Frank Luke, Last of the Arizona Gunfighters


The mechanic spun the propeller of the Spad XIII and quickly moved aside as the 120-horsepower motor coughed and roared to life. The pilot revved up to full power with brakes locked, then eased the throttle back and ignored his commanding officer running toward him shouting angrily.

Brakes released, the armed biplane sped down the runway and Second Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr. of the 27th Aero Squadron, United States Army Signal Corps, lifted off to become the first American airman to earn the Medal of Honor, and a threatened court martial…

There is no clear agreement on when America's wild frontier era ended. Some might place it in 1881 when Sheriff Pat Garrett cooled Billy the Kid's hot head, or Geronimo's surrender five years later. We could just as well say the final chapter climaxed in a French meadow with the air as thick with gasoline fumes as gunsmoke on September 29, 1918.

Luke was born May 19, 1897 in Phoenix of German emigrants who had settled there in 1873. A natural athlete, he excelled at boxing and kept fit during summer vacations by working in copper mines. Tall, lean and taciturn, he had the look of a cowboy-aptly enough when early aviators "rode" their unruly bundles of wood and fabric like high-spirited ponies.

Barely 15 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, World War I airmen were as likely to be brought down by engine failure or structural flaws as hostile fire. Which made all the more remarkable Luke's confirmed score of 19 German aircraft destroyed in 10 days of less than 30 hours' flying time.

Ironically, he had shied away from military service when America entered the war in April, 1917. But once he decided to make it his fight, it was only logical to get it over with quickly by inflicting maximum damage on the enemy.

After flight training Frank was commissioned and sent to France in time for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His first combat sortie was not very promising; he broke formation and went off hunting on his own, drawing a rebuke from his squadron leader.

That only whetted his stubborn independence, particularly when he learned that German observation balloons were highly prized targets. The hydrogen-filled bags tethered to the ground with men in baskets beneath them may have appeared to be sitting ducks. But as a valued means of gathering intelligence, they were well guarded by anti-aircraft batteries and fighter planes.

After claiming victory over a roving Fokker triplane, Frank concentrated on the sausage-shaped gas bags so intensely that he quickly became known as the Arizona Balloon Buster. In one engagement, he shot down three of the formidable Drachens (Dragons) in under thirty minutes and returned unscathed.

Five days later he downed two more while his wingman Joe Whener held off a flight of Fokker D-VIIs. Then he joined the fight and destroyed three German planes, but Whener was lost in the blazing turmoil.

Frank's C.O., thinking he needed a rest, ordered him to take leave time in Paris. He returned early saying curtly: "There was nothing to do." Which no doubt would have offended many amorous mademoiselles if they had heard him.

Always a loner, he alienated his fellow pilots who saw arrogance in the supreme self-confidence bred from his desert background. He wasn't so much a throwback as an extension of the frontier lawmen-as hard as the land they patrolled-who carried justice in holsters and noosed ropes. Even his issued sidearm was a single-action .45, albeit a 1911 semi-automatic.

Perhaps more than anyone else Frank embodied two clichés: "man of action" and "single-mindedness of purpose." Military discipline and regulations were minor distractions from the goals he set for himself. The orders of superiors were as empty as the wind beneath his wings.

Such rugged nonconformity would have no place in today's armed forces. Even then Frank grated on officers who tried to balance pilot initiative with team co-ordination. The patience of his squadron leader, Captain Alfred Grant, became so strained that he grounded Frank "until further notice"-which led to his final act of defiance.

Three enemy balloons along the Meuse River had tempted Frank long enough. His mind was so fixed on them as he flew away that he was hardly aware of Grant's vow to have him court-martialed for insubordination when he returned.

The first Drachen easily fell victim to his guns. The ignited hydrogen briefly flaring in the early twilight attracted a flight of German fighters. Frank managed to elude them after taking a few hits in his tail assembly and knocked down the second balloon over Briere Farm.

As he closed on his third target, the ground crew reeled it down so frantically that he had to skim the treetops, giving the Ack-Ack gunners a clear advantage. Simultaneously with the balloon's explosion, German machinegun bullets raked the Spad, one of them striking Frank in his upper torso.

With himself and his plane crippled, he looked around desperately. Spotting a small meadow, he sideslipped down to a pancake landing. As he climbed out of the cockpit, a platoon of German infantrymen approached, rifles leveled.

Under the circumstances, it was standard procedure for a pilot to surrender and be treated with gentlemanly courtesy. But there was more Arizona than gentleman in the hand that came up filled with Sam Colt's attempt to equalize disputes. Shots were exchanged and Second Lieutenant Luke fell.

Dead at age 21 years, 4 months and 10 days.

Today we remember him at Luke Air Force base near Phoenix, where razor-edged jets slash the sky with disciplined precision that the maverick of 1918 would have scoffed as too restrictive. Before the state capitol building stands a bronze statue of him-a symbol of America's impetuous youth as it rode out of the newly tamed Wild West and into the Blue Yonder's even wilder frontier. And it rides on in legend, feeding our need for larger than life heroes.