Today is Sept. 29, the 98th anniversary of the death of an American pilot named Frank Luke Jr. At the age of 21, over the span of about six weeks, Luke went from unknown ferry pilot to squadron pariah to national hero to suicidal martyr in a stunningly tragic arc that the American war machine continues to obscure.
Luke was the cocky, athletic son of German immigrants who settled in Arizona. He arrived at the 27th Pursuit Squadron in the late summer of 1918 and quickly became an outcast. Only the squadron’s other “German” — a remarkable young man from Boston named Joe Wehner — would fly with him.
The two set out to prove their worth and met some early success in dangerous attacks on well-defended observation balloons. But on Sept. 18, Wehner died defending Luke from a surprise attack by German Fokker DVIIs as Luke destroyed two observation balloons. When Luke returned his attention to Wehner, he apparently realized that his wingman had been shot down, and attacked the German fighter formation, shooting down two of them. On his way home, he spotted an unprotected German recon plane, and gunned its two-man crew to death just for good measure.
Luke’s incredibly violent 10 minutes on Sept. 18 made him America’s top ace, front-page news on The New York Times, and the country’s first World War I hero. It also appears to have put him on a fatal downward spiral. After noticing that Luke looked morose while touring the battlefield with a photographer on Sept. 19, Wing Commander Harold Hartney sent him on leave for a week. But when his replacement wingman was shot down shortly after Luke returned to flight status, the Arizonan became increasingly erratic.
Luke’s emotional collapse took place against the backdrop of a leadership change in his squadron, where the pilots found themselves literally broken into two camps: Those in the clique of the newly promoted Capt. Alfred Grant, and those who backed a more deserving veteran pilot named Jerry Vasconcelles. The split between the two factions proved so severe that Hartney, the squadron’s recently promoted former commander — sent Vasconcelles to command a forward airfield near Verdun to help things cool off.
Luke, who was stuck at the main base at Rembercourt with Grant, had been disliked by the squadron’s more experienced pilots since his arrival. Matters only got worse when Luke claimed to have shot down a German plane and his squadron mates called him a liar. Later, when Luke began racking up observed victories, the disdain of his fellow pilots turned to jealous hatred.
At one point in mid-September, perhaps in response to this intra-squadron animosity, Grant sent Luke on an extremely dangerous balloon-busting mission. Apparently unknown to Luke, Grant also ordered the other pilots assigned to the mission to observe Luke’s actions without offering any support, even if he were attacked by German fighters. Not only did Luke somehow manage to destroy the balloon and evade the interceptors while his “brothers in arms” watched safely from a distance, but after returning to the aerodrome he attempted to refuel and reload and return for more.
The other pilots, perhaps shamed by Luke’s inferred knowledge that Grant had sent him out to die, had to physically restrain him from getting back in his plane.
Eventually Grant ordered Luke grounded, which was essentially the only responsible thing to do. America’s top ace had become increasingly self-destructive. But Luke was also the squadron’s only hero, an A-List celebrity in the United States, and a well-liked figure among the 27th’s enlisted men. He ignored Grant’s orders, effectively stole a SPAD XIII fighter with the apparent assistance of some mechanics, and then flew to Vasconselles’ little forward air base near Verdun.
Grant, of course, was livid, and issued an arrest order for Luke. When the order reached Hartney at wing headquarters, the plucky little Canadian intervened. Rather than publish the order, Hartney flew unattended to Vasconcelles’ airfield, finding Luke right where he expected him to be. After conferring with the disturbed young pilot, Hartney cleared Luke to engage in a one-man, unsupported, rage-fueled suicide attack on three observation balloons across the trenches in German-occupied France.
Tethered observation balloons are now a relic of history, but in 1918 they were considered a Great War commander’s most valuable assets. They allowed highly trained observers to report — in real time, via a telephone line that descended to a switchboard on the ground — all sorts of enemy actions.Their most prized ability was redirecting artillery fire, relaying corrections that helped distant gunners drop their rounds on their intended targets. To protect these assets, commanders surrounded their balloons with rings of machine and anti-aircraft guns, then kept their finest interceptor squadrons on almost constant patrol above.
