The Arizona Balloon Buster
By Stephen Sherman, Aug. 2001. Updated April 16, 2012.
Winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's second ranking ace in World War One, Frank Luke epitomized the reckless, undisciplined, loner image of a fighter pilot. He went after the toughest targets, heavily defended German observation balloons.
In seventeen days in September, 1918, in just nine days of combat flying, ten missions, and only thirty hours of flight time, he shot down fourteen enemy balloons and four aircraft (seven planes according to some sources). A remarkable record.
One of nine children of German immigrants, Frank Luke, Jr. was born on May 19, 1897. He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, which only counted 1500 inhabitants in 1880. He was a lively, inquisitive youngster, collecting tarantulas with his sister Tilla and birds' eggs with his pal, Albert "Pidge" Pinney. He grew up to be strong and good-looking, the natural leader of a trio - himself, Pidge, and Bill Elder. The three boys went hunting in the hills, or, on occasion, liberated melons, chickens, and other commodities from local farmers. Guns were a way of life and Frank was a crack shot, at birds, small game, and (on one memorable occasion) the senior class pennant flying atop the high school flagpole. But he had a soft streak; once, when hunting in the Superstition Mountains with Bill Elder, he got a buzzard in his sights, but then put down his gun, "Aw, let him go. He isn't harming us."
He played rough-and-tumble football against the Indians at St. John's Mission. During high school summer vacations, he worked the Cornelia copper mine in Ajo. It was hard work, with hard men. When the miners heard that the blonde teenager actually gave dancing lessons, only Frank's pugilistic victories over characters like the Irishman Breen and "Battler" Haney from San Francisco saved his reputation as a tough guy.
World War One
The U.S. declared war on April 6, 1917. While business boomed at the copper mines (shell casings, etc.), Frank and Bill Elder spent that summer hunting in the mountains. But on Sept. 25, Frank Luke, Jr. enlisted in the Signal Corps' Aviation service and soon departed for flight training, first in Austin, Texas, then in San Diego. He passed the milestones of WW1 cadet training:
- First solo flight - Dec. 12, 1917
- Commissioned Second Lieutenant - Jan. 23, 1918
- Sailed from New York harbor - Mar. 4, 1918
- Arrived in France - by March 19, 1918
- U.S. Aviation Instruction center at Issoudun - April, 1918
Not long after arriving at Issoudun, he wrote a revealing letter to Bill Elder:
April 20, 1918.
Received, two days ago, your letter of March 5 and was very glad to hear from you. Pidge and Perry, from what I hear, failed to get in. It seems that at the time they reached Los Angeles the War Department sent orders not to enlist any more for the aviation branch. I would have liked to have seen Pinney get in. He sure would have had to study, no bluff.
I just passed a double-seater motorcycle. One of the fellows was carrying a pilot who had run into a tree and smashed his head. Gee, it was a tough sight! His eyes were bulged out and his head was one mass of blood. He died a short while after reaching the hospital. The trouble was a bad fog came up just after he left the ground. He tried to land before it reached him but was too late, lost his way, and hit the tree.
Oh, boy, it's great to be up flying, practicing stunts, and looking down on the earth spread out beneath you. But there are always the new graves, in some of them fellows you knew; there because of a faulty machine or bad judgment. Well, boy, it may be me next but don't tell anyone what I have told you. I would hate to have my mother hear of it, because I tell her it is the safest branch of the service.
My address is on the envelope.
Sandwiched right between descriptions of death and destruction, there are the words, "Oh, boy, it's great to be up flying, ..."
27th Aero Squadron
He joined the 27th Aero Squadron at Saints on July 25 along with eight other replacement pilots, among them Joe Wehner, a flier from Everett Massachusetts who had been suspected of being a spy because of his German background. The First World War chewed up fighter pilots quickly. These men were replacing losses that the 27th had incurred, and they soon suffered casualties themselves.
