The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II

Larry Holzwarth - October 31, 2020

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Japanese Army ace Satoru Anabuki. Wikimedia

19. The Imperial Japanese Army produced its own aces during the war

The leading Japanese Army Air Force ace is disputed, with some counts beginning with the launch of the war in China. Others consider the outbreak of the Pacific War in December, 1941, as the starting point. If considering the latter, credit as the leading Japanese Army ace goes to Satoru Anabuki. Satoru scored his first victory during the invasion of the Philippines in 1941. Most of his war record is extracted from his own diaries, though cross-matching with Allied records confirms most of his claimed kills. He fought in the Philippines, Burma, India, China, the Philippines again after the Americans invaded, and finally in defense of the Japanese Home Islands.

Long duty in the China Burma India (CBI) Theater meant most of his opponents were British Empire aircraft. He claimed victories over several British aircraft types, including Hurricanes and Spitfires, as well as American aircraft in the Philippines. His last victory occurred over Japan when he shot down an American B-29 Superfortress. He claimed 51 victories, 39 of which have been confirmed, and his final count may have been somewhere in between. After the war, he joined the Japan Self-Defense Force in 1950 as a helicopter pilot and later worked for Japan Air Lines.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Admiral Marc Mitscher speaking to Commander David McCampell, aboard ship in 1944. US Navy

20. The US Navy produced the highest-scoring American ace to survive the war

US Navy Commander David McCampbell became an ace in a day on June 19, 1944, during the action which Naval Aviators nicknamed “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot“. He flew two sorties that day, shooting down five Japanese dive bombers during the first, and adding two fighters in another mission later in the day. In October, 1944. McCampbell became the only American aviator of any branch of the service to become ace in a day twice. During the early movements of the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines, McCampbell shot down nine Japanese aircraft, seven of them the formerly greatly feared Zero fighter.

McCampbell’s nine kills on a single mission remain a record for American airmen. He landed on USS Langley following the action, to discover he had only two rounds of remaining ammunition. During the attack, his wingman shot down an additional six Japanese aircraft, which normally would have brought wide acclaim, but which McCampbell’s tally overshadowed. Commander McCampbell received the Medal of Honor for the two ace in a day missions. His wartime total of 34 Japanese aircraft destroyed marked the most for the US Navy, and he was the highest-scoring American ace to survive the war. McCampbell retired from the Navy in 1964, after career spanning 30 years.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Joe Foss, as a captain, United States Marine Corps. USMC

21. One American ace later served as a Commissioner of Professional Football

The United States Marine Corps’ Joe Foss had to fight to receive training as a fighter pilot, since the Corps considered his age of 26 to be too old for the role. His persistence paid off, and in 1942 he and his air group, VMF-121, arrived at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field. As part of the famed Cactus Air Force, as it came to be called, Foss endured shelling from the Japanese Navy, strafing and bombing attacks by enemy aircraft, and near-daily combat operations. His victory total rose steadily. In November he was shot down, ditching at sea. Rescued, he soon contracted malaria, and evacuated to Australia to recover. In 1943 he returned to Guadalcanal.

He became the first American pilot to match Eddie Rickenbacker’s score of 26 enemy planes, receiving the Medal of Honor in March, 1943. After the war (in which he contracted malaria a second time) Foss returned to his native South Dakota, entering politics. Eventually, he served two terms as Governor. In 1959 he became the first Commissioner of the new American Football League, and engineered the lucrative television contracts which ensured the league’s success. John Wayne attempted to make a film based on Foss’s war years in 1955, but the project fell through. In 2002 Foss was stopped at Sky Harbor in Phoenix, and his Medal of Honor was confiscated. Eventually, it was returned, following a national furor over TSA’s failure to recognize America’s highest military award.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Waist gunners in a B-17 Flying Fortress. USAAF

22. Not all of the airborne aces were pilots

Official recognition has never been given to scores of airmen directly responsible for five or more aerial victories over enemy aircraft. These were the men who served as aircrews, in the Air Forces and Naval Aviation units during World War II. Several men who flew in heavy bombers operated machine guns, destroying enemy fighters attacking their groups. In the US Navy, rear gunners in torpedo planes, dive bombers, and assault aircraft defended their craft and others. Frederick Barker of the RAF destroyed 13 German airplanes, serving in a Bolton-Paul Defiant. Staff Sergeant Michael Arooth received credit for 17 aircraft destroyed as a tail gunner in B-17s.

Regardless of the side on which they served, they endured frigid conditions, anti-aircraft fire, and the high-speed fighters puncturing the thin skins of their aircraft with heavy-caliber bullets and shells. In recent years, some attempts have been made to identify them and compile accurate lists of their contribution to their nation’s respective war efforts. In the United States 8th Air Force alone, gunners on B-17s and B-24s destroyed over 6,000 enemy aircraft, with another nearly 2,000 listed as probably destroyed. America’s list of aviation aces, which demands five kills for entry, ignores the names of the many gunners who meet that criteria.

23. An ace known as the Knight of Malta came from Canada

The most successful Canadian fighter ace of the Second World War, George Beurling, first attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, only to be rejected. His parents then denied permission for him to journey to Finland and enter the Finnish Air Force during the Continuation War. He journeyed to Britain intent on enlisting in the RAF, but he forgot his passport, forcing him to return to Canada to retrieve it. When he finally entered the RAF in 1940, the British took note of his several hundred civilian flying hours. He qualified for fighter training, eventually entering combat at the controls of a Supermarine Spitfire in 1941.

During the siