Frank Luke

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Description

In 1917, Lt. Frank Luke of Phoenix was stationed in France with other WWI troops as an army aircraft fighter. Luke was credited with shooting down 18 enemy aircraft including several enemy observation balloons. Throughout his flight escapades, Luke was so good at shooting down his enemy that his fellow soldiers nicknamed him the "Arizona Balloon Buster." On his last aircraft attacks on enemy air balloons, Luke was killed in action. Today, Arizona remembers its fallen soldier with the Luke Air Force base, named after Lt. Frank Luke.

Transcript

Narrator:
Few 21-year-olds have statues erected in their honor. Fewer still are the number of young men who accomplished what Frank Luke Jr. did. He was America 's top ace at the time of his death, having shot down at least eighteen enemy airplanes and balloons in World War I.

Bill Luke Jr.:
He was given a job and he did it. And he was a daredevil, he was.

Narrator:
Bill Luke Jr. never knew his uncle, but learned plenty about him from family members.

Bill Luke Jr.:
When he was in high school, he had the brainy idea that he'd like to see if he could use an umbrella and jump off the auditorium of Phoenix Union High School . His principal said, "Why don't we try this first with a dummy?" He did that, and found that there was a lot of damage. So he decided that wasn't a good idea.

Narrator:
Before Luke joined the army in 1917, he worked the mines in Ajo. There was a prize fighter that came through the mining camp, and he decided that he'd challenge the guy. And he won.

Narrator:
Luke was sent to France in the spring of 1918. He reported to the front a couple months later. Major Hartney told Lieutenant Luke when he first checked him out and everything in combat, he says, "if you last two weeks, you may be assured of having -- having it made," you know, Being able to survive. And two to three weeks was considered normal life expectancy to pilots that flew these airplanes. All these aircraft as I mentioned earlier on over there are fabric-covered, which is bed sheet, the same thing you sleep in every night...

Narrator:
Mel Derry gives tours at the Champlin fighter museum at Falcon Field in Mesa . The museum has a replica of Luke's airplane, a French-built SPAD XIII. Luke preferred to go after the most dangerous of all targets: observation balloons.

Mel Derry:
It wasn't uncommon. If you went down and around a balloon trying to shoot it down, you'd end up being shot down yourself, but it was from the people on the ground. So that was the reason most people avoided it.

Narrator:
Luke's passion for downing balloons earned him the nickname "the Arizona balloon buster."

Mel Derry:
He was the most daring aviator, the greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life was one of the brightest glories of our air service. He went on an eight-day rampage and shot down 14 enemy aircraft, including ten balloons.

Narrator:
After his two closest friends died on balloon-busting missions with Luke, the Arizonan began going it alone, and was grounded by his commander.

Bill Luke Jr.:
On the way back he shot a balloon down, came in and landed, and his base commander says, "Put yourself under house arrest, you're going to be court-martialed." So that really upset him so he went out, got in his airplane, and left a note and said, "watch the three bags on the Meuse River."

Narrator:
The Arizona balloon buster found more than a half dozen German fighter planes waiting. Nearby French residents claim Luke downed two German planes but were never confirmed. He went on to shoot down all three enemy balloons, but Luke would not return to base to face the consequences of defying orders. He had been hit by antiaircraft fire. Luke saw the congregation of German soldiers, went down and strafed them, and supposedly killed maybe six of them, and then went around and landed adjacent to the village. And that's when the Germans approached the airplane Expecting to capture him, and he wasn't there.

Narrator:
No one knows for sure what happened next. Historians believe Luke got out of his airplane, but died from his wounds before the Germans could kill him. Luke's death made the headlines back home, his brief life gone, but not forgotten.

Bill Luke Jr.:
I think he was an extraordin -- extra-ordinary boy who met an extraordinary challenge and did the best he could.

Narrator:
An Air Force Base is named in Luke's honor, a reminder of his success and sacrifice. Luke is buried in a military cemetery in France . A simple cross does not boast of his accomplishments. Those speak for themselves.