NEITHER side could afford to leave its lines undefended by
observation balloons for a longer period than was necessary for replacements.
Our onslaught of the early morning had destroyed so many of the Huns' Drachen,
however, that it was quite impossible for them to get new balloons up at once,
along their entire sector.
That same afternoon I flew along their lines to see what
progress they were making in replacements of their observation posts. The only
balloon I could discover in our sector was one which lifted its head just
behind the town of Sivry-sur-Meuse. I made a note of its position and decided
to try to bring it down early next morning.
Accordingly I was up again at the same hour the following
day and again found the sky promised clear weather. Leaving the field at 5:30.
I again took a course over Verdun in order to pick up the Meuse River there and
follow it as a guide.
On this occasion I caught a grand view of No Man's Land as
seen from the air by night. It was not yet daylight when I reached the lines
and there I caught a longitudinal view of the span of ground that separated the
two opposing armies. For upon both sides of this span of ground a horizontal
line of flashes could be seen issuing from the mouths of rival guns. The German
batteries were drawn up along their front scarcely a mile back of their line.
And on our side a vastly more crowded line of flashes indicated the
overwhelming superiority in numbers of guns that the American artillerymen were
using to belabor the already vanquished Huns. So far as my eye could reach,
this dark space lay outlined between the two lines of living fire. It was a
most spectacular sight. I followed down its course for a few miles, then turned
again to the north and tried to find the Meuse River.
After ten minutes' flight into Germany, I realized I had
crossed the river before I began to turn north and that I must be some distance
inside the enemy's lines. I dropped down still lower as I saw the outlines of a
town in front of me and circling above it I discovered that I had penetrated
some 25 miles inside Hunland and was now over the village of Stenay. I had
overshot Sivry by about twenty miles.
I lost no time in heading about towards France. Opening up
the throttle, I first struck west and followed this course until I had the
Meuse River again under my nose. Then turning up the river, I flew just above
the road which follows along its banks. It was now getting light enough to
distinguish objects on the ground below.
This Meuse River highway is a lovely drive to take in the
daytime, for it passes through a fertile and picturesque country. The little
city of Dun-sur- Meuse stands out on a small cliff which juts into a bend of
the river, making a most charming picture of what a medieval town should look
like. I passed directly down Main Street over Dun-sur-Meuse and again picked up
the broad highway that clung to the bank of the river. Occasional vehicles were
now abroad below me. Day had broken and the Huns were up and ready for work.
It occurred to me that I might as well fly a bit lower and
entertain the passing Huns with a little bullet-dodging as we met each other.
My morning's work was spoiled anyway. It was becoming too late to take on a
balloon now. Perhaps I might meet a general in his automobile and it would be
fun to see him jump for the ditch and throw himself down on his face at the
bottom. If I was fortunate enough to get him that would surely be helping along
Ahead of me I saw a truck moving slowly in the same
direction I was going. " Here goes for the first one! " I said to myself. I
tipped down the nose of my machine and reached for my triggers.
As my nose went down something appeared over my top wing
which took away my breath for an instant. There directly in my path was a huge
enemy observation balloon! It was swaying in the breeze and the cable which
held it to earth ran straight down until it reached the moving truck ahead of
me. Then it became clear as daylight to me. The Huns were towing a new balloon
up the road to its position for observation! They had just received a
replacement from the supply station of Dun-sur-Meuse, and after filling it with
gas were now getting it forward as rapidly as possible. It was just the target
I had been searching for!
Forgetting the truck and crew, I flattened out instantly and
began firing at the swaying monster in the air. So close to it had I come
before I saw it that I had only time to fire a burst of fifty shots when I was
forced to make a vertical virage, to avoid crashing through it. I was then but
four or five hundred feet above ground.
Just as I began the virage I heard the rat-tat-tat-tat of a
machine-gun fire from the truck on the road beneath me. And mingled with this
drum fire I heard the sound of an explosion in the fusilage just behind my ear!
One of their explosive bullets had come very close to my head and had exploded
against a longeron or wire in the tail of the aeroplane! There was nothing I
could do about that however, except to fly along as steadily as possible until
I reached a place of safety and could make an investigation of the damage
received. I cleared the side of the gas-bag and then as I passed I turned and
looked behind me.
