WWI Aviator Series: The Balloon Buster
Have you ever met someone from history that grabbed you by the shoulders and completely stole your attention? With one look at a faded photograph, you just knew you were in for a treat? That’s what happened when I first came face to face with Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr. An Arizona wild thing who blazed through the skies of Europe during his whirlwind of a flying career in World War I. Known for his shock of platinum blond hair, his lumbering build, and a somewhat foul temper, one he often took out on enemy aerial observation balloons. Earning him the nickname – “the Balloon Buster.”
I met Luke while researching for a novel I was writing at the time. I sat on my bed one evening, flipping through a very old book about WWI pilots, when the battered old pages slipped through my fingers. They landed with a flop right on Luke’s picture. I actually jolted when confronted with that stern gaze. A steely fire in the eyes, still sizzling even after a hundred years. It took me a few seconds to compose myself and check the name at the bottom of the photo – “Frank Luke, the Balloon Buster.”
I had never heard of him until then. Not once, despite all my prior years of study, and despite the Air Force Base in Arizona bearing his name. Also despite the fact he was the first American Airman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. I scanned this crazy-looking character’s statistics – close to two dozen kills. Low compared to European aces, but solid for an American pilot, many of whom didn’t make it overseas until the final six months of the war. And the credits were mostly observation balloons, one of the hardest and most dangerous targets at that time. The final surprise was that these victories were crowded into a staggering three week period in September of 1918.
I knew right away I had found someone special, so I kept reading – anything I could get my hands on. I learned that Frank Luke was born in 1897 in Phoenix, Arizona. The fifth child of nine total, their parents having immigrated from Germany in the 1870s. Which probably put them in a fix when WWI broke out. But the early years of Frank’s life passed pleasantly enough. He showed an early aptitude for sports, and was described by many of his peers as outgoing and sociable. Especially around the ladies.
When he was old enough, Luke spent his summers working in the sweltering Arizona copper mines for extra coin. But bare knuckle boxing, a prevalent form of entertainment in the rough and tumble mining camps, is what made him his real money. Local legend says he once walked into the ring and knocked out a travelling professional boxer, in the first round, with one solid punch. But one opponent he couldn’t best was his mother. When she found out about his little side hustle, the fights came to an immediate halt.
Until 1917, that is. Steaming mad over the infamous Zimmerman telegram, Uncle Sam finally decided he’d had enough. Joining the other Allied nations already entrenched across Europe, the US went to war with Germany. Along with whipping a barely staffed and very undisciplined army into shape, the US also wanted into the blossoming field of military aviation. A branch of service that had already birthed some notables “over there” (read all about the Red Baron here). And the US had plenty of young boys who wanted a crack at those cockpits.
One of them was Frank Luke. Obviously the exact type the air corps was looking for, Luke had no trouble securing a place in the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps in April, 1917. From there, he trained at airfields in Texas, California, and eventually the large, muddy airfields of France. By July of 1918, he had earned a place in the 27th Aero Squadron, a US combat flying force already stocked with a colorful cast of characters. Especially its commander Major Harald Hartney, who went on to lead the entire US First Pursuit Group.
Despite finding ample friends back home, Luke didn’t fare as well in the 27th Aero Squadron. His flying mates early wrote him off as an arrogant blow hard who talked a big talk but failed to deliver on missions, many of which he showed up late for or vanished from all together. The space next to his name remained painfully empty of kills, as did the chairs next to him in the mess hall.
The only friends Luke did make were a fellow 27th pilot named Joseph Wehner (a friendship that would prove quite effective down the line), and the enlisted men in the trenches surrounding the airfield. He had a well-known soft spot for the bottom-of-the-totem-pole infantry soldiers, who were so badly kicked around by the higher ups. Luke often visited their barracks to pass off treats, boost their spirits, and bask in some badly needed kinship.
He also had the good fortune of securing a place in Harald Hartney’s affections, after Hartney happened to witness some of his exceptional flying skills. It was a boon of contention for his fellow squadron mates, who accused him of not scrubbing out solely because of the alleged favoritism. It also caused a sore spot when Luke got his first kill – shooting down an enemy plane in German territory with no witnesses and no verification. But Hartney took him at his word, which angered yet more of his mates.