That’s why nobody else wanted to attack balloons. It’s also why Luke made attacking balloons his primary mission in life. Attacking the high-value targets his fellow pilots prudently avoided was his way of proving that despite his German heritage, he was all American.
Did Hartney know that Luke was bound to die on the evening of Sept. 29? I’m rather sure he did. Hartney was no fool. I think he understood that the budding world power’s top brass simply couldn’t tell the press that America’s top ace had been arrested by his under-achieving squadron commander. I suspect he understood that Luke’s continued presence in the squadron mess threatened to break the 27th Pursuit into open civil war between the Grant and Vasconcelles factions. More importantly, I think Hartney correctly understood that Luke was already a casualty. A mental and emotional one. Too broken to be a proper hero. Too famous to remove from action.
What I always wondered was what Vasconcelles said to Luke before he took off for the last time. Vasconcelles would go on to suffer his own troubles after the war, living like a hermit in a cabin in the Colorado Rockies for about a year before he met a beautiful newspaper reporter from the capital. They married, and she eventually helped him find his way back into society, despite his reoccurring nightmares about the war. Vasconcelles even agreed to fly again, after years of strictly avoiding airplanes, piloting a vintage craft above roaring crowds at Colorado’s Centennial celebration in Denver.
Whatever was said, Luke flew away toward Dun-sur-Meuse and his death, dropping a note to American soldiers as he crossed the trenches. It told them to “watch those three balloons.” He signed it “Luke.”
If memory serves, he blew up just the first one. He’s credited with destroying all of them in some accounts, but both the officially sanctioned and the pop-culture myths surrounding The Luke Legend are still reliably unreliable. At any rate, Luke was almost certainly attacked by the interceptor patrol, and received a great deal of ground fire. After about two months as a fugitive from the law of averages, the odds caught up with him.
Luke remained remarkable even in his final moments. French inhabitants of a nearby town called Murvaux saw his damaged plane pass over the village and crash land in a nearby field bordered by a stream. Some followed as the German infantry company stationed in the village trotted out to the crash site: There they observed the already bleeding American pilot attempting to draw a drink from the creek. By the most credible account, when the Germans ordered Luke to halt, he weakly pointed a pistol in their direction, and was immediately shot dead. Villagers buried him nearby, and when American officers arrived after the Armistice looking to reconstruct the story of Frank Luke Jr.’s final flight, they took the men directly to his grave.
In the 1920s, the U.S. Army encouraged all sorts of propaganda about Frank Luke. Hartney contributed to much of it. Sloppy, gullible, jingoistic reporting did the rest. The public came to know Luke as the gallant, fearless “Sausage Buster,” a charming but wild cowboy from the Wild West who freelanced his way around the Meuse-Argonne offensive, winning the respect of all the great French aces, whose aerodromes he would visit, sitting up all night drinking and singing, only to rise and fight again as the valiant Knights of the Air.
Only there were no French pilots with festive aerodrome mess halls. There was only Jerry Vasconcelles and his small detachment, huddling in wooden shacks and muddy bunkers within artillery range of the German trenches. Civilians were told the great ace fought for glory. In truth, he seems to have been equally motivated by proving his squadron rivals they were wrong about him, wrong about German-American loyalties.
History never tells us that given the choice between presenting America with the image of its top ace in a stockade or a glorious dead hero, Luke’s wing commander chose the latter. The accounts of his life and death today remain littered with inaccuracies and propaganda, all easily refuted by source documents and military records.
So America remembers a Medal of Honor hero on Sept. 29. I remember a 21-year-old kid, barely older than our youngest daughter, fed into the meat grinder of an absurd war that produced nothing of value, yet led directly to the carnage of World War II just 21 years later.
This is why it’s important to study history, rather than merely receive it.