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'THE ARIZONA COWBOY' FLIES HIGH OVER THE WESTERN FRONT

The Balloon Buster - Norman S. Hall
 

"THE BALLOON BUSTER" is a slim biography - told by the author with some dramatic flourishes - about America's No. 2 fighter ace of the First World War: Frank Luke, Jr. of Phoenix, Arizona (1897-1918).

 

Luke's combat record with the 27th Aero Squadron is all the more remarkable because between September 12, 1918 and September 29, 1918, Luke scored the bulk of his 18 confirmed victories over the Western Front. The bulk of these victories were against the German Drachen or observation balloons, which were highly dangerous to attack because they were heavily protected by anti-aircraft artillery and machine guns -- as well as by a covering flight of German fighters. These 'Drachen' (which carried an observer) were used to great effect to spot Allied artillery over the battlefield, whose positions could then be accurately pinpointed and destroyed - thus playing a significant role in the outcome of any battle or offensive.

Luke, who had been assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron in July 1918 (then commanded by Harold Hartney, with whom Luke developed a rapport; Hartney later commanded the First Pursuit Group. of which the 27th was a part), was regarded as a 'lone wolf' by his squadron mates. He was a bold, intrepid pilot who claimed an unconfirmed victory the following month, which further alienated him from his fellow pilots. They regarded Luke as a braggart and a non-conformist. But no-one could deny his skills as a fighter pilot and (after September 12, 1918) his bravery. Luke teamed up with Lt. Joseph Wehner (the 2 men proved to be kindred spirits) and over a 6 day period during the Battle of St. Mihiel, formed one of the most effective 1-2 teams of any fighter squadron in the United States Army Air Service (USAS) on the Western Front. Between September 12 and September 18, 1918 (when Wehner was killed in a dogfight protecting Luke while Luke was attacking German observation balloons over the battlefront), Luke was credited with shooting down 10 Drachen and 3 enemy planes. What makes this record all the more remarkable is that in the course of the September 18th mission alone, Luke shot down 2 Drachen and 3 enemy planes!

Luke was distraught over Wehner's death and was given a 2-week leave in Paris. But Luke was restless. He cut his leave short and returned to his unit. On his last mission over the lines (September 29th, 1918), Luke dropped a note to an American unit. The note contained the following message: "Watch three Hun balloons on the Meuse. Luke." Well, Luke attacked those 3 balloons and shot them down! (These victories were confirmed by that American unit). Sadly, Luke was gravely wounded and crash landed in a village behind German lines. Rather than surrender, Luke shot it out with a group of German soldiers who returned fire and killed him.

On the whole, "THE BALLOON BUSTER" - though told with some hyperbole - was an interesting book to read.