But it wouldn’t be long before Frank Luke proved his metal once and for all. Especially when the squadron was put under standing orders to destroy enemy air balloons. Now, let’s take a quick look at just how reckless it was to attack an enemy air balloon in World War I. Dirigibles on both sides sat under heavy armed guard on the ground, complete with machine guns and artillery, in addition to a veritable hornet’s nest of fighter planes up above. Not to mention, downing an air balloon often involved using incendiaries, a bullet technically outlawed (if laws actually exist in war…) Pilots captured with them were often executed in haste. In short, attacking a balloon was paramount to walking into a rattle snake nest in the middle of a minefield. Danger heaped upon danger.
Yet the balloons were also a menace to allied command – given the information they passed to German headquarters. Troop movements, positions, air field locations, and valuable gun nests. All were vulnerable to the all-seeing eye of the floating enemy dirigibles, deemed “sausages” by those on the ground. Pilots spent a lot of time debating with each other on how to successfully down these gargantuan devils without sacrificing their own skin in the process.
When Frank Luke downed his first balloon on September 8, 1918, he used a simple enough strategy. Go up by himself, and fly hell for leather right at the heart of the beast. To the utter shock of the helpless German in the balloon’s fragile wicker basket, Luke dove right through the lead shower from below and fired into the bag at point blank range. It took Luke a couple passes, but the balloon finally erupted into a fireball, crashing to earth with the wounded observer still tangled inside. It took the ground units several minutes to extract their comrade from the flames, and unfortunately, he did not survive his encounter with the soon-to-be heralded Balloon Buster.
Luke had clearly found his niche, and tapping Joe Wehner as his wingman, that first attack turned into a dizzying array of downed balloons over the next few days. He became an absolute terror to the entire German Army, who grew ever more infuriated with his antics. Former disgruntled enemies at his air field became reluctant admirers as his victories piled up and his name made the rounds. Although his superior officers, excepting Major Hartney, still adamantly rejected Luke’s arrogance, and hot-headed streaks of refusing orders and going on rogue patrols by himself.
On September 18, a mere week and a half after Luke’s first balloon, the phone rang at the desk of Sergeant Dunn, a military photographer of the US Signal Corps. What he heard made his head spin. An American Aviator had just downed five enemy aircraft. Two balloons and three airplanes. Not only had he done this in a single day (an impossible feat even by the Red Baron standards), but he had done it in a roughly six minute span. It was an indisputable record.
Dunn high tailed it to the scene for a chat with the pilot, who was exceptionally keyed up after such a flight. He also posed the pilot next to a pile of wreckage from his recent frenzy and snapped a picture. Despite dusk setting in, it came out remarkably clear, freezing the Balloon Buster in his post-hunt essence. A picture so alive that it would captivate a young history enthusiast almost a century into the future, just with one glance (see cover photo).
However, the five-kill flight that earned Luke so many accolades came with a hefty price tag. Joe Wehner, Luke’s trusted wingman and even better trusted friend, disappeared during the fighting and did not return to the air base. It put Luke in straights. So much that when his squadron mates threw their new hero a party to celebrate his achievement, he barely made an appearance. And his mood only worsened when the confirmation of Wehner’s death came a few days later.
The death of Luke’s best friend soured his temperament so badly he got into a terrible row with his squadron captain on September 28, 1918. It resulted in Luke storming out of the Captain’s office, revving up his airplane, and tearing off into the wild blue completely solo and against orders. Captain Grant, quite hot under the collar himself, placed a warrant out for Luke’s arrest. It was the last time the Balloon Buster would be seen at his air base alive.
Given Luke’s infamous temper and noteworthy fierceness, a lot of legends have sprung up about what unfolded over the next twenty-four hours. Early accounts of Luke’s final flight, which took place on September 29, 1918, credit him with downing a whopping three balloons, and then going on a tear across No Man’s Land, strafing German trenches just to really get his point across. Given heavy damage to his plane, he was eventually forced down near a stream behind the German lines.
