Frank Luke’s story is one of the more difficult ones to explore. He was young when he signed up to become a pilot for the American Expeditionary Force and quickly became a brilliant pilot. His pace at scoring aerial victories in his short stint abroad (he was only an active combat pilot for a few short months in the second half of 1918) outmatched the infamous Red Baron. His fellow pilots were in awe of his ability.
But his style was reckless with little regard for his own life. He was reprimanded on more than one occasion during his service for disobeying orders and putting victory over everything. In reading about his life and accounts from people who knew him, its unclear whether he was arrogant or merely dogged in his pursuit of success.
Other pilots like him known for having a daredevil streak (Don Gentile comes to mind), often recalled themselves as being lost in the moment without true reason for their behavior other than wanting to push limits. I like to think from what I’ve read about Luke that this was his story as well, rather than some inherent need to be better than the rest. Though the ace race during WWI certainly encouraged one-upsmanship among the pilots.
This reckless disregard for everything but the win would be the characteristic that defined Frank Luke in both life and death – as his final act, while jaw dropping in ability, is hard to describe as anything but wildly dangerous and exceedingly unwise. Had he lived, he almost certainly would have gone down as the greatest American pilot of the war. In death, he’s remembered as a tragic symbol of the fate of so many of the young men who signed up to go overseas during the Great War.
Frank Luke went out in a blaze of glory, taking out a reported 3 observation balloons, 2 planes and 11 German soldiers on the ground with him. The details of his death are still widely debated to this day, as eyewitness accounts of the event are limited to German soldiers and French villagers under German occupation.
27th Aero Squadron Insignia – Frank Luke’s squadron
Frank luke Collections
Frank Luke's Medal of Honor
Frank Luke received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for an act of valor one day before his death.
Frank Luke's GUNSIGHT
Frank Luke’s gunsight, presumably from a SPAD XIII. Luke (or more likely his mechanic) reportedly made the modification to the center of the gunsight, where you can see the welded crosshairs.
Frank Luke Prayer Book
Frank Luke’s small prayer book contains a note from his mother. It reads “Lt. Frank Luke or my dear son Hoping this little book will keep you good. From your Loving Mother Nov 20. 1917”