Luke Air Force Base is named for the first aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor — 2nd Lt. Frank Luke Jr. Born in Phoenix in 1897, the “Arizona Balloon Buster” scored 18 aerial victories during World War I (14 of these were German observation balloons) in the skies over France before being killed, at age 21, Sept. 29, 1918.
For several months, his grave was marked with a wooden cross that read, “Unknown American Aviator.” To the citizens of Murvaux, France, who saw his last flight and buried him with what honors the Germans would permit, this unknown was the hero of the war.
These bits of evidence from various sources, when pieced together, led to the identification of this aviator. The cross over his grave now bears the inscription “2nd Lieut. Frank Luke, Jr., Pilot, 27th Aero Squadron; 18 victories. Killed in action Sept. 29, 1918.” The young lieutenant’s record and details of his last flight disclose a story as inspiring as any ever to stir admiration, and a death in action as valiant as anyone’s to ever earn a country’s highest award.
His story starts in Phoenix on May 19, 1897. Luke grew up in the desert and was known as one of the best athletes at Phoenix Union High School. He was captain of the track team and a member of the basketball and football teams.
Soon after the U.S. entered World War I, the 20-year-old Luke enlisted as a private in the Signal Corps. He went to pilot training and entered combat in France as a new member of the 1st Pursuit Group, 27th Aero Squadron. His exploits spanned only a scant 18 days, but as records now reflect, he destroyed 14 German balloons and four aircraft, earning him the title of the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”
Luke’s commander, Maj. H.E. Hartney, said of him: “No one had the sheer contemptuous courage that boy possessed. He was an excellent pilot and probably the best flying marksman on the Western Front. We had any number of expert pilots and there was no shortage of good shots, but the perfect combination, like the perfect specimen of anything in the world, was scarce. Frank Luke was the perfect combination.”
While balloons sound insignificant, in WWI’s trench warfare environment they were critical. They served as observation posts and enabled both armies to look deep behind one another’s lines.
The hydrogen-filled balloons were expensive and of great military value. Normally protected by heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries, there was usually a flight of pursuit planes stationed nearby. To attack a balloon was practically suicide.
But for whatever reason, these were Luke’s voluntary objectives. Some surmised it was because of the easy confirmation as the fireball fell from the sky, trailing a plume of smoke. On Sept. 12, 1918, Luke shot down his first balloon. His last flight was Sept. 29, 1918. At least 13 people in the village of Murvaux, watched his final blaze of glory. That group later made a sworn affidavit of his actions that day.
They said they saw an American aviator with a squadron of Germans pursuing and shooting at him. He descended suddenly and vertically toward the Earth, then straightened out and flew toward Briers Farm where he found a German balloon, which he shot up and burned in spite of incessant enemy fire. He destroyed two other balloons while still flying through hostile fire both from troops on the ground and the German fighters.
He did not escape unscathed. Even though already wounded, he attacked one more observation balloon and the Frenchmen saw it burst into flames and plummet to the ground.
Luke descended to within 50 meters of the ground and opened fire on enemy troops, killing six and wounding just as many more. But his time was limited. His wounds and the damage to his aircraft forced him to land. As German soldiers surrounded him on all sides, he drew his .45-caliber pistol and defended himself until he fell, mortally wounded from a bullet in his chest.
Infuriated by the savagery of the American’s final attack, the German commandant of the village refused to have straw placed in the cart that removed Luke’s body. He also refused to allow women to shroud his body with a sheet. Witnesses reported he kicked Luke’s body and snapped, “Get that thing out of my way as quickly as possible.” Two men, Cortlae Delbert and Voliner Nicolas, loaded the Arizonan’s body on a wagon, escorted him to the cemetery and buried him.
His courage in combat not only earned him his nickname but also the Medal of Honor. His awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Italian War Cross and the Aero Club Medal for Bravery. In 1930, the American Society for the Promotion of Aviation named him the nation’s greatest air hero.
Though unmarried, Luke came from a large family, and many in the Valley of the Sun today carry on the Luke family name.