In the remaining days of July, the new fliers practiced formation flying with experiences pilots, flew their first combat patrols, and many of them (Frank included) encountered engine trouble and late returns to Saints. On July 30, Luke witnessed his first aerial combat casualty. The lull ended on August 1. Eighteen planes went up that morning, to protect two reconnaissance Salmsons. German Fokkers jumped them and cut them to ribbons. Six pilots of the 27th were lost that morning. Luke never got close to the German airplanes
The next two days of rain dampened spirits further. Then the squadron transitioned from their beloved Nieuport 28's to Spad XIII's. In time the Spads would prove to be good, fast, rugged fighters, but at first they suffered by comparison to the nimble little Nieuports. With a squadron full of new men and new equipment, they flew more test flights and mock dogfights in the first week of August. Starting on the 7th, they flew more combat patrols, 12 or more planes at a time.
First ClaimOn August 16, Luke claimed to have shot down a German plane. He couldn't identify the type or location, and many of his squadron mates promptly dismissed the claim as braggadocio. In his memoirs, Up & At 'Em, Luke's CO, Harold Hartney recorded his own (possibly retrospective) belief in the claim.
August 16Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
My machine was not ready, so left an hour after formation expecting to pick them up on the lines, but could not find formation. Saw Hun formation and followed, getting above, into the sun. The formation was strung out leaving one machine way in the rear. Being way above the formation, I cut my motor and dove down on the rear man, keeping the sun directly behind. Opened fire at about 100 feet, keeping both guns on him until within a few feet, then zoomed away. When I next saw him he was on his back, but looked as though he was going to come out of it, so I dove again, holding both guns on him. Instead of coming out of it he sideslipped off the opposite side, much like a falling leaf, and went down on his back.
My last dive carried me out of reach of another machine that had turned about. They gave chase for about five minutes, then turned back, for I was leading them. My last look at the plane shot down convinced me that he struck the ground, for he was still on his back about 1,500 meters below.
On coming home above our lines saw four E. A. Started to get into the sun and above, but they saw me and dove towards me. I peaked for home. Three turned back and the other came on. I kept out of range by peaking slightly and he followed nearly to Coincy, where he saw one of the Ninety-fifth boys and turned about. The Ninety-fifth man could have brought down this E. A. if he had realized quick enough that it was an E. A.
The machine was brought down northeast of Soissons in the vicinity of Jouy and Vailly. Do not know the exact location as, this being my first combat, did not notice closely, but know that it was some distance within German territory, for Archies followed me for about ten minutes on my way back. My motor was fixed at Coincy and filled with gas and oil. Also found out that our formation had been held up by the Salmson that it was to escort and had just started. Left the ground to find them. Flew at about 5,000 meters from Soissons past Fismes, but did not see the formation. Saw one Salmson but no E. A. Returned home.
New pilots who had already established a reputation for braggadocio, and who then claimed to have shot down unidentifed enemy planes at uncertain locations were not well-received. The barbed comment about the "Ninety-fifth man" didn't help. The rejection of his first claim by his fellow fliers and by Army officialdom rankled Luke. In his later combats, he went to some lengths to secure confirmations.
In the following days the 27th squadron didn't see much combat, putting up about one patrol a day or none at all. Luke flew several inconsequential patrols in the last week of August. On August 21, Hartney was promoted to command of the entire First Pursuit Group (comprised of the 27th, 94th, 95th, and 147th Aero Squadrons), and Capt. Alfred "Ack" Grant took over the squadron. Unlike Hartney, a Canadian who instinctively understood the undisciplined ways of fliers, Grant was a disciplinarian, who ordered the squadron to fall out in formation at reveille. Frank Luke remained an outcast and a loner, practicing his marksmanship, riding a motorcycle around the airfield, tuning up his Spad, and typing up blank confirmation statements for his future kills. In the first week of September, the squadron moved from its comfortable quarters at Saints to a closer, but less luxurious, airdrome at Rembercourt - near the Marne, 18 km. north of Bar-le-Duc.
The other fliers talked about kite balloons, the gasbags that the Huns used as observation platforms, how fighters always hovered nearby, how much Archie protected them, how hard they were to shoot down.
