America First—100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans

Frank Luke, Jr.—Aviator

THE life of an aviator is full of danger and adventure; the annals of the World War are filled with his exploits. It is the business of the aircraft, its pilot, and observer to note the enemies' positions and movements, to take photographs, to direct the fire of big guns, to bring down observation balloons, to drop bombs, and to destroy or drive off the enemy's machines. The aviators fly all the way from a hundred feet to three miles high, and often at a rate of a hundred miles an hour.

Frank Luke, Jr., came from Phoenix, Arizona. He was twenty years old when he entered the service. He had his training as an aviator, and found himself near Chateau-Thierry, late in July, 1918. He had an insatiable appetite for flying, and was deeply interested in machine-guns and incendiary bullets.

About the middle of August, the enemy planes [438] were in large number over the sector where Lieutenant Luke's squadron was operating. He felt that if he could get across the lines unobserved, he could take the enemy's formation unaware, and swoop upon the rear man and shoot him down.

One day, he went off alone, rose to a great height, and crossed into the enemy's territory. Far below him he spied six machines getting ready to land on their own aerodrome. The odds were against him, six to one, but he was not an aviator to count the odds, and prepared for action.

He swooped down from fifteen thousand to three thousand feet in one long dive, speeding at a rate of two hundred miles an hour; he closed in on the rear man, and, from a distance of twenty yards, sent him crashing down.

The enemy formation was taken completely by surprise. Before they could realize what had happened, or engage Luke in combat, he had dropped to four hundred feet, had dodged all anti-aircraft fire-and machine-guns, and was off like a rocket to his own lines.

On September 12, 1918, began the St. Mihiel offensive. At daybreak, Luke rose in his plane, and observed a German balloon far to the right. He returned to his aerodrome, and learned that the balloon was doing great damage by directing [439] an enfilading fire on our advancing troops. He volunteered to destroy the balloon, and flew away with his flying partner, Lieutenant Wehner.

In a short while, he was seen to drop out of the clouds, surprise the balloon, and, at the second dive, he shot it down in flames. This was Luke's first experience with a balloon-gun—a gun designed to shoot a heavy incendiary bullet.

Two days later, the enemy were keeping three observation balloons in the air. They were operating at a low altitude, so low, indeed, that an observer could not use his parachute to escape, the height not being sufficient for the parachute to open and land the observer safely. Luke volunteered to destroy these balloons, and was sent out with other pilots detailed for protection.

A few moments before Luke was ready to shoot down one of the balloons, his escort became engaged in a fight with an enemy formation, and it seemed hopeless to make the attack. Undaunted, however, Luke darted in underneath the fight raging above him in the air, and, descending repeatedly on the balloon, sent it down in flames, despite the shower of machine-gun bullets that rained around him.

When he reached his own lines, it was found that his machine was so riddled with holes that it [440] was on the verge of a collapse. Under a little more strain, it would probably have fallen to pieces in the air. "A narrow escape, that," was all the daring aviator said, when he looked at his riddled plane.

The same afternoon, he set out to bring down one of the other balloons. Again, his escort was engaged with the enemy aircraft. Again, Luke dived under the fight to attack his prey; but he himself was attacked by a formation of eight enemy planes. Diving with great speed to the level of the balloon, he delivered a burst of machine-gun bullets, saw the envelope blaze into fire, and then escaped his pursuers by a zig-zag course, back to his own aerodrome.

Day after day, Luke went up for enemy planes, or in search of observation balloons. Escorting patrols engaged the enemy, while he darted in, and fired upon the balloons, bringing them down in flames, and escaping the terrible machine-gun fire from the ground.

In seventeen days, he brought down eighteen enemy machines and balloons. His name became a terror to the Huns, and they lived in dread of his daring attacks upon their observation balloons. The observers in those balloons would frequently leap into their parachutes and descend before Luke had actually set fire to the balloons.

[441] On September 29, he went out for the purpose of destroying three balloons. On his way, he flew over an American aerodrome and dropped a weighted message, asking that a sharp lookout be kept for three German planes which he had sighted. His machine was then seen to go over in that direction, and to rise to a very high altitude. When nearly over the three machines, he was attacked by ten enemy planes. He engaged all of them, single-handed, and sent two crashing to the ground.

He then dropped out of the fight, and descended to the level of the balloons, which he shot down, one after another—all three of them. This made five victims in one engagement.

Now, the sad story of his death is to be related. His machine, surrounded by a flock of enemy planes, was forced to descend on to Germany territory. He was wounded in the shoulder, but was full of fight to the last. Drawing his pistol, he opened fire until he was killed by an overwhelming number of the enemy.

The Germans took his clothing, and rifled his pockets of their contents, and left his grave unmarked. Months afterwards, the inhabitants of the village told the Americans the story of his last brave fight, and showed them the grave in which the great American ace was buried.


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