The Arizona Dragonslayer

Tristen and Keaton

The telegram that started a war

A simple telegram plunged America into the Great War. The Zimmermann telegram, intercepted by American intelligence in April 1917, revealed Germany’s efforts to encourage Mexico to invade the United States. For a towheaded kid from Arizona named Frank Luke, Jr., and other citizens of the states along the Mexican border, the threat of invasion was real and personal.

Anti-German sentiment swept the nation that spring. Sauerkraut became “Victory Cabbage”, the precursor to Freedom Fries, and suspicion fell on families of German descent such as the Lukes, whose name had been Luecke just a generation before. The immigrants’ son Frank Luke, Jr. had a lot to prove when he joined the Army a few months later.

By the time Luke completed flight training, received his commission, and joined the 27th Aero Squadron in France in July 1918, the surge of American forces onto the Western Front promised a swift end to the war – and the life expectancy of a pursuit pilot at the front was just three weeks. If Frank Luke was going to prove anything, he needed to work fast. In just a few months, he would demonstrate how well he could work under pressure, becoming one of the most decorated flyers of the First World War.

Friends and family in Phoenix, Arizona, remember Frank Luke, Jr. as a fast-talking, confident, impulsive young man. The Army experienced this side of Frank early on; swamped with volunteers, they did not immediately respond to his enlistment application, so Frank wrote to the Adjutant’s Office to pester them for a report date. He received his reply and reported for duty on 29 September 1917.

In those early days of aviation, pilots took to the air in boxes of thin wood and lacquered canvas. Seated behind an engine belching smoke and splattering oil, pilots flew with a gas tank wedged under one arm, hand-pumping fuel as they kept a wary eye on their gauges. Even a small vibration could cause the fragile aircraft to shake itself apart in midair. The new Spad XIII pursuit planes were so unreliable that they posed a serious hazard to their pilots’ lives even outside of combat.

During flight training, Luke defined himself as a skilled and daring flier. Luke’s boisterous confidence followed him to his post in France, and his exuberant boasting of “I’ll get them Germans” quickly annoyed the seasoned pilots at Rembercort. They were even more irritated by his tendency to wander off from formation to hunt German aircraft, blaming engine trouble for his disappearance. He was an unreliable loner in the eyes of the other pilots, and his disappearances looked more like cowardice. Frank Luke, Jr

On 16 August 1918, Lt. Luke finally met the enemy when four German Fokkers cut through his squadron’s formation. Luke reported that he dove down on the last Fokker in the flight, shooting it right off the tail of his squadron commander, Major Harold Hartney. Major Hartney, who had seen the enemy aircraft behind him one moment and gone the next, accepted Luke’s story, but few others saw it or believed it. Frank Luke Jr. was branded a liar.

The start of the San Mihiel offensive on 12 September 1918 gave Luke his chance to prove his detractors wrong. To cover the advance on the ground, Lt. Luke’s squadron had been ordered to target and destroy German observation balloons. Observation balloons were rubberized silk bags filled with hydrogen, tethered to trucks or horse-drawn carts. A gondola suspended below the balloon held an observer equipped with a camera or a pair of field glasses. American pilots hunted them with incendiary bullets to ignite the flammable hydrogen gas. Spad XIIIs had to be outfitted with specialized machine guns to fire the rounds.

The Germans called the balloons Drachen, or Dragons, for their flammability and the roaring sound of their inflation; the Americans called them Sausages for their elongated shape. Whatever their name, these elevated observation posts had to be destroyed for the American advance to proceed. From aloft, balloon observers could see down into the American trenches, where troop movements were usually hidden from ground-level view. Observers could use this vantage to direct devastating artillery fire.

Drachen were among the toughest targets on the battlefield, even for the most skilled pursuit pilots. Located well behind enemy lines, they forced pilots to fly through patrolling Fokkers and over anti-aircraft emplacements just to get a shot at them. German fighter planes guarded the skies around the Drachen, and ground defenses included a battery of four to six anti-aircraft guns, accurate and deadly up to 14,000 feet. Low-altitude approaches faced Maschinengewehr08 machine gun emplacements and a platoon of infantry, whose rifles could be lethal against wood-and-canvas planes.

Storms battered the Western Front on 12 September. Lt. Luke spotted a Drache balloon hovering near the village of Marienville and dove on it from high above, swooping within yards of the top of the balloon, his left machine gun sputtering out incendiary rounds. After three close passes through a storm of German lead and shrapnel, the wet rubberized silk finally ignited, and a brilliant orange fireball marked Frank Luke’s first irrefutable kill.


Smith-Strickland, K, (2012). The Arizona Dragonslayer.,article #344. Retreived from


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