Luke was intrigued. He boasted that he would get one the next. At dawn he took up a Spad, in pursuit of his first balloon and his destiny. He spotted three German biplanes first; these disappeared. But as Luke headed back for his base, he spotted a kite balloon and went after it. Its ground crew hastily reeled it in, but not before Luke's persistent machine gun bursts flamed. The young Arizonan had busted his first balloon.
Combat Reports, September 1918
September 12Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
Saw three E. A. near Lavigneville and gave chase, following them directly east towards Pont- a-Mousson where they disappeared towards Metz. Saw enemy balloon at Marieulles. Destroyed it after three passes at it. Each within a few yards of the balloon. The third pass was made when the balloon was very near the ground.
Both guns stopped, so pulled off to one side. Fixed left gun and turned about to make one final effort to burn it. The next instant it burst into great flames and dropped on the winch, destroying it.
There was a good field near our balloons, so landed for confirmation. The observer, Joseph M. Fox, who saw the burning, said he thought several were killed when it burst into flames so near the ground. Left field and started back when my motor began cutting out. Returned to same field and there found out my motor could not be fixed, so returned by motor cycle. Attached you will find confirmation from Lieutenant Fox and Lieutenant Smith. Both saw burning.
In other words, after shooting down the balloon, he landed at the nearest open patch of earth he could find on the Allied side and asked Lieutenants Fox and Smith to confirm in writing his destruction of the German gasbag! He spent the night of the 12th with the American balloon company that had witnessed his success.
Patrols on the 13th yielded no results.
The 14th was another successful day for the enigmatical young Arizonan.
September 14 [Morning Patrol]Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
Left formation at Abaucourt and attacked an enemy balloon near Boinville. Dove at it six times at close range. Had two stoppages with left gun which carried incendiary bullets and, after fixing both, continued the attack. After about seventy-five rounds being left in right gun, I attacked an Archie battery at the base of the balloon. Am sure that my fire took effect as the crews scattered.
After my first attack on the balloon the observer jumped after he shot at me. The last I saw of the balloon, it was on the ground in a very flabby condition. Confirmation requested.
Compare Luke's report to Lt. Dawson's:
I [Dawson] left the formation over Moranville and attacked an enemy balloon near Boinville, diving at it three times and emptying both guns. Tracers entered it in great numbers. The observer jumped and the balloon was hauled down in a very flabby condition. White flaming balls were fired at me. Lt. Luke was below the balloon firing at the Archie battery. I left after the balloon had struck the ground it was not sent up again, at the time I left, twenty minutes later. From what I could observe it was very badly shot up.
And Lt. Lennon's version:
Followed Lt. Luke and Dawson. Saw them attack enemy ballon in vicinity of Boinville. Observed that the observer jumped and enemy archie began to burst. The balloon flattened out and went to the ground. I dove on it and fired 50 round from each gun. The last I saw of balloon it was on the ground in a very flabby condition.
That afternoon the 27th was ordered to attack another Hun balloon over Buzy. When Hartney briefed his officers (Capt. Grant, Lt. Lawson, Lt. Clapp, and Lt. Lennon) on the plan, Clapp voiced their suggestion that the unwelcome Luke be given the hazardous assignment. If he succeeded, he could stay with the squadron; if he failed, he would ship out. And if he died in the attempt, they wouldn't lose much sleep over his demise. Hartney agreed to the plan; Luke would dart out of the formation to be the "shooter;" only Wehner would cover him.
September 14 [Afternoon Patrol]Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
I and Lieutenant Wehner were to leave with formation to attack enemy balloon by order of C. O. On arriving at Buzy, left formation and brought down enemy balloon in flames. While fixing my guns so I could attack another balloon near by, eight enemy Fokkers dropped down on me. Pulled away from them. They scored several good shots on my plane.
I saw Lieutenant Wehner dive through enemy formation and attack two enemy planes on my tail; but, as my guns were jammed, did not turn, as I was not sure it was an Allied plane until he joined me later. You will find attached confirmation of balloon.
