Of the hundreds of young men who received their initial flight training at the Scott Field Flying School in 1917-18 and later fought the Germans over the Western Front during WWI, 1st Lt. Joseph Frank “Fritz” Wehner still stands out a century later.
Wehner was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on Sept. 20, 1895, the son a German immigrant. His athletic prowess as captain of the Everett High School football team earned him a scholarship to the Phillips Exeter Academy in 1914. After graduation, he worked for the Young Men’s Christian Association in Berlin, Germany, and in Allied Prisoner of War camps in Germany before the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Germany and entered WWI in April 1917. After returning home, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in June 1917.
Between September and December 1917, Cadet Wehner attended the first basic flying course at Scott Field, flying Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” training biplanes under Maj. Jack W. Heard as chief pilot. On Sept. 14, 1917, Maj. Sheldon H. Wheeler assumed command of flying training until the end of the flying season on Dec. 18, 1917. Wehner’s instructor pilots during the 1917 flying season were Lt. Paul Prevost of the French Army and civilian instructors, Mr. Hill, Mr. William H. Couch, Mr. J.C. Jones, and Mr. Lewis. Wehner and 23 fellow cadets received their commissions as second lieutenants at Scott Field after successfully completing the course.
Due to his German ancestry and recent residency in Germany, he became a victim of the anti-German hysteria gripping the U.S. when, while attending flight training elsewhere in the U.S., he was placed under investigation, followed by an unsubstantiated arrest on suspicion of treason by the Secret Service. When finally cleared of all charges, he departed for Europe in February 1918. He was initially assigned to the 3rd Aviation and Instruction Centre at Issoudun, France, for advanced training in French fighter aircraft. Wehner was bitter and withdrawn over the question of his loyalty.
IN COMBAT OVER THE WESTERN FRONT (JULY-SEPTEMBER 1918)
On July 25, 1918, he was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron under the command of Maj. Harold Hartney, where he became wingman to the mercurial 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., himself a loner and a child of a German immigrant. Together, the team of Luke and Wehner made life miserable for German kite-type or “sausage” observation balloons along the front, known as the “eyes and ears of the German artillery.”
The reports of aerial observers crouched in balloon baskets hundreds of feet in the air were considered so valuable to the German Army that extreme measures were taken to protect them. The balloons were strongly protected by antiaircraft artillery and machine guns on the ground, as well as fighter planes circling overhead waiting to pounce on any Allied aircraft that threatened the balloons. As a result, “balloon busting” was generally considered more hazardous than dogfighting, but counted the same as downing an enemy aircraft for aerial victory credits.
LUKE AND WEHNER’S BALLOON-BUSTING TACTICS
Luke and Wehner had a strategy to knock out the heavily-defended balloons: Luke would fly directly toward the balloon at tree-top level, while Wehner climbed high above him to protect him against the enemy top cover. Luke counted on the suddenness of his attack to achieve victory and escape enemy fighters.
In just three days of aerial combat in mid-September 1918, Wehner destroyed one Fokker D.VII and five observation balloons, becoming an ace.
WEHNER’S AERIAL VICTORIES (DATE, OPPONENT, LOCATION)
▪ Sept. 15, 1918: Observation Balloon Bois d’Hingry, France;
▪ Sept. 16, 1918: Observation Balloon Romagne, France;
▪ Sept. 16, 1918: Observation Balloon Mangiennes, France;
▪ Sept. 18, 1918: Observation balloon Mars la Tour, France;
▪ Sept. 18, 1918: Observation Balloon Mars la Tour, France;
Note: A German Fokker D.VII claimed by Wehner on Sept. 15, 1918, was never confirmed.
DEATH OF 1ST LT. WEHNER
On Sept. 18, 1918, the Luke-Wehner team took off on a mission to destroy three enemy observation balloons along the front. En route, the team was attacked by a formation of Fokker D.VII fighters. As usual, Wehner engaged the enemy fighters while Luke continued his flight through the anti-aircraft fire directly towards the first balloon, sending it down in flames.
With Wehner blocking a fresh fighter attack, Luke shot down the second balloon. Unfortunately, while protecting Luke from fighter attack as he attacked the third balloon, Wehner’s SPAD XIII was badly hit by German 15-victory ace, Lt. Georg von Hantelmann, of “Jagdstaffel” (fighter squadron) 15, sending the plane out of control and crashing to earth in enemy territory.
Seeing the loss of his friend, Wehner, Luke turned on the German attackers, shot down two Fokker D.VIIs, and drove off the rest. A distraught Luke ignored all congratulations upon returning to base, as the victories had cost the life of his friend and wingman. Luke had nothing to say to anyone. Wehner died in a German hospital a short time later from his injuries, two days before his 23rd birthday. For his heroism on Sept. 15-16, 1918, Wehner was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with one Oak leaf Cluster.
Luke himself would be killed in action 11 days later at the age of 21 as the then top-scoring American ace, with four enemy aircraft and 14 balloons to his credit, five victories ahead of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker of the 94th Aero Squadron. Luke was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Sources: Article, Al Dougherty (Scott AFB Historian), “Frank Luke’s Wingman was Scott Graduate” June 15, 1960, page 15; Article, www.theaerodrome.com/aces/usa/wehner.php; Article, www.valor.militarytimes.com; Article, “And Here Are the Cadets” by Lt. Terrence T. Shannon, Scott Field Yearbook 1918.