Who's Who - Frank Luke Jr

Frank Luke Jr Frank Luke Jr (1897-1918) was America's second highest scoring air ace during World War One.  His tally of 18 victories - comprised mainly of observation balloons - was second only to Eddie Rickenbacker's total of 26.

Luke was born in Phoenix, Arizona to German immigrant parents on 19 May 1897.  With the U.S. declaration of war against Germany Luke promptly enlisted with the U.S. Air Service, travelling from the mining town of Globe, Arizona to Tucson.  From there he was sent to Austin, Texas and onto to Rockwell, California for pilot training.

Emerging from his period of training as a qualified fighter pilot Luke received a commission as Second Lieutenant in March 1918 and was posted to Issoudun in France for further combat training.

His latest round of training over Luke operated initially as a ferry pilot before, on 26 July 1918, he was attached to 27 Aero Squadron.  Preferring to fly solo from the very first Luke only escaped a court martial after returning from an unauthorised flying bout when his commanding officer, Harold Hartney, believed Luke's story of having downed a German aircraft.  The success was not however regarded as a confirmed 'kill', it not having been independently witnessed.

Given to much self-promotion - Luke often claimed to have brought down enemy aircraft while flying solo - he was not particularly well-liked among his fellow pilots, although he did strike up a friendship with fellow loner Joseph Wehner.  When not flying alone Luke would sometimes fly in tandem with Wehner.

Having heard repeated stories regarding the difficulties in bring down enemy observation balloons - these were heavily defended by machine gun and anti-aircraft fire as well as by enemy aircraft - Luke resolved to take up the challenge of downing as many as possible in the shortest time.

To this end Luke shot down 18 enemy balloons and aircraft in just 17 days (14 of the former, 4 of the latter) starting on 12 October 1918.  Wehner occasionally flew above him to afford him cover (although Wehner was killed in action on 18 September 1918).  During this extraordinary run of success Luke's aircraft was often so damaged that it had to be replaced at the start of each fresh mission.

Returning from a few day's holiday rest in Paris after Wehner's death, Luke resolved to down ever more enemy balloons, in part to avenge his friend's demise.  He requested that he be assigned a special 'balloon busting' role, and that he be accompanied by covering pilots above him to give him cover, as Wehner had done earlier.

Denied his request Luke once again chose to fly solo, an unauthorised decision which resulted in his arrest.  Escaping from detention in his tent on 29 September he took up his SPAD 13 aircraft en route for enemy lines.  Landing near Verdun Luke chanced to bump into his commanding officer Hartney.

Before Hartney was able to take action however Luke took off once again, dropping a note to the ground to the effect that Hartney should watch out for three German observation balloons along the Meuse.

Luke fired upon each balloon and brought all three down, an action which brought no fewer than eight German Fokker aircraft upon his heels.  Having in turn shot down two of these aircraft Luke was forced to land behind enemy lines near Murvaux.  Refusing to be taken prisoner he shot and killed several German infantrymen advancing to ensure his capture and was himself killed during the action.

For his actions of 29 September 1918 Luke was posthumously awarded the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor as well as numerous international awards.

A "box barrage" was an artillery bombardment centred upon a small area.

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