With two confirmed balloons to his account, the other pilots no longer saw Luke as an artificer. Mad and arrogant perhaps, but no liar. According to Hartney, Luke tried to go up on an unauthorized third patrol at dusk - in another pilot's plane, and nearly provoked a conflict with Captain Grant. Hartney persuaded him to fill out his combat reports and accept Grant's orders. Joe Wehner did fly that evening; and while a French flier beat him to the balloon, he shot down two Fokker D-VII's (although not confirmed).
By the evening of the 14th, the legend of Frank Luke, the "Arizona Balloon Buster," had begun to take shape. He was no longer a fluke. Perhaps he was boastful and unpopular, but he and Wehner had showed "the right stuff." They had destroyed three balloons and fought off defending German fighters. To Mitchell, Hartney, and other American commanders, the 27th seemed to be the unit to tackle the stoutly defended "sausages." With Luke and Wehner on the sharp end.
The next morning, the pattern continued. As specifically noted in Frank's combat report, he was ordered to leave formation and attack the gasbags at Boinville and Bois d'Hingry.
September 15 [Morning Patrol]Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
I left formation and attacked an enemy balloon at Boinville in accordance with instructions and destroyed it. I fired 125 rounds. I then attacked another balloon near Bois d'Hingry and fired fifty rounds into it. Two confirmations requested.
Wehner kept pace with his deadly friend, burning two balloons and shooting down two Fokkers that tried to get on Luke's tail. Quite a morning for the two outcasts!
Luke had noticed that the balloons were most heavily defended during the daytime. In the evening, when darkness limited the Allied fighters, the drachen were unprotected. He proposed to go hunting at dusk, relying on a lit-up airfield to land safely. His evening patrol report follows:
September 15 [Evening Patrol]Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
Patrolled to observe enemy activity. Left a little after formation, expecting to find it on the lines. On arriving there I could not find formation but saw artillery firing on both sides. Also saw a light at about 500 meters. At first I thought it was an observation machine but on nearing it I found that it was a Hun balloon, so I attacked and destroyed it. I was Archied with white fire, and machine guns were very active. Returned very low. Saw thousands of small lights in woods north of Verdun. On account of darkness coming on I lost my way and landed in a French wheat field at Agers about twenty-one hours thirty. Balloon went down in flames at nineteen hours fifty.
Records from German Balloon Company Eighteen of Balloon Battalion Thirty- three confirmed these victories.
Wehner was the first to take Luke's hand when he returned the next day. A spy congratulating a liar! Wehner, who had shot down two balloons and three combat planes in three days. Luke, who had cleared the skies of six enemy balloons in the same period. Most likely the other pilots of the 27th swallowed a bit of their resentment. What else could they have done in the face of Frank and Joe's achievements? Messages from other units came in, congratulating them.
On the morning of September 16 Luke and Wehner again patrolled the front, but, the German balloon line had become wary. Twice they sighted German balloons, and twice the bags were hastily lowered before they could approach within range.
That afternoon another evening balloon-busting was planned. Hartney conferred with Col. Billy Mitchell, invited him to watch the show: Luke planned to swoop down on two balloons north of Verdun about 1900 hours. In the late afternoon, Col. Mitchell, Col. Sherman, Col. Milling, and Inspector General Donaldson arrived (in a Mercedes automobile!) to watch the "Luke and Wehner show." As some American artillery opened up, the German balloons rose up a bit to get a better view of the gunflashes. The brass were skeptical of the fliers' ability to hit the balloons at the precise time they had advertised hours earlier
But right on the dot, flame shot into the sky over Spincourt. They had scored! Soon, the second one went up in fiery destruction. Two! And then, as darkness fell, the two pilots flew back toward the American aerodrome, lit up briefly and cleverly so only they (and not any German raiders) could find it. Despite an abundance of Allied Archie, they landed safely.
(Hartney's memoirs indicated that Mitchell and the others watched this performance on the evening of the 15th, but the combat reports and other sources suggest the 16th.)
