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The First Warplanes by William E. Barrett

Frank Luke of Arizona was the most spectacular and controversial figure in the U.S.A.S. He was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron on July 26, 1918. He had the reputation as a superb pilot in the schools and in the ferrying service to which he was first assigned, but he had a long A.W.O.L. record.

English: US fighter pilot Frank Luke from http...

English: US fighter pilot Frank Luke from http://www.ku.edu/~kansite/ww_one/photos/greatwar.htm Photo was originally taken September 19, 1918. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twenty-seven had been particularly unfortunate in casualties but Luke was no help. He habitually dropped out of patrols, made wild claims of victories over whole flights of Fokkers while flying alone and continued the A.W.O.L. habit.

No flight leader wanted him because he was always a flight short when he deserted it. He would have been court-martialed or sent back to the pilot’s pool if Maj. Harold E. Hartney had not been interested in him as a man with the capacity to be a great war pilot.

On the night of Sept. 11, he heard Lt. Jerry Vasconcelles discussing the difficulty in shooting down balloons, which were always ringed with accurately ranged guns which cross fire above them and with machine gun nests.

The next day, with Joe Wehner, his only friend in the squadron, Luke took off and shot down a German balloon. It was Sept. 12. He got several more with Wehner riding top protection and an on Sept. 18 he performed the incredible feat of destroying two balloons, two Fokker D-7s and a Halberstadt in a trifle over a half hour. His friend Wehner was killed that day with a score of eight victories to his credit.

The cover of this book about Luke Short says it all. If a movie was made about him back in the day a young Steve McQueen would have been perfect.

The cover of this book about Luke Short says it all. If a movie was made about him back in the day a young Steve McQueen would have been perfect.

Luke’s record was now 14 victories, all scored within ten days. He was the leading American ace and 27 Squadron was, thanks to Luke and Wehner, the leading pursuit squadron.

Luke was given leave in Paris and when he returned, demanded that he be relieved of all other duties and assigned as a balloon specialist with a flight assigned to protect his top while he attacked. Refused this job, he again went A.W.O.L.

He was under arrest orders and facing a court-martial when he took off for the last time on Sept. 29 and destroyed his last three enemy balloons.

He was shot down behind enemy lines after getting his third balloon and fought on the ground with the German infantrymen who tried to take him prisoner. He killed several of them with his service pistol. Luke was killed on the ground, fighting as he had in the air.

The observation balloons of both sides were protected by a variety of anti-aircraft guns. Here is a German MG mounted on a truck for the purpose.

The observation balloons of both sides were protected by a variety of anti-aircraft guns. Here is a German MG mounted on a truck for the purpose.

His final victory score was 18, consisting of 14 enemy balloons and four enemy aircraft.
(The First War Planes by William E. Barrett, Fawcett Book 360, p. 126, 1960)

Cover of The First War Planes by William E. Barrett from 1960.

Cover of The First War Planes by William E. Barrett from 1960.

I found The First War Planes by William E. Barrett at an antique mall in my area. It was buried under a stack of far less interesting materials and I was glad I dug a little deeper into the pile!

The book is a treasure, published way back in 1960 and written by an aviation expert who served as a civilian lecturer for the Air Force in WW2. Chapters in the book include:

  • Famous WW1 Aces (snap shots of aces like Luke Short above)
  • Early Aerial Combat (at the start of the war pilots took pot shots at one another with rifles or pistols)
  • Scouting Planes (the development of aircraft between 1914 and 1918)
  • The First Fighters
  • Baron Von Richtofen (the most famous ace of WW1)
  • WW1 Bombers
  • The Flying Circus
  • Lafayette Escadrille (Americans that flew under the French flag)
  • Bloody April
  • American Squadrons (America was a late comer to WW1)

The copy I obtained for $8.00 is in excellent condition, pages a bit aged but not brittle and some bind wear. I saw one on Amazon for $40.00 in similar condition. Cover price was 75 cents in 1960 or about $6.00 today.

The author used photo’s from his personal collection all in black and white. The text is very readable including the more technical parts that deal with airplane development.

Back cover of The First War Planes. It advertises True Magazine one of the men's magazines from the 1950's and 60's. Judging by this cover that advertises WW1 warplanes and an odd story about a monkey pit I'd say True was relatively tame compared with Argosy or Saga from the same era. As a boy when I went to the "drug store" with my dad he would hustle me away from the men's magazine and direct me to comic books. The reason was Saga, Argosy and other men's magazines always had sexual content. Tame by today's lack of standards but enough that dad steered me away. I was too young to care and only figured this out years later as I discovered old magazines at antique stores and realized that was why I always got a comic book when I went with dad. As far as I know he never bought a racy magazine.

Back cover of The First War Planes. It advertises True Magazine one of the men’s magazines from the 1950’s and 60’s. Judging by this cover that advertises WW1 warplanes and an odd story about a monkey pit I’d say True was relatively tame compared with Argosy or Saga from the same era. As a boy when I went to the “drug store” with my dad he would hustle me away from the men’s magazines and direct me to comic books. The reason was Saga, Argosy and other men’s magazines always had sexual content. Tame by today’s lack of standards but enough that dad steered me away. I was too young to care and only figured this out years later as I discovered old magazines at antique stores and realized that was why I always got a comic book when I went with dad. As far as I know he never bought a racy magazine.

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