., in May 1919. He had also been awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses for bravery. The 1st Luke had only fought for three months. Luke’s exploits in the air became a model for boyhood fighter pilots in the Army Air Corps and, by extension, the United States Air Force that grew out of it after World War II. The Air Force has many heroes in its long history of fighting in the skies, but Frank Luke is perhaps unique among those many daring airmen in his combination of flying ability, aggressiveness, suicidal bravery, and ultimately refusal. to surrender to the enemy while he still possessed all the means of resistance, even unto death.

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

If you enjoyed this article, consider supporting our veteran editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to join SOFREP now for only $0.50/week.