September 16 [Luke]Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
Patrol to strafe balloons. Everything very carefully arranged. Lt Wehner and I left airdrome passing over Verdun. We attacked balloon in vicinity of Reville at 19 h 03. Both Lt. Wehner and I shot a burst into it. It burst into flames and fell on observer who had jumped a few seconds before. We started for another balloon in vicinity of Romagne. I attacked and destroyed it. It burst into flames on the ground, burning winch. The anti-aircraft guns were very active scoring several good hits on my plane. The last I saw of Lt. Wehner he was going in a south-easterly direction after the first balloon went down. I shot at supply trains on my way back. Two confirmations requested.
September 16 [Wehner]Lieutenant J. F. Wehner reports:
Patrol to strafe balloons. Flew north-east passing over Verdun and attacked balloon in vicinity of Reville with Lt. Luke at 19 h 05. We each fired one burst when I observed that it instantly caught fire. The observer jumped but was burned to death by the flaming balloon before reaching the ground. I headed towards the Meuse river trying to pick up another balloon; could not locate one so headed towards Verdun. On the way back saw a fire in the vicinity of Romagne which evidently was Lt. Luke's second balloon. While waiting for Lt. Luke near Verdun saw red flare over Mangiennes. Thinking it our prearranged signal from Lt. Luke, I headed in that direction. Saw balloon just above the tree tops near Mangiennes and brought it down in flames with one burst at 19 h 35. Anti-aircraft very active. Two confirmations requested.
The pair of aces had destroyed three balloons that evening: jointly at Reville, Luke over Romagne, and Wehner got one over Mangiennes. In WWI, the Americans didn't split shared victories, thus both pilots had two victories added to their confirmed total.
September 17 - no reported combat
September 18 - the best and worst day of Frank Luke's September rampage. He brought down five enemy aircraft (2 balloons and 3 planes), but lost Joe Wehner, his flying partner, protector, and only close friend at the Front. They went out balloon hunting, destroyed two over Labeuville, and were jumped by several German fighters. One of the Fokkers shot down Wehner and the infuriated Luke recklessly tore into their formation, amazingly destroying three in immediate retaliation.
The flat, unemotional words of his Combat Report did not betray his sorrow. It read:
September 18Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
Lieutenant Wehner and I left the airdrome at 16 h 00 to spot enemy balloons. Over St. Mihiel we saw two German balloons near Labeuville. Maneuvered in the clouds and dropped down, burning both. We were then attacked by a number of E. A., the main formation attacking Lieutenant Wehner, who was above and on one side. I started climbing to join the fight when two E. A. attacked me from the rear. I turned on them, opening both guns on the leader. We came head on until within a few yards of each other when my opponent turned to one side in a nose dive and I saw him crash to the ground.
I then turned on the second, shot a short burst, and he turned and went into a dive. I saw a number of E. A. above but could not find Lieutenant Wehner, so turned and made for our lines. The above fight occurred in the vicinity of St. Hilaire. On reaching our balloon line, flew east. Saw Archie on our side, flew toward it, and found an enemy observation machine. I gave chase with some other Spads and got him off from his lines. After a short encounter he crashed within our lines, southeast of Verdun. Lieutenant Wehner is entitled to share in the victories over both the balloons. Confirmations requested, two balloons and three planes.
The confirmations came in, all of them. Frank Luke was now the leading American ace. Rickenbacker was five victories behind him. Luke had a total of fourteen victories: four planes and ten balloons. Thirteen of his conquests were won in a single week, during which there were two days - September 13 and September 17 - on which he did not fly. On the eighteenth alone he had bested five of his enemies.
Late that night, General Pershing received a military telegraph: Second Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr., Twenty-seventh Aero Squadron, First Pursuit Group, five confirmed victories, two combat planes, two observation balloons, and one observation plane in less than ten minutes.
By all accounts, Frank Luke was disconsolate; Joe Wehner, his only friend, his protector who had saved his life more than once, was dead. But he was the "Ace of Aces," America's best at that moment. The pilots of the 27th threw a dinner in his honor. Perhaps all the acclaim didn't seem like much, coming at the cost of Wehner's death. Major Hartney decided that Luke needed a rest and on the 19th sent him to Paris for R&R. It didn't help much.
