Luke AFB is named for the first aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Frank Luke Jr, born in Phoenix in 1897, died at age 21, after scoring 18 aerial victories in France during WW I, most of which were German observation balloons.

Frank’s life began in Phoenix on May 19, 1897. He was known as one of the best athletes in Phoenix High School. He was captain of the track team and a member of the basketball and football teams. Soon after America entered WW I, the 20-year-old enlisted as a private in the Signal Corps. There he began pilot training and began his brief career in France as a member of the 1st Pursuit Group in the 27th Aero Squadron.

His exploits covered a period of just 17 days, yet he destroyed 14 German balloons and four aircraft. While observation balloons may sound insignificant, these hydrogen-filled airships were expensive and of great military value. They served as observation posts, enabling both armies to see far behind enemy lines. These balloons were often protected by heavy anti-aircraft batteries and there was usually a flight of enemy pursuit planes nearby. To attack a gigantic gas-filled aircraft was tantamount to suicide. However, they became Luke’s primary targets. A kill was easily confirmed as the gigantic fireball fell from the sky. 

Luke’s commander said, “No one had the sheer contemptuous courage that boy possessed. He was an excellent pilot and probably the best flying marksman on the Western Front. We had many expert pilots and there was no shortage of good shots, but it was rare for any man to possess both abilities. He had the perfect combination.”

Luke shot down his first balloon on the 12th of September and his last one just two weeks later. At least 13 people in the village of Murvaux watched his final aerial maneuvers. This group later swore out an affidavit concerning the heroics of his last flight. They saw an American aviator with a squadron of Germans pursuing and firing at him. He descended suddenly vertically toward the earth, then flew toward Brier’s Farm where he shot down a German balloon despite relentless enemy fire. He destroyed two more balloons while flying through hostile fire from both ground fire and German aircraft. 

Although already wounded, Luke attacked another balloon. The Frenchmen saw it burst into flames and plummet earthward. The young aviator descended to within 50 meters of the ground and opened fire on enemy troops, killing six and wounding as many more. But his physical wounds and damage to his aircraft forced him to land. As German soldiers surrounded him, he drew his .45 service pistol and defended himself until he fell mortally wounded from a bullet in his chest.

The German commandant of the village was infuriated by the efficiency of Luke’s final attack. Witnesses reported that he kicked Luke’s corpse and snapped, “Get that thing out of my way as quickly as possible.” He refused to permit women to shroud his remains and did not allow straw in the cart that removed his body. Two men loaded the Arizonan’s body, escorted him to a cemetery, and buried him. The French who witnessed his final flight interred him with the few honors the Germans permitted. For several months after his death, his grave was marked with a wooden cross. His epitaph read, “Unknown American Aviator”. Bits of evidence from several sources finally identified this flier. His grave now bears the inscription,“2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., Pilot, 27th Aero Squadron; 18 victories. Killed in action Sept. 29, 1918.” To the French people of Murvaux, France he was the hero of the war.

His courage in combat earned him not only the nickname “The Arizona Balloon Buster”, but also the Medal of Honor. His awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Italian War Cross, and the Aero Club Medal for Bravery. In 1930, the American Society for the Promotion of Aviation named him the nation’s greatest air hero. It is little wonder Luke AFB was named in his honor in June 1941.



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