The first American pilot to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
September 1918. The Western Front
After four long years of stalemate the First World War lurches to its bloody end with both sides bled white, exhausted, but still going at it hammers and tongs. But of late there’s new hope among the Allies that this impasse can be broken with the arrival of the American Army. A million men, fresh troops, keen on victory at sea, on land…and in the air.
Enter Second Lieutenant. Frank Luke Jr. A Native of Phoenix Arizona, German-American, athletic, a crack shot and horseman, copper miner, brawler, football star. A true friend and a fearsome enemy. Almost civilized.
In time he would be nicknamed ‘The Arizona Balloon Buster’ by accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of downing more than fifteen German observation balloons (called ‘Drachen’) and three enemy planes in a flying career the history books call, ‘The September Rampage’. A spree that lasted just seventeen days and culminated in his death while downing three balloons in just 10 minutes. And in true American fashion being under arrest for insubordination at the same time.
Things didn’t go well for Frank at first. When he arrived at the 27th Areo squadron they mistook his self-confidence for arrogance and he alienated his squadron mates who saw him as a showoff and a braggart. In time his only friends were a fellow German-American, Joe Wehner, a Boston born youth under a cloud because of his German heritage and Marcel Leroy, a French pilot with the famous ‘Storks’ squadron.
Frank and Joe may have been ostracized by their tyrannical commander and their fellow pilots but together, with their SPAD 13’s, they proved to be a deadly team in the air. At first Frank’s motive was more concerned with fame. But after spending a night in the trenches getting shelled with the troops his motive changed to saving the lives of American soldiers on the front line by the only way he knew how, by shooting down those ‘Drachen’. Together they ravaged the German balloons weakening the Huns front line while at the same time saving the lives of countless troops. But their luck wouldn’t hold. Joe is shot down by a deadly German Ace while protecting Frank, leaving him broken and devastated.
Burning with revenge, Frank resolved to down every German balloon in the sky, in part to save the troops and in part to avenge his friend’s demise. Flying into the teeth of massed fire and swarms of fighters he singlehandedly crippled the German defenses just as American forces were smashing their way into Germany. And on his last mission, dogged by a dozen German Fokkers he destroyed three critical balloons, effectively breaking the German balloon line, enabling the Americans to end the stalemate as well as shoot down the German ace that killed Joe. Revenge is sweet, and short lived.
But fate is cruel by nature. Gutshot, mortally wounded, his plane damaged, he was forced down behind German lines. And when he had a chance to surrender, the 21-year-old instead turned and took on a company of German infantrymen with only a pistol until he was shot dead. True to himself, even at the end.