The practice of assigning the term “Ace” to fighter pilots accounting for five or more enemies destroyed in aerial combat began during World War I – “The Great War” – with Captain Eddie Rickenbacker becoming America’s top Ace with 26 “kills”; a considerable accomplishment given our relatively brief participation in that gigantic killing machine. (We had managed to escape the first bloody three years.) The top scorer in the four-year contest was Germany’s “Red Baron”, (Manfred von Richthofen) with 80 confirmed, followed by René Fonck of France with 75, Edward Mannock of England at 73, and Billy Bishop giving Canada 72 air victories. There were ten others credited with 60+ each over the four year stretch of daily air battles. It was a time of fabric-covered, lightly-powered and rather fragile flying machines, but all of that would change dramatically in the intervening years prior to the outbreak of WW II, with the 1936 Spanish Civil War giving the German military a head start, and the 1937 Sino-Japanese affair doing the same for the Empire of Japan.
Isolationist America watched from the sidelines, seemingly content with tactical aircraft such as the Curtis P-40, the Brewster “Buffalo” and the Navy’s Grumman F4F “Wildcat”, while Japan was flying the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” and Nakajima Ki43 “Oscar”, and Willie Messerschmitt had gifted the German Luftwaffe with an agile and powerful razor-wing fighter known as the Bf-109. Powered by a superb Daimler-Benz V-12 fuel-injected, liquid-cooled engine, this backbone of the German Air Force would know few peers in its evolving versions throughout World War II.
America’s first fighter Aces would emerge in the Pacific arena, where Richard Bong, flying the AAF P-38 Lightning would score 40 victories, followed closely by the Army’s Tommy McGuire, another P-38 pilot with a total of 38. Both would die before reaching their 25th birthday. The Marine Corps’ pugilistic Gregory “Pappy” Boyington flying the gull-winged F4U Corsair would account for 28 confirmed kills.
On the other side and flying Japan’s highly-maneuverable “Zero”, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa had at least 87 shoot-downs, with his friend Saburo Sakai ranking 4th with 64. Sakai, who would later become well-known in America, continued to fly combat after being shot in the head, partially blinded and disabled in a “dog fight”. (It is worth noting that if it were not for the fact that most Japanese pilots eschewed the use of parachutes out of samurai tradition, many more of their best would have survived to fight another day).
As most WWII aviation historians are well aware, it was a young, baby-faced blonde German Luftwaffe pilot named Erich Alfred Hartmann who became - and remains - the world’s greatest fighter Ace, with a confirmed score of 352 air victories, almost entirely against Soviet planes while fighting on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945. Known widely among his friends as “Bubi”, a nickname arising from his youthful boyish appearance, he was barely 20 years old when he graduated from cadet training and strapped on the famed Messerschmitt, known unfondly for its small confining cockpit. For “Bubi” it was love at first flight. (The Bf-109, with its closely-spaced landing gear was fiercely difficult to maneuver on the ground, but a glory to fly in the air.)
The son of a prominent Physician father, and a feisty mother who flew airplanes at a time when women didn’t even drive motor cars, Erich possessed a rare combination of talents. He was a gifted flyer, had the eye of a superb marksman, had the ability to learn quickly, and was entirely focused on driving the enemy from the sky; and he was blessed with that quality which can only be defined as LUCK. As a fighter pilot, he never varied the winning technique he had drilled into him by his mentors: get in close, don’t waste ammunition on poor shots, and never get involved in “dog fights”. In four years of daily fighting involving more than 850 individual engagements and nearly 1900 missions in enemy skies, his plane was never hit by Russian gunfire, although he crash-landed 14 times, sometimes behind enemy lines including one escape after capture. In almost every case, his 109 was damaged from the debris flying back from the unfortunate victims who usually didn’t even know Hartmann had closed to within 100 feet of their six o’clock. The Bf-109 was equipped with a cannon firing with deadly effect from its centerline, and Hartmann seldom needed more than a dozen explosive rounds to finish his target.
There are two unfortunate events which spoil the “White Knight” story. Surrendering to advancing U.S. forces at war’s end, he was thoughtlessly and stupidly turned over to the Russians and spent the next ten years in the cruelest kind of imprisonment in the worst gulags of the Soviet Union. And, even though returning to a career in the “new” post-war Luftwaffe, his brilliant knowledge and unrivaled leadership skills were treated with studied indifference by “political” Generals ambitious for advancement; ironically the same fate meted out to one of America’s “greatest” (in my humble opinion), WWII aviators, Paul Tibbetts – a subject for a future column.
P.S. The Soviet pilots Erich Hartmann shot down were not the hapless amateurs flying third-rate aircraft some historians claim. Flying superb Migs, Yaks, Ilushins and Airacobras, they produced more than 50 Aces of their own in WWII.
Luftwaffe “Ace” Erich Hartman at age 22, wearing the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross, with Oak leaves and Swords - Germany's highest military award, after his 301st combat victory in August, 1944. Hartmann died in Germany September 20th, 1993 at age 71.
A rare photo of one of the few Messerschmitt Bf-109 WWII fighters still flying anywhere in the world. During the war, Germany produced nearly 34,000 of these cutting edge warbirds.
Pictured high over Oregon’s Tillamook Aviation Museum, the beautifully-maintained Lockheed P-38 "Lightning" named Tangerine is one of the last of its breed still flying. One of the most under-rated American fighters of WWII, it was this plane that made Aces out of "Tommy McGuire and Dick Bong.
Courtesy Tillamook Aviation Museum