A terse reticence crept into the letter Frank wrote his mother on September 25 - his last letter home. It follows:
September 25, 1918.
I have not written for some days now on account of being so busy, as no doubt you have already heard. This is only a line to let you know that I am O. K. Now, mother, remember that I have passed the dangerous stage of being a new hand at the game, so don't worry, for I now know how to take care of myself.
Love to all,
No word of Joe Wehner. No attempt to tell with honest, deserved pride of his victories. No pouring himself out on paper. He could not find expression even for his mother, and when a man becomes that self-contained there is a bad fall and a reckoning at the end of the road.
After six days in Paris, the restless Arizonan returned. "There wasn't anything to do." Its cafes, its women, all of its excitement held no attraction for him. He had devised a new technique to attack balloons while lounging at the Hotel Chatham.
While Luke was in Paris, the 27th squadron's activity diminished - a few days with no patrols, other days with just one unremarkable patrol. One important development - 1st Lt. Jerry Vasconcells moved B flight to an advanced airdrome just south of Verdun, an alert field enabling pilots to touch down or refuel or take-off much closer to the lines. Like Luke, Vasconcells may have chafed until the martial rigidity of Capt. Grant and welcomed the opportunity to get out from under.
Frank continued to regard himself as a balloon buster, and awaited the assignment of a flying mate to continue the twilight assaults he and Wehner had inaugurated. Lieutenant Ivan A. Roberts of South Lee, Massachusetts, was detailed to fly with him, and on September 26 they made their first dual flight. Frank claimed a victory over an enemy combat plane, a conquest he describes tersely in the ensuing report:
September 26Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
On patrol to strafe balloons in vicinity Consenvoye and Sivry I attacked with two others [a third plane had joined them after they left the airdrome] a formation of five Fokkers. After firing several short bursts, observed the Hun go down out of control. While at 100 meters I was attacked by two E. A. so I did not see the first E. A. crash.
I turned on the other two who were on my tail, getting on the tail of one, but guns jammed several times and after fixing both could only shoot short bursts on account of the several stoppages. One confirmation requested. The last I saw of Lieutenant Roberts, who was on this patrol with me, was in combat with several Fokkers in the vicinity of Consenvoye and Sivry.
On his first return to combat, Luke had lost another flying partner. Roberts was seen to crash in German territory, but thereafter no authentic chronicle of his movements is available. Late in 1920 Captain Grant received a letter which purported to tell of Roberts capture, imprisonment, escape and death. The writer, one "Jack LaGrange, M.D." was unknown to the American Legion and the letter was regarded as unreliable.
Now Luke had lost his second flying partner. The known facts and the sources suggest that he went into a funk, a suicidal urge to go up by himself, and shoot down enemy balloons until he was killed. Of course, that is just what happened.
Hartney wrote "[Luke] came to me and pleaded to be allowed to operate independently from [Vasconcell's] field. His CO, Capt. Grant, was frantic at his inability to control Luke's activities. Almost every pilot in the Group had had a crack at the balloon over Bethenville. But it was still up. While Grant and I were discussing the advisability of letting Luke operate as a lone wolf out of the Verdun field, Frank went out all by himself ... on Sept. 28 and burned up the Bethenville balloon in its nest." A telling statement.
Hartney and Grant were in a quandry. Luke, evidently the only man in the group crazy enough and skillful enough to destroy important enemy targets was acting without orders and according to his own plans. Again the sources are confusd, but apparently Luke filed his brief Combat Report with Grant late in the day on the 28th, and then took off in a Spad to spend the night with a French unit. To be precise, he was AWOL - and had taken government property! On the morning of the 29th, Grant demanded that Luke be arrested and brought under control.
September 28Lieutenant Frank Luke reports:
I flew north to Verdun, crossed the lines at about five hundred meters and found a balloon in its nest in the region of Bethenville. I dove on it firing both guns. After I pulled away it burst into flames. As I could not find any others I returned to the airdrome. One confirmation requested.
