Praetorium Honoris


Saturday, March 23, 2019

Who They Are, Part VII - World War One Aces

These two pilots were the first I ever heard about, may have been a story told to me by my elders, may have been a television program. I do know that in the first grade when we were all asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, my answer was, "Fighter pilot." Not sure if the other kids even knew what that was. I did. These two pilots represented, to me, the finest of warriors, knights of the sky.

SPAD S.XIII in the colors and markings of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, U.S. 94th Aero Squadron.
This aircraft is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

A SPAD XIII painted to represent the aircraft flown by Arizona native Frank Luke, Jr.,
the first aviator awarded the Medal of Honor.

I have written of both men before, here and here.

As I grew up I learned that war in the air in World War I, though romanticized to a great extent, was still war. While it beat fighting in the trenches and pilots could return to their aerodromes for a decent meal, sleep between clean sheets, and perhaps have an adult beverage or two, it was still combat. Many pilots didn't return, some flew only one mission before dying.

It was brutally cold at altitude, remember these men flew in open cockpits, exposed to the elements, in machines that were not as robust as modern aircraft. There were no parachutes until very late in the war, though they had been invented before the war. Early 'chutes were just too bulky and not all that reliable to begin with. The cockpits were small, pilots had to bundle up (or risk freezing to death) and there just wasn't any room for a parachute.

The aircraft would often burn when hit, many aircrew would choose to jump, falling to their deaths rather than risk burning to death. I remember seeing a painting when I was a kid, it depicted two French airmen who had jumped from their burning aircraft. That image stays with me to this day. It took a brave man to just fly one of those early aircraft, let alone fight in one!

1Lt Luke didn't live to see the end of the war, one could say that he went out in a blaze of glory. While his exploits were heroic, I'm sure his family would have preferred that he returned home alive. Fate would have it otherwise.

As for Capt. Rickenbacker, he lived to a ripe old age, even after spending 24 days in a life raft stranded in the Pacific! (You can read about that here.) Pre-war race car driver, he knew his way around an engine as well.

It's good to have heroes, these are two of mine...



  1. For both actions performed less than two months before the Armistice, issued fifteen months later for Luke and over thirteen years later for Rickenbacker. The wheels of military bureaucracy grind slow sometimes. Your posting here Sarge got me to look up these warriors. Rickenbacker certainly had quite the career after the war especially in aviation. I don't think Luke would have fared as well post-war but what do I know. Luke certainly had the single-mindedness to go after the enemy no matter what.

    1. Rickenbacker was the more level-headed of the two, that's certain. Luke exhibited all of the traits of a warrior. Rickenbacker said that Luke feared nothing.

    2. Apparently even dying. Pistol against Infantry? Never give up, never surrender indeed.

  2. I read about Frank Luke in Boy's Life magazine in 1966 when I was in the seventh grade. Cojones.

  3. Their spirit and heroism inspired us all as boys. They were authentic in all respects, brave to a fault, and deserved the credit that they received. They weren't "participation trophy" types, and weren't hunting medals. They were warriors doing what warriors do. RIP to both Luke and Rickenbacker. They earned it.

  4. From my youth, I remember the "Balloon Buster" comic series, whose protagonist was loosely modeled on Luke. Also, the "Enemy Ace", Hans von Hammer! Those were the days.

  5. Two who are among the finest that the United States has produced.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  6. I remember reading about Rickenbacker’s raft journey when I was in grade school.
    The story mentioned his his WW I experience but not the details.
    Saw his name a number of times as the head of Eastern Airlines.
    I suppose I could be a little more curious. ;-)

    1. He was head of Eastern Airlines, I didn't know that until long after I knew his record as a fighter pilot!

  7. Till about 1916, the pilot was fighting for his life just flying, let alone having someone shoot at him. But after 1916, the planes were (mostly, some flying dogs still existed, especially in Britain) 'safe' and 'reliable.' That is, if you liked an overpowered engine where the rotation of the prop could torque it into a roll when taking off or other 'interesting' characteristics.

    Luke's career matched way too many on all sides of the war. Like a beautiful fireworks, leaving a brilliant trail and ending in destruction. And, well, transitioning from newbie to old hand had a very steep learning curve.

    Rickenbacker has always been one of my favorites. Someone, like Yeager, who kept pushing the envelope and knew what he was doing (for the most part.) Wicked smart, wicked innovative, adventurous, dashing, all the attributes of the daring young flying man (without the flaming death at the end, like Luke.)

    Thanks for doing these.

    Now make that link page, mister!

    So, now that I battered Microserf and the gremlins of Intel, I spent yesterday with unsuccessful update after unsuccessful update of Firefox. Cursed I am. But now everything is working, so far, so there's that.

    1. Re: "leaving a brilliant trail and ending in destruction" - happens to too many of the country's best.

      Glad to hear you persevered over the minions of Microserf and Intel.


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