The enemy balloon was just at the point of exploding and the
observer had already leaped from his basket and was still dropping through air
with his parachute not yet opened. It was a very short distance to Mother
Earth, and sometimes a parachute needs two or three hundred feet fall in which
to fully open and check the swiftness of the falling body. I wondered whether
this poor chap had any chance for his life in that short distance and just what
bones he was likely to break when he landed. And then came a great burst of
fire, as the whole interior of the big balloon became suddenly ignited. I
couldn't resist one shout of exultation at the magnificent display of fireworks
I had thus set off, hoping in the meantime that its dull glare would reach the
eyes of some of our own balloon observers across the lines who would thus be in
a position to give me the confirmation of my eleventh victory.
Again I decided to pay a call at Jerry Vasconcelle's field
at Verdun and there get out and ascertain the extent of the damage in the tail
of my Spad. Jerry welcomed me with some amusement and wanted to know whether
this dropping in on him was to be a daily occurrence. Yesterday it had been a
broken prop and today a broken tail. Before answering him I got out, and
together we made a minute examination of my machine.
A neat row of bullet holes ran back down the tail of my
machine. They were as nicely spaced as if they had been put in by careful
measurement. The first hole was about four inches back of the pad on which my
head rests when I am in the seat. The others were directly back of it at
regular intervals. One, the explosive bullet, had struck the longeron that runs
the length of the fusilage, and this had made the sharp explosion that I had
heard at the time. The gunners on the truck had done an excellent bit of
None of the holes were in a vital part of the machine. I
took off the field after a short inspection and soon covered the fifteen or
sixteen miles that lay between the Verdun field and our own.
Upon landing I found very bad news awaiting me.
On the previous afternoon Lieutenant Sherry and Lieutenant
Nutt, both of 94 Squadron, had gone out on patrol and had failed to come in.
Long after dark their mechanics remained on the field pooping up Very lights,
in the hope that they might still be searching about, trying to find their way.
At last we abandoned all hope ourselves and waited for the morning's news from
Now it had arrived and to my great joy it was in the form of
a telephone call from old " Madam " Sherry himself. But his next message
informed us that Nutt had been killed in combat! And Sherry himself had been
through an experience that might easily have turned one's hair gray. Just
before lunch time Sherry came in by automobile and told us the story of his
He and Nutt had attacked an overwhelming formation of eight
Fokker machines. They had stolen up on the Heinies and counted upon getting one
or two victims before the others were aware of their presence. But the attack
failed and suddenly both American pilots were having the fight of their lives.
The Hun pilots were not only skilful and experienced, but they worked together
with such nicety that Sherry and Nutt were unable either to hold their own or
Soon each was fighting a separate battle against four enemy
machines. Sherry saw Nutt go crashing down and later learned that he had been
shot through the heart and killed in air. A moment later Sherry's machine
received several bullets in the motor which put it immediately out of
commission. Dropping swiftly to earth. Sherry saw that the Hun pilots were not
taking any chances but were determined to kill him as he fell.
He was two miles and more in the air when he began his
forced descent. All the way down the enemy pilots pursued him, firing through
his machine continuously as it glided smoothly towards earth. Only by miracles
a dozen times repeated did he escape death from their bullets. He saw the lines
below him and made desperate efforts to glide his machine to our side of the
fence despite the furious attempts of the Boches to prevent this escape. At
last he crashed in one of the million shell-holes that covered No Man's Land of
last week. His machine turned over and broke into a score of fragments, Sherry
being thrown some yards away where he landed unhurt at the bottom of another
While he was still pinching himself to make sure he was
actually unhurt he discovered his implacable enemies piquing upon him with
their Fokkers and firing long bursts of bullets into his shell-hole with their
Sherry clung as closely to the sides of his hole as he could
and watched the dirt fly up all around him as the Fokkers made dive after dive
at him. It must have been like watching a file of executioners leveling their
guns at one and firing dozens of rounds without hitting one. Except that in
Sherry's case, it was machine-guns that were doing the firing!
Finally the Fokkers made off for Germany. Crawling out of
his hole, Sherry discovered that a formation of Spads had come to his rescue
and had chased the Germans homewards. And then he began to wonder on which side
of the trenches he had fallen. For he had been too busy dodging Fokkers to know
where his crippled machine was taking him.
One can imagine Sherry's joy when he heard a doughboy in
perfectly good United States yell from a neighboring shell-hole:
" Hey, guy! Where the h's your gas-mask? "
Madam didn't care for the moment whether he had a gas-mask
or not, so glad was he to learn that he had fallen among friends and was still
in the land of the living.