Luke landed at the advanced field near Verdun on the 29th. Late that afternoon, with Hartney and Vasconcells, he took off, alone and unauthorized. He flew over an American balloon company near Souilly and dropped a note reading, "Watch three Hun balloons on the Meuse. Luke."
The EndMore than any other, Luke's final flight is shrouded in confusion and disagreement. It is reasonably certain that he attacked the three balloons over the Meuse and was engaged by the Fokkers covering it. He burned the three drachen; American Balloon Headquarters confirmed those victories. According to the residents of Murvaux, he also shot down two of the German fighters. (These victories are not included in his confirmed total of 18.) He crash-landed near Murvaux and was killed in a gun battle with German soldiers.
For three months, nothing was known of Luke, except that he had disappeared. Not until January 3, 1919, when the following letter was written, did the American military authorities have definite word of his death:
FROM: Graves Registration Officer, Neufchateau Area No. 1.
To: Chief of Air Service, A. P. O. [American Post Office] 717.
SUBJECT: Grave, unknown American aviator.
1. Units of this service have located the grave of an unknown aviator killed on Sunday, September 29, 1918, in the village of Murvaux.
2. From the inspection of the grave and interview held with the inhabitants of this town, the following information was learned in regard to this aviator and his heroism. He is reported as having light hair, young, of medium height, and of heavy stature.
3. Reported by the inhabitants that previous to being killed this man had brought down three German balloons, two German planes, and dropped hand bombs, killing eleven German, soldiers and wounding a number of others.
4. He was wounded himself in the shoulder and evidently had to make a forced landing. Upon landing he opened fire with his automatic and fought until he was killed.
5. It is also reported that the Germans took his shoes, leggings, and money, leaving his grave unmarked.
CHESTER E. STATEN,
Captain of Infantry,
G. R. S. Officer.
Although everyone at air headquarters believed this had to be Luke, General Pershing ordered a General Headquarters staff officer to investigate. The Distinguished Service Cross, issued on Captain Grant's recommendation, already awaited Luke.
The staff officer's report reads:
Report of Unidentified Aviator1. This officer was killed at Murvaux (five kilometers east of Dun-sur-Meuse on Sunday, September 29, 1918. The Germans stripped him of all identifications, but Captain McCormick of the 301st Graves Registration Unit, stationed at Fontaine near Murvaux, ... stated concerning the death of this aviator, that he exhumed the body, that it was a man of medium height, heavy set, and with light hair. On his wrist he found an Elgin watch No. 20225566, which was under the sleeve of his combination and which the Germans ... had evidently missed. . . .
2. The village people of Murvaux told Capt. McCormick that this aviator first shot down three German balloons and two German planes, then descended low over the ground and killed eleven Germans with either hand bombs or machine gun bullets. While flying low his plane was hit from the ground and he himself was apparently wounded.
3. He made a successful landing, got out of his plane, and when the Germans called on him to surrender, he replied by drawing his automatic and opening fire, thus standing he defended himself until he was killed.
4. The description of this aviator by Captain McCormick, and the fact that Lieutenant Luke dropped a note to a balloon company that day stating that he was going to shoot down the balloons which were shot down, make it almost certain that this officer was Second Lieutenant Frank Luke, Air Service, whose nearest relative is Frank Luke, 2200 West Monroe Street, Phoenix, Arizona.
5. If the Air Service wishes to check this case it is suggested that a representative of the Air service be sent to Murvaux and obtain sworn statements from the French people of that village.
Officers of the Rembercourt Field drove to Murvaux, and obtained the following sworn statement from some of the citizens of that village:
Affidavit by residents of Murvaux"The undersigned, living in the town of Murvaux, Department of the Meuse, certify to have seen on the twenty- ninth day of September, 1918, toward evening, an American aviator, followed by an escadrille of Germans, in the direction of Liny, near Dun (Mouse), descend suddenly and vertically toward the earth, then straighten out close to the ground and fly in the direction of the Briere Farm, near Doulcon, where he found a captive balloon, which he burned. Following this he flew toward Milly (Mouse), where he found another balloon, which he also burned, in spite of an incessant fire directed against his machine. There he was apparently wounded by a shot fired from rapid-fire cannon. From there he came back over Murvaux, and with his machine gun killed six German soldiers and wounded many more.
