By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia, Jan 3, 2019
Some in the West Valley and elsewhere are working to keep the memory of Frank Luke Jr. alive – both at home and abroad.
Drawing their inspiration from one of Arizona’s original local heroes, the members of the nonprofit Fighter Country Partnership and Fighter Country Foundation continue a mission “To Aid, Support & Honor” the men, women, and families who serve at Luke Air Force Base.
A contingent of the group’s members traveled last summer to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Luke’s final mission and the inspiration his heroic acts still bring to the people who live in the small, rural village where his brief life came to an end.
Bill Pupo, a former city manager in Surprise, is a member of the partnership and was part of the entourage, who traveled to Murvaux, France for the Sept. 28, 2018 ceremony.
The event was attended by local leaders and villagers from France, as well as civic leaders from around Arizona.
Mr. Pupo said he was impressed by how much the locals seemed to know about Luke, as well as their reverence for his memory.
“It’s just a small village, but they have a memorial monument there for Frank Luke, that they take very good care of,” Mr. Pupo said. “It was very memorable. Across the field from the monument in Murvaux, they also had placed a small, white flag on the exact spot where the villagers believe he lost his life.”
A 21-year-old Phoenix native, Mr. Luke entered combat as a Second Lieutenant with the 27th Aero Squadron in July 1918 piloting the French-made Spad S.XIII, a single-engine biplane made mostly of cloth and wood.
During a 17-day period between Sept. 12 and Sept. 29, he was credited with shooting down 14 heavily defended German observation balloons and four enemy fighters, making him the leading American fighter ace of World War I up to that point.
His achievement was only later succeeded by Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s “Ace of Aces,” who racked up 26 aerial victories and survived the war.
But early in America’s engagement in the war, Mr. Luke, who would become the first fighter pilot to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, was already a legend to those with whom he served.
Mr. Rickenbacker said of the famously self-assured Mr. Luke: “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 [Red Baron] Richthofen, had ever come close to that.”
Mr. Luke’s heroic run of only 10 missions came to end on the 29th of September when he was mortally wounded by ground fire and subsequently crash landed at Murvaux; but not before making a strafing run against enemy troops advancing near the village.
Emerging from the wreckage of his broken kite, the lieutenant engaged the German enemy with his Colt sidearm, choosing to continue the fight rather than surrender.
The people of the village were inspired that day and have continued to honor his memory year-after-year over the past century, according to retired USAF Col. Jeff “Bart” Weed, an F-16 fighter pilot and later vice commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, who organized the ceremony in France.
He said while on assignment in Germany a few years ago, he made the two-hour drive to Murvaux out of curiosity and to see the memorial to Mr. Luke, whose story he had shared with incoming classes of pilots at the base during his tenure there.
Mr. Weed said he was surprised to meet a villager who seemed to know as much or more about Mr. Luke as himself, pointing out sites of interest around the little town as he unfolded his recollection of the events.
“It really brought it home for me, the reality of the story,” Mr. Weed said. “What he told me in his broken English as I spoke to him in my broken French was that every mayor of the village since 1918 has learned and shared the story of Frank Luke.”
Villagers there and all across France take special steps every year to tend the monuments and gravesites of Americans who fought and died during the world wars, still grateful for their sacrifices, Mr. Weed said.
“I think not many understand how much the French people appreciate and remember what Americans have done for them twice to help protect their freedoms,” Mr. Weed said. “French families sign up on a list every year to go around and care for the gravesites of fallen American soldiers.”
The story resonates at home still, too, as successive generations of fighter pilots learn about Mr. Luke and his heroic sacrifices, he said.
“One of the things we especially try to teach our young fighter pilots is the spirit of attack,” Mr. Weed said. “When you talk about Frank Luke, you talk about that spirit. He got so good at what he did so fast, his spirit embodies what we want in a fighter pilot. From the minute he arrived at the front, he set out to prove he could do what he said he could do. That’s what made him so special and why we remember him today.”
Another decorated former F-16 fighter pilot, James “Rusty” Mitchell, was commander of the 21st Fighter Squadron at Luke AFB and now directs the community initiatives team at Luke AFB and serves as a liaison between the base and the Fighter Country Partnership when he isn’t busy with his day job as a commercial airline captain.
Mr. Mitchell worked with Mr. Weed to organize the Frank Luke centennial events, with a concurrent program held at the Arizona Capitol last summer.
He said Mr. Luke’s actions in 1918 inspired the people of Murvaux because his conspicuous bravery gave them hope at a time when all hope seemed lost.
“They’ve handed the story down, generation to generation through mayors and city leaders to be knowledgeable of the subject and take it on themselves to care for his memorial,” Mr. Mitchell said. “America’s entry into World War I helped turn the tide of the war and bring it to a conclusion.”
He said the Fighter Country Partnership carries on Luke’s spirit as it serves the Luke AFB community, setting the Arizona base apart from others around the country.
“They’re an incredible organization and Luke AFB is the envy of the Air Force across the U.S. for the kind of support they get,” Mr. Mitchell said.
The organization, founded in 1993, conducts a variety of fundraisers and activities supporting those who serve at Luke AFB, as well as their families.
Programs include the Spouse and Family Support Fun, Airmen Readiness Center, chaplain services, Luke Airmen Memorial Fund, financial literacy, summer camps and holiday programs.
Since 2015, the partnership and foundation have engaged in the $5.8 million Luke Forward Campaign, which has funded projects including the Honor Guard Headquarters, Airman Leadership School, an outdoor hockey rink, child development center, Club 56 Conference Center and Flight Line Kitchen, among many others.
The partnership is now planning its 10th Annual Commanders Golf Classic, which will be hosted in May at a date yet to be announced – sponsorships are still available, according to Mr. Pupo, one of the event organizers who is also an honorary commander and member of the organization’s Blue Blazers group.
Mr. Pupo said they will soon announce the date for the next golf event. He encouraged others in the community to get involved because the work is important and rewarding.
“This is my way to give back,” Mr. Pupo said.
He said the group seeks sponsors, donors, and volunteers to support its mission across Arizona.