Valor Friday

| April 26, 2019

army moh

Today’s Valor Friday honors two WWI Army fliers, Frank Luke and Joseph Wehner, and how teamwork would enable them to prevail in the air. For a time, anyway. As usual, a deep thank you to Mason for the research and write up. So here it is:


Today’s valor tale is another two for one. This time, the two men being honored were a team of air aces from the First World War. Frank Luke and Joseph Wehner were aviation pioneers that together logged 24 kills in the air over Europe.

There were four men awarded Medals of Honor for their exploits in the air during World War I. Two were posthumous for men trying to resupply the Lost Battalion. The other two were given to air aces. An ace is a fighter pilot who has downed five or more enemy airplanes. One of those was to a very famous aviator you’re sure to have heard of, the celebrated top American ace of the war, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. The last recipient is one of the subjects of today’s story, Lieutenant Frank Luke.

Frank Luke was born in Phoenix, in the Arizona Territory, and grew up in a family with eight brothers and sisters. A skilled athlete, he enlisted into the Aviation Section of the US Army Signal Corps shortly after America’s entry to the War in Europe.

Joseph Wehner meanwhile was born on the other side of the country. A native of Boston, he was also an athlete, and was working for the YMCA in Berlin when war broke out. He returned home and enlisted into the Aviation Section in June 1917. While receiving his flight training, Wehner’s German ancestry and recent ties to the country, and perhaps maybe his independent, loner personality, cast suspicion on him during the rampant anti-German sentiment of the time. He was arrested and investigated by the Secret Service, ultimately being exonerated and returned to duty.

Both Luke and Wehner received training as pilots, were commissioned second lieutenants, and were a part of the American Expeditionary Force headed to France in early 1918. By mid-summer 1918, the pilots’ paths crossed as they were both assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron. Aviators on the front lines had a short life expectancy. For example, in April 1917 the UK’s Royal Flying Corps showed pilots could expect to survive for just 69 hours in the air, the worst month for the war.

Flying during this period was very new. There were no old salts upon which to draw inspiration. The Wright Brothers had only flown for the first time 11 years before the war broke out. Airplane designs were being invented, fielded, and made obsolete in a span of months if not weeks. Literally everything being done was being done for the first time here. Aircraft were wood and fabric construction, with no hydraulic or electrical aids, and the art of flying was truly by the seat of their pants. There were no checklists and procedures. Pilots had stick, rudder, and throttle and little else.

Portable radios were also not yet practical. At best, two person artillery spotting aircraft would use a primitive Marconi wireless to transmit Morse from the back seat. Pilots couldn’t communicate with each other and could only communicate with the ground by dropping messages.

Luke was a brash, headstrong, and cocky 21 year old. Arrogant and with a sense of invulnerability, he had a penchant for flying alone and disobeying orders. He’d been at the head of all his flying courses and placed second in gunnery training. Eddie Rickenbacker said of Luke’s airmanship: “He was the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life is one of the brightest glories of our Air Service. He went on a rampage and shot down fourteen enemy aircraft, including ten balloons, in eight days. No other ace, even the dreaded Richthofen, had ever come close to that.”

Meanwhile the 23 year old Wehner and Luke, both kindred spirits, became close friends. This was good as Wehner was the only one willing to work with Luke on a regular basis. They became a tag team in the air with Wehner providing cover for Luke’s attacks on German observation balloons.

World War I is an interesting anachronism in military history. It is simultaneously the first “modern” war and the last “old” war. It’s a war that saw cavalry mounted on horseback, flanked by tanks. The first modern heavier than air aircraft attacking lighter than air observation balloons (in use for half a century) is but one example of this.

These balloons were like airborne observation posts. Vital to the commanders on the ground they provided a picture of the overall battlefield and could guide in artillery and air strikes. They were also large, relatively stationary targets that could be brought down with several well placed shots from a plane’s guns. Because of all this, they were very well defended. Dense networks of anti-aircraft guns surrounded them and they were given cover by friendly fighters. They were not the defenseless targets they at first appeared.

The 27th Aero Squadron had standing orders to attack these valuable targets. As such, Luke and Wehner were always on the hunt. During the month of September 1918 these two men would prove a terror to the Germans while flying their SPAD XIII.

Starting on September 12th, with Luke attacking the balloons and Wehner (now a 1st Lt) providing cover, Luke downed eight enemy balloons in just four days, becoming not only aces, but “balloon busters”. For this action Luke received the Distinguished Service Cross.

On September 15, Wehner came across a patrol of eight enemy aircraft attacking an American observation aircraft. He swooped in to attack, destroying one immediately, then forced another one down, out of control. His own plane severely damaged, he was able to convey the American plane to safety. For this, Wehner received the Distinguished Service Cross.

On the 16th of September Wehner again distinguished himself in armed aerial combat with the enemy. He swooped in to attack two German observation balloons. Through steady anti-aircraft fire and ground machinegun fire, Lieutenant Wehner downed both balloons. Wehner received an oak leaf cluster for his Distinguished Service Cross. That’s two DSCs in two days for those counting! Wehner had shot down five enemy balloons in just three days.

The 18th of September saw the luck of these two aces start to run out. While the two men were attacking a German balloon, Luke went in for the kill, and the enemy aircraft went after him. Wehner, as Luke’s cover swung in to defend him. One of the enemy Fokker D.VIIs was able to get a bead on Wehner and shot him down. Wehner survived the crash and was taken to a German hospital, but succumbed to his wounds a short time later.