Following this he landed and got out of his machine, undoubtedly to quench his thirst at a near-by stream. He had gone some fifty yards, when, seeing the Germans come toward him, he still had strength to draw his revolver to defend himself, and a moment after fell dead, following a serious wound received in the chest. Certify equally to having seen the German commandant of the village refuse to have straw placed in the cart carrying the dead aviator to the village cemetery. This same officer drove away some women bringing a sheet to serve as a shroud for the hero, and said, kicking the body:
"Get that out of my way as quickly as possible." The next day the Germans took away the airplane, and the inhabitants also saw another American aviator fly very low over the town, apparently looking for the disappeared aviator.
Signatures of the following:Perton Leon HenryThe undersigned themselves placed the body of the aviator on the wagon and conducted it to the cemetery: Cortlae Delbart, Voliner Nicholas
Rene Colin Cortlae Delbart
Auguste Cuny Gabriel Didier
Henry Gustave Camille Phillipe
Eugene Coline Voliner Nicholas
Odile Patouche Vallentine Garre
Richard Victor Gustave Garre
Seen for legalization of signatures placed above:
The Mayor, AUGUST GARRE,
Murvaux, Jan. 15,1919.
[Seal of Murvaux]
The German version of Luke's death closely follows the French. Lieutenant B. Mangels, who after the war resided in Muenster, commanded the balloon company controlling the last two balloons Luke vanquished, and directed the machine-gun fire that gave Frank his death wound. For some time there was a controversy between Lieutenant Mangels and Lieutenant G. Roesch, who commanded an antiaircraft battery near the balloon; but Roesch has admitted that it was Mangels' machine gunners who brought the Balloon Buster down.
On September 29, one of Lieutenant Mangels' balloons was aloft northwest of Murvaux on the western slope of the Cote St. Germain. This was balloon Number Thirty-five of the Fifth German Army. A short distance away, over Briere Farm, hung balloon Number Sixty-four, the second bag Luke shot down on his last flight. As Frank's plane dived for the third sausage, Mangels, who was on ground duty, personally directed a concentrated machine-gun fire against the Arizonian's plane and is certain he registered on the pilot's body. Learning a few minutes later that Luke had crashed beyond Murvaux, Mangels hurried to the scene, but found Luke dead when he arrived. Mangels, the first officer to arrive, was able to identify the body as Luke's through an English citation for shooting down nine balloons.
He received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and Luke Air Force Base was named in his honor. And the name "Frank Luke, the Arizona Balloon Buster" remains one of the most revered in the pantheon of American aviation heroes.
For most aces, their stories and the sources are fairly straightforward. But some pilot's stories, like Frank Luke and Pappy Boyington, are filled with controversy, disagreement, and uncertainty.. "What really happened" depends on whose version you're reading. Over eighty years after the events, many parts of Luke's story will remain unknown. Different versions will perist.
- The Aerodrome
- Up & At 'Em, by Harold E. Hartney, 1940 - memoirs of Frank Luke's CO. Written 20 years after the fact, this book is an important source, but the author may have shaded the facts to protect his own reputation and Frank Luke's - who was a celebrated hero when Hartney wrote the book.
- The Balloon Buster, by Norman S. Hall, Liberty Weekly, 1928 - breathless and hagiographic. It includes much that is obviously inferred (e.g. how Luke felt when he was hit by the bullet that brought him down). It also includes some interesting details not found elsewhere (e.g. the report of Jasta 15 pilot (CO?) Ziegesar on Sept. 26, who reportedly was hit by Luke, but recovered and pulled out of a dive.)
- Heroes of the Sunlit Sky, by Arch Whitehouse, Doubleday, 1967