On the average tourist map, the tiny village of Murvaux
is non-existent. But if you buy a large, detailed Michelin map of France and a good magnifying glass, you'll find it represented by a tiny speck about 5 kilometers outside of Dun-sur-Meuse and about 30 minutes north of Verdun. Your best bet is to pick up the D102 in Dun, drive east for five minutes and don't blink. By the time you see the sign welcoming you to Murvaux, you've already passed the spot where Frank Luke
won his Medal of Honor on the afternoon of 29 September, 1918.
The saga of 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Jr. is a permanent part of the town's heritage. The village is home to 455 people, only 8 of whom are school-aged children. Though the last actual witness to the Luke incident, Auguste Cuny, died in January of 2000, nearly everyone in the area knows the story. America's leading ace at the time, Luke flamed three German observation balloons before being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Murvaux. Severely wounded, he landed his SPAD XIII
400 yards west of the village, about 50 yards north of the Milly creek. In an apparent attempt to hide in the bushes lining the creek, he crawled to the edge of the stream where German soldiers tracked him down and demanded his surrender. Luke answered by firing at them with his pistol, and fell dead moments later. Despite numerous attempts to rewrite the story, that summarizes the testimony of the only known eyewitness accounts ever produced.
In 1957, on the 39th anniversary of Luke's death, the 388th Fighter Bomber Wing erected a bronze plaque on a monument just west of Murvaux to honor Luke's heroism. It read "In memory of Lt. Frank Luke, balloon busting ace who critically wounded landed his SPAD 700 yards north and was killed by German small arms fire 29 September 1918." But the plaque has been missing for years, and townspeople theorize that it was stolen for the value of its bronze. The monument itself remains, but there's not a single word on it to recognize Frank Luke.
After my second visit to Murvaux in the fall of 1998, Scott Hamilton of theaerodrome.com
assisted me in posting a petition seeking replacement of the missing plaque. Much to my surprise, over 350 people from 20 different countries (who collectively assumed the name "Great War Aviation Memorial Committee") signed the petition, which was sent to the American Battle Monuments Commission in Paris and Serge Colin, the mayor of Murvaux.
After more than a year of shuffling from one bureaucracy to another, I was contacted by Lillian Pfluke of the ABMC who informed me she could help coordinate the installation of a new plaque. But since it was not erected or maintained by the U.S. government, I would have to provide private funding for the effort. Again, Scott Hamilton came to the rescue and posted an elaborate message on his web site explaining the effort and asking for funds. Donations poured in from all around the world for over three months and we raised $2,700 U.S. dollars - $700 more than my original goal, and more than enough to fund the entire project. 18 November, 2000 was set as the target date for the erection of the plaque and a small ceremony to observe the occasion.
Consumed by the responsibilities of fundraising, I was fortunate to have Billy Haiber (author of Frank Luke; the September Rampage
), Phil Rivers (superintendent of the U.S. Meuse-Argonne Cemetery) and John Davis (VFW Post 605 of Paris) take over the duties of organizing the ceremony. The results they achieved were beyond anything I imagined.
In late October I learned that Tim King, whose firm will produce an upcoming documentary on Luke, would also make the trip to record the entire event on video. By the time I arrived in Murvaux on the morning of the ceremony Tim was already at work. I found him in the middle of a farm field, ankle-deep in mud, with three local Frenchmen videotaping Luke's landing site (though he does not speak a single word of French) and preparing to interview several more later that evening. His work turned out to be the only video copy of the entire ceremony on this side of the ocean. More important still is my personal belief that Tim has the only American television footage ever taken of Murvaux, Luke's landing site, and the remaining physical landmarks of the area, and his documentary will show these sites to American audiences for the first time in the 82 years since Luke died.
Just before 3pm on Saturday, 18 November, 2000, cars began pouring into the western edge of the village. French national police were on hand to close the D102 and manage traffic, while pedestrians from the town began streaming toward the monument on foot. Photographers from newspapers and television stations covered the event, and an estimated crowd of 100 represented the United States, England, Denmark, Holland, Germany, France, the U.S. Marine Corps, the United States Air Force, the French military and the VFW. The plaque was unveiled following the playing of the French and American national anthems, with brief speeches given by Mayor Colin, Billy Haiber and a few brief words by yours truly. The town cemetery's caretaker even sandblasted the monument the previous week, and the stone looked bright and new again. The ceremony concluded with the playing of taps and a well-attended reception hosted by the people of Murvaux in the town's only restaurant.
The response of the residents throughout the area was phenomenal. I arrived the night before the ceremony at my hotel in Vilosnes, a small village fifteen minutes south of Murvaux, and was surprised to find that the proprietor already knew of the occasion and had received an invitation to attend. Several newspaper articles had spread the word in advance and the people of Murvaux received us as their own. They cooperated in every way possible for three days of research and interviews into the Luke incident, and the mayor acted as my personal guide and assistant. A warmer welcome from a kinder people is impossible to imagine.
The new plaque on the Frank Luke monument is identical to the old one - errors and all. It still places Luke's landing site over a quarter mile from the actual spot and it still refers to his posthumous promotion of Lieutenant which he never lived to receive. But I never felt that the wording should be altered - it's not my plaque to change. The only additions to the original wording are in small print at the bottom, where it says "Plaque restored by the Great War Aviation Memorial Committee and the People of Murvaux, 11 November, 2000." In a final twist of irony, they even misprinted the date of the plaque's restoration.
But any minor errors listed on the plaque will be corrected by a series of tourist brochures, funded by the extra money raised for the plaque's restoration and permanently filed in the Murvaux town hall. The brochures will outline the story of Luke's career, give what facts are known regarding his final hours, and designate the exact and true location of his landing site west of the village. They will be made available to WWI buffs, future researchers, and any tourists who visit the area through both the town of Murvaux and the Lorraine tourism bureau, and replenished when they are gone.
So after decades of neglect and anonymity, the monument to 2nd Lt. Frank Luke in Murvaux, France, once again testifies to the courage of America's leading balloon ace. And perhaps more importantly, it also testifies to the fact that there are at least 350 people who still cared enough to restore it.