Frank Luke Jr. was born in Phoenix, one of nine children in a large and convivial family. In later years, people remembered attending ice cream socials and skating on the hardwood floors of the Luke house, which was located on the edge of the Phoenix city limits near present-day Monroe Street.
Luke was an indifferent student and an outstanding athlete. At Phoenix Union High School he was a football star. Coach Francis Geary described him as the nerviest and coolest-headed … player I ever saw.
That nerve and cool headedness went with him to the battlefield.
He graduated from high school in 1917 and enlisted in the Army’s fledgling air corps. He received pre-flight training in Austin, Texas, and flight training Rockwell Field in San Diego. Most of the cadets found flying straight and level a challenge. Frank found it easy. He was the first to solo and immediately put his Curtiss Jenny into a loop.
For that rule infraction, he was grounded for three days.
In March 1918, Luke was sent to France. He reported to the Third Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudin south of Paris for advanced training.
The impatient Luke chafed at not being able to fly. He did, however, make friends with 1st Lt. Joseph F. Wehner, a fellow trainee who was trying to prove himself because of his German origins.
Luke flew his first combat mission on September 12, and in 17 days of combat made his reputation.
His flying specialty was balloon strafing, an aerial warfare technique he originated. Hydrogen balloons were used by both sides as battle observation posts. The balloons were tethered to the ground and were well protected by enemy planes and anti-aircraft batteries.
Luke and Wehner looked out for each other. During one mission, Wehner took on enemy formations so Luke, whose guns had jammed, could escape. On September 18, Wehner was shot down and killed. Luke’s commander, Major Harold E. Hartney, ordered him to take leave.
Instead, Luke begged his commander to be allowed to fly alone. Major Hartney refused, but Luke ignored him and flew solo, choosing his own targets and time.
He preferred to wait until dusk when the light was poor and the balloons were being hauled in for the night.
There is no clear record of the actual number of balloons and enemy aircraft Luke shot down. Pilots were credited with a kill only when it had been observed by two witnesses. Luke soon developed the habit of dropping a note over the troops in the field to let them know he was in the air.
On the last day of his life, September 29, 1918, Luke took off without his commander’s knowledge.
He dropped his usual message on ground troops, “Look for burning balloons, Luke,” then shot three out of the sky. In the action, he was hit in the shoulder and his plane badly damaged. He landed behind enemy lines near the village of Marvaux. Luke was able to get out of his airplane and walk about 50 meters toward a stream. When several German soldiers approached him and ordered his surrender, Luke drew his weapon and held off the enemy until he died of his wounds.
His parents received notice of his death on November 25, two weeks after the Armistice ended World War I.
Frank Luke Jr. was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. It was presented to his father by Brig. Gen. Howard R. Hickok on May 29, 1919.
Frank Luke Sr. chose to accept it at his home so the whole family could be present.
Today, a memorial in Luke’s honor stands at the east entrance to the Arizona Capitol. His body was interred at the Meuse-Argonne Military cemetery at Romagne-sous-Mountfaucon, France in 1919.
— Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society; research by Jane Eppinga. ©Arizona Capitol Times.