He quickly tumbled into the next shell-hole, where he found
his new friend. The latter informed him that he was still in No Man's Land,
that the German infantry were but a hundred yards away and that gas shells had
been coming across that space all the afternoon. He even gave Madam his own
gas-mask and his pistol, saying he guessed he was more used to gas than an
aviator would be! He advised Sherry to lay low where he was until nightfall,
when he would see him back into our lines. And thus Lieutenant Sherry spent the
next few hours reviewing the strange episodes that flavor the career of an
Sherry finished his story with a grim recital of what had
occurred when they went out next morning to recover Nutt's body. It too had
fallen in No Man's Land, but the Americans had advanced a few hundred yards
during the night and now covered the spot where Nutt's body lay. Sherry
accompanied a squad of doughboys out to the spot where Nutt's smashed machine
had lain during the night. They found poor Nutt, as I have said, with several
bullets through the heart.
They extricated the body from the wreckage and were
beginning to dig a grave when a shot from a hidden Hun sniper struck one of the
burial party in the foot. The others jumped to their guns and disappeared
through the trees. They soon returned with a look of savage satisfaction on
their faces, although Sherry had not heard a shot fired. While they continued
their work he strolled off in the direction from which they had returned.
Behind a trench dugout he found the German sniper who had
had the yellowness to fire upon a burial party. The man's head was crushed flat
with the butts of the doughboys' guns! * * * * *
" Frank Luke, the marvelous balloon strafer of the 27th, did
not return last night! "
So reads the last entry in my flight diary of September 29,
1918. Re-reading that line brings back to me the common anxiety of the whole
Group over the extraordinary and prolonged absence of their most popular
member. For Luke's very mischievousness and irresponsibility made every one of
us feel that he must be cared for and nursed back into a more disciplined way
of fightingand flyingand living. His escapades were the talk of the
camp and the despair of his superior officers. Fully a month after his
disappearance his commanding officer, Alfred Grant, Captain of the 27th
Squadron, told me that if Luke ever did come back he would court-martial him
first and then recommend him for the Legion of Honor!
In a word, Luke mingled with his disdain for bullets a very
similar distaste for the orders of his superior officers. When imperative
orders were given him to come immediately home after a patrol Luke would
unconcernedly land at some French aerodrome miles away, spend the night there
and arrive home after dark the next night. But as he almost invariably landed
with one or two more enemy balloons to his credit, which he had destroyed on
the way home, he was usually let off with a reprimand and a caution not to
repeat the offense.
As blandly indifferent to reprimands as to orders, Luke
failed to return again the following night. This studied disobedience to orders
could not be ignored, and thus Captain Grant had stated that if Luke ever did
return he must be disciplined for his insubordination. The night of September
27th Luke spent the night with the French Cigognes on the Toul aerodrome.
The last we had heard from Luke was that at six o'clock on
the night of September 28th he left the French field where he had spent the
night, and flying low over one of the American Balloon Headquarters he circled
over their heads until he had attracted the attention of the officers, then
dropped them a brief note which he had written in his aeroplane. As may well be
imagined, Luke was a prime favorite with our Balloon Staff. All the officers of
that organization worshiped the boy for his daring and his wonderful successes
against the balloon department of their foes. They appreciated the value of
balloon observation to the enemy and knew the difficulties and dangers in
attacking these well-defended posts.
Running out and picking up the streamer and sheet of paper
which fell near their office they unfolded the latter and read:
" Look out for enemy balloon at D-2 and D-4 positions.
Already Luke's machine was disappearing in the direction of
the first balloon which lay just beyond the Meuse. It was too dark to make out
its dim outline at this distance, but as they all gathered about the front of
their " office " they glued their eyes to the spot where they knew it hung. For
Luke had notified them several times previously as to his intended victims and
every time they had been rewarded for their watching.
Two minutes later a great red glow lit up the northwestern
horizon and before the last of it died away the second German balloon had
likewise burst into flames! Their intrepid hero had again fulfilled his
promise! They hastened into their headquarters and called up our operations
officer and announced Frank Luke's last two victories. Then we waited for Luke
to make his dramatic appearance.
But Luke never came! That night and the next day we rather
maligned him for his continued absence, supposing naturally enough that he had
returned to his French friends for the night. But when no news of him came to
us, when repeated inquiries elicited no information as to his movements after
he had brought down his last balloon, every man in the Group became aware that
we had lost the greatest airman in our army. From that day to this not one word
of reliable information has reached us concerning Luke's disappearance. Not a
trace of his machine was ever found! Not a single clue to his death and burial
was ever obtained from the Germans! Like Guynemer, the miraculous airman of
France, Frank Luke was swallowed by the skies and no mortal traces of him
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