There is a chance, albeit a small one, that if Luke would have gone quietly, he would have been taken prisoner, spent some time in a camp, and survived the war. But going quietly wasn’t in his nature. So instead, when the nearby German ground unit closed in, Luke climbed out of his plane wreckage and drew his pistol. In the flurry of gunfire, he got shot through the chest. Rumors spread that the Germans later discovered Luke’s body gripping his empty gun, with seven dead soldiers of the Kaiser nearby.
Had these early reports been true, there’s no telling how many Germans expired in the Balloon Buster’s last rampage. The three balloons alone would have made for quite a tally. However, later historians, especially the incredibly detailed work of Stephen Skinner (see “resources” below), have cast some doubt on those early accounts. While it is true Luke downed three balloons on his final flight, the trench strafing is up for debate – since there was another pilot in the vicinity that day with a similar plane.
And although it’s easy to believe the mighty Balloon Buster decided that if he was going down, he was taking some Germans with him, he likely drew his gun for the basic primal instinct of saving his life. Especially since he had incendiaries on him – which could have led to his execution upon capture. A dire situation that would make any pilot chance fighting it out rather than putting his fate in enemy hands.
As for the tally from these gunshots – it’s unlikely it was seven, since later historians have determined Luke was already fatally wounded when he landed his plane, thanks to a hilltop gun position he encountered while attacking balloons. Between that, and the rapidly descending darkness, it’s unlikely he would have been able to kill seven people.
But still, Luke’s final flight was an impressive feat – with three more balloons to add to his score and a very irritated German army, exasperated at losing so many expensive dirigibles at the hands of this single American Airman. And while the 27th squadron had no love of Frank Luke’s egotistic personality, they had to admire what he had accomplished during his dizzying career.
But the enlisted men at the airbase took his loss the hardest. On the tragic night of Luke’s final stand, when he failed to return, the dedicated privates lit up the air field with flares, one after the other, so he could find his way back home. Those boys mourned deeply for the Frank Luke who brought them extra rations, played poker with them, and donated all his winnings to the church collection plate. The one who treated them as equals and never talked down to them, despite their low rank. And although they kept up their flare vigil all night, their hero never returned.
Frank Luke’s career ended in a tally of 20 kills, most of them balloons, although not all of them were officially confirmed. He was awarded a post-humus Medal of Honor – the first American Airman to be so decorated. Back in the United States, Frank Luke, the pilot nobody liked or really believed in, became a household name amongst those legendary fly boys of the First World War. But the rise of World War II, and the whole new generation of pilots it birthed, eventually erased him from the collective memory bank. Today, many pass the statue of him in Phoenix, Arizona having no idea who he is.
When I read Frank Luke’s story almost a hundred years later, both the fact and the fiction, something about it completely sucked me in. Perhaps because I too have always felt like a bit of an underdog, and an outcast who people have often underestimated. I too understand the sting of having a hard time making friends, of talking a big game to hide my painful sensitive side, and acting way tougher than I am to comfort others. Or perhaps it was just the accusatory glare in that old text book, burning into me across a century of time, demanding that I resurrect his name.
Whatever the reason, Frank Luke has firmly etched a place on my list of historical favorites. So much so that when my husband and I visited the Meuse-Argonne cemetery during our European tour in 2018, I took the time to visit his grave. The curator there was incredibly kind, driving me out to the site and joining me in leaving flowers on his headstone. Giving it some new life after who knows how many years of neglect.
I know the flowers I left at that grave are long gone, but my writing about him here and elsewhere will forever stand. Just like Frank Luke did when he faced certain death near a brook in war-battered France.
“The Stand: The Final Fight of Lt. Frank Luke Jr” – S. Skinner
“The Balloon Buster: Frank Luke of Arizona” – N.S. Hall
“Terror of the Autumn Skies” – B. Pardoe
“They Fought for the Sky” – Q. Reynolds
All article photos by M.B. Henry – for more from Arizona and other US States, click here.
Cover photo photographed in “The Balloon Buster: Frank Luke of Arizona,” Norman S. Hall
AND A MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT!
My debut novel, “All the Lights Above Us,” a story that follows five women from different backgrounds as they struggle to survive D-Day, is up for pre-order. You can learn more about it (and reserve yourself a copy!) by clicking here. I absolutely cannot wait to share this story with all of you!