After losing his friend and wingman, Luke continued the fight. He took out two of the D.VIIs, two balloons, and a Halberstadt observation aircraft as he was running out of fuel. This marked his 13th official kill. He received his second Distinguished Service Cross for his actions this day.

During these weeks, five times Luke returned to base with an aircraft so badly damaged that he had to take a new one out on his next mission. A squadron mechanic said Luke “had more guts, more skill, and less sense than any man I ever saw.”

Now the leading ace of aces (Rickenbacker had only eight at this time), Luke was even more incorrigible as an officer. He flew when he wanted to, often alone, and refused to file flight plans. He was unable to find any balloons until September 28. On that day he logged his 14th and 15th victories.

He then landed at a French aerodrome, claiming engine troubles, and upon his return to his base the next day his CO (a by the book military man) had reached his limits with Luke’s antics and lack of military bearing. The CO threatened Luke with arrest for being AWOL, to which Luke promptly took off without orders, alone, and went to Verdun. The CO called ahead to Verdun with orders to arrest Luke should he arrive. Once at Verdun, Luke’s former CO, now the group commander, was more sympathetic. He cancelled the arrest order and gave Luke tacit approval to continue balloon busting.

And so out Luke went on the evening of 29 September towards the end of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He came across three German balloons in the area of Dun-sur-Meuse, about six miles behind enemy lines.

He dropped word to a nearby US balloon company to watch his coming attack, since kills needed to be witnessed to count. He swooped in on the three balloons and was successful in shooting all three down. However, he was struck by a machinegun round from a hill above him about a mile away from the last balloon. Hitting his right shoulder, passing through him, and out his left side, the bullet severely wounded him.

He found a spot to set down near the town of Murvaux. Once on the ground, he exited the aircraft and headed to the thick brush of a nearby steam, the Ruisseau de Bradon, a tributary of the Meuse River. He made it 200 feet before collapsing. Lying in the French field, unable to continue moving, Frank Luke drew his 1911 as German infantry closed in. He fired several shots into the approaching enemy before dying from his wounds. He died less than ten minutes after downing his 18th and final enemy aircraft.

For this last sortie, Frank Luke was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first airman to receive the honor.

Early reports and confusion caused by translations from witnesses clouded his MoH citation and have contributed to some mythology surrounding his final flight. That he went down fighting to the end is without doubt. That he was found dead the next day with an empty magazine and seven dead German soldiers around him turned out to be false.

Wehner officially tallied six aerial victories (three shared) while Luke had 18 (four shared). Luke scored all of these kills during just 10 sorties in eight days, a feat unmatched by any other pilot during the war. Luke is officially the US Army Air Service’s second highest scoring ace of the war, behind Rickenbacker. Though an interesting footnote of history is that 17 of Luke’s 18 kills were “destroyed” (as opposed to downed) while Rickenbacker only managed that on 11.

Both Luke and Wehner were interred in France after the war, with Wehner being re-interred in 1921 in his hometown in Massachusetts. I’d like to think these two warriors are together forever now, continuing to watch each other’s wings.

Memorials to both men exist, but the one you might be most familiar with is Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix. As Paul Harvey would say, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

Copies of their award citations can be found here:
Joseph Wehner
Frank Luke

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Category: Army, Blue Skies, Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor, We Remember

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1LT Joseph Frank “Fritz” Wehner:

Two Distinguished Service Cross.

2LT Frank Luke, Jr, the “Arizona Balloon Buster”:

Two Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.


The heck with doing a remake of “Top Gun”. A movie should be made of these two Brave young Men who sacrificed their lives for our Country.

Friendship. Gives new meaning to the term “Wingman”.

Salute to both Men.

Thank You, again, Mason, for doing an excellent job of researching and sharing these stories. You and Ed have become our Valor History TAH Teachers.

Never Forget.


BTW: I enjoy this “Twofer” better than Oscar Rodriguez’s “Twofer”…



Wilted Willy

Wow, what a great story! I don’t know how they got in the cockpit with those enormous clanking balls?

5th/77th FA

Outstanding write up on these two (2) Winged Warriors Mason. We are thoroughly enjoying these Valor Friday Posts. “…that such men lived.”

My final ex father-in-law (a damn good man that I highly respected) was a Hell diver driver in the closing days of WWII. Afterwards, he hired on with Eastern and knew and associated with Eddie Rickenbacker. It is reputed that Rickenbacker would tell his civilian pilots not to go all Frank Luke. He had much respect for the man.

You know he was a real Warrior when he used a 1911 to take out just a few more.


There is a post-WWI black & white film about aerial combat. “Wings” is the title. It may have been inspired by Wehner, Luke and Rickenbacker.

But, yes, I agree, a movie about this would be worth the time and effort it takes to film it.

sgt. vaarkman 27-48thTFW

The “Dawn Patrol” with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone was a great WW1 aviation flic for a movie about those days

sgt. vaarkman 27-48thTFW

Frank Luke is one of the influences on me for joining the USAF. As well as Killer Kane and the Ploesti mission.
I had read these stories when I was an adolescent and had also built a model of his SPAD and a Neiuport, I still have that hobby and have thought of revisiting and doing WW1 aircraft.
, as a change up from doing F1 race cars, which I have been doing for the last few years.
A great old guy hobby keeps me out of trouble