In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1911 – which is today – I thought I would share a story about the first American airman to win the Medal of Honor with a 1911 in hand.
His name was Frank Luke and when I was a young whipper-snapper I was obsessed with WWI fighter pilots. To me, Frank Luke was a hero that represented the American fighting spirit. His exploits left such an impression on me I named my first son “Luke”
But that’s not important. What is important is what Lt. Frank Luke accomplished in 18 days and how his life ended on 29, September 1918.
Between 12 September, 1918 and 29, September 1918 Frank Luke became the most accomplished American fighter pilot in WWI. He shot down 5 airplanes and 14 observation balloons. He was known as the Balloon Buster and was dreadfully feared by the German crews that manned these floating gas bags.
On 29 September, while flying over Murvaux, France Luke shot down 3 ballons and was hit in the shoulder by anti-aircraft fire. He had to land his Spad XIII in a field near the town.
Gravely wounded, Luke abandoned his plane and headed for the cover of a nearby creek. The Germans were close behind. While opinions vary on what happened next, it is accepted that Luke, with his last few breaths, pulled his 1911 and engaged the enemy before succumbing to his wound. He was buried behind a small church in the town by the French residents and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Born on 19 May 1897, Frank was just 22 years old when he joined the Signal Corps. One year to the day after he arrived at School of Military Aeronautics, Frank Luke Jr. would be dead. He was from Phoeniz, Arizona and eventually Luke Air Force Base was named after him. In the Phoenix airport there is Spad XIII hanging from the ceiling which is painted just like one of the airplanes Luke fought in.
The irony of this story is that since 1918 airplanes have advanced in leaps and bounds compared to the Spad XIII Luke flew. It was one of the best airplanes of its day but pales in comparison to the jet fighters of our modern Air Force. Like his airplane, Luke’s pistol, the Colt 1911, was considered the finest fighting pistol of the day. And, it is still, almost 100 years later, thought by many to be the preeminent fighting pistol of all time.
Time changes most everything and there is no question the 1911 pistol has improved since 1918. However, it is still the same basic pistol Lt. Frank Luke used to fight out his last moments and is the first choice of many who think they might need to trust their life to a pistol some day.
NOTE: For more information on Medal of Honor winner Lt. Frank Luke, I strongly suggest you read a book entitled, The Stand by Stephen Skinner. It is an excellent account of Frank Luke’s life and one of the most detailed hitorical investigations I have ever examined.