The First World War introduced the 20th century to new and terrifying methods of combat. The cavalry, once romanticized for military might and heroism, were forced off the battlefield on the western and eastern fronts. While many British, French, and German pilots were former cavalrymen, America’s were thrill seekers. America’s Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker was a race car driver. But arguably the greatest American pilot was a copper miner and bare-knuckle boxer from Phoenix, Arizona: Frank Luke. Frank Luke’s talent for shooting down Germany’s Dragon balloons made him a true dragon slayer.
Born in 1897, Frank Luke was the 5th of 8 children in his family. He excelled at sports, worked the copper mines, and became a local boxer. After the United States entered the war, Luke joined the Army Air Service. It fit him. Frank was rebellious and self-confident, which is code for a little arrogant. In school, he could back up that arrogance with the stats. He finished flight school two weeks early, the first pilot to fly solo, a special feat considering how the first airplanes were taking off less than two decades before. In combat school, he was first in his class as a pilot and second in gunnery. All in all, he was the best in not one but both flight schools.
A Rough Start
In 1918, he was sent to Chateau Thierry as a replacement pilot for the 27th Aero Squadron in the 1st Pursuit Group. In his first days, Frank made the worst mistake the new guy can make: he bragged about what he was ‘going to do’. When it comes to combat, the worst thing the new kid can do is talk up how great he is going to be. It does not look good to the men who had been tested for their iron, especially when Frank was there because one of the brothers had already died. Just before his first mission,
Frank made matters worse for himself by claiming engine trouble. He fell out of formation before even leaving the hangar. Upon the squadron’s return, Frank was given the nickname of the “Arizona Boaster.” Every pilot today knows that their handle or nickname is who they are in the squadron, it is their identity. Frank’s was a humiliating joke. Nobody knows if his engine trouble was a legitimate complaint or if he simply got cold feet, but his squadron mates all agree it was probably cold feet.
This stab at his honor did not sit well with Frank Luke. He wrote home to his sister that “I will make myself known or go where most of them do.” He did not talk big because he wanted to be a big talker, he just needed his actions to catch up with his dreams of glory. When he finally got into the air, he became well known for breaking away from formations, a practice disapproved of by the squadron commander, though overlooked because the same commander had a soft spot for the rogue pilot. On August 16, Frank Luke returned from a mission separate from the formation, but claiming his first aerial victory. Almost with a sneer, this boast was not counted because there were no witnesses.
During WWI, pilots did not just contend with each other in the air. Both sides relied on observation balloons to collect reconnaissance and direct artillery fire. German balloons were known as Drachen, or Dragons. They were heavily guarded by anti-aircraft guns that fired burning phosphorus rounds. Considering that planes were made from wood and cloth, those phosphorus rounds were effective killers. The balloons themselves were also equipped with machine guns, just in case the AA guns did not do the job. Even worse, the pilots on approach would have to contend with enemy planes as well. The Drachens’ castles were well guarded.
In aerial combat kills, balloons were credited equally to planes. But successful balloon hunters were legends among pilots because the approach to make the kill was a long trip through hellfire. Drachen balloons were filled with hydrogen, but destroying the balloons was not as simple as popping a birthday balloon with a needle. They took several approaches before they were defeated, with the aviator dealing with the defensive onslaught throughout the attack.
The tactic devised for destroying the Drachen involved two aircraft, one flying high to fend off aerial attacks and distracting the AA guns, the second flying low to the ground, dealing with small arms fire from the trenches. Frank’s wingman was one of the only pilots in the squadron who still respected him, Joseph Wehner.
Frank Luke, Dragon Slayer
On September 12, 1918, Frank Luke was flying one his first missions against the German Drachen. Flying solo as usual. After separating from the squadron in search of glory, he found his first balloon and shot it down. This time around, he did not fly back and declare another kill. He took it upon himself to fly back to the Allied line and land near an American balloon to take witness statements before returning to his command victoriously. September 12th would mark the beginning of Frank Luke’s wild and heroic career as the Arizona Balloon Buster, or a name I much prefer: Frank Luke, Dragon Slayer.
Between the 12th and the 18th, Frank Luke found a tempo for himself, going out over No Man’s Land, sometimes solo, sometimes with Joseph Wehner. Frank Luke shot down two balloons on the 14th, then three more on the 15th. Wehner himself was another exceptional pilot, aggressive enough to keep up with Frank Luke’s style. Wehner brought down one Fokker plane and assisted in bringing down the balloons. When they landed at the end of their mission, Frank Luke and Joseph Wehner were both aces. To put Luke and Wehner’s flying into perspective, America’s ace of aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, who had a friendly relationship with Frank Luke, became an ace in just shy of one month.
The Combat Exhibition
Frank Luke and Joseph Wehner became so famous in just three days that Billy Mitchell, the commander of the Army Air Service’s combat forces, visited so that the two pilots could put on an exhibition of their aerial combat skills on the 16th. Colonel Mitchell watched the two pilots speed past German AA guns and shoot down two more balloons in just four minutes.
On September 18th, while Wehner provided high altitude cover, Luke shot down two more balloons and three German Fokker planes. While he engaged one balloon, a German ace, Georg von Hantelmann shot down Joseph Wehner. Wehner was recovered by German soldiers but died from his wounds in a German hospital.
The day Frank Luke lost his best friend, his count grew. He passed Rickenbacker with the highest count and was dubbed the Ace of Aces. Frank used the title to become totally independent. He would fly off on his own missions, and return with a plane so torn to pieces it would be considered unusable, so he would simply take another. On September 29th, his count climbed to 15.
The Dragon Slayer’s Last Battle
On September 29th, Frank Luke’s cavalier style was dealt with abruptly when a superior grounded him for insubordination. Despite this, he still went to a plane, where his commanding officer put on a show of condemning him for being so arrogant, but still let him take off once more.
Frank took this arrogance to the next level when he flew by an American balloon and tossed the operators a note: “Watch for burning balloons.” He put on a show for the observers, with them reporting three balloons being destroyed in his solo assault. This show turned out to be his final performance. Nearby German machine guns severely wounded and forced him to land in enemy territory. He crawled out of the plane, but was pursued by German soldiers. Some more dramatic tales included claims that he killed seven German soldiers with his Colt 1911, but the truth is that he was found, attempted to resist, but almost certainly died from the wound he sustained in the air on the evening of September 29th.
In just 8 sorties flown over the course of 17 days, Frank Luke scored 18 kills. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Italian War Merit Cross. Eddie Rickenbacker declared him “the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war.”
Featured photo: Frank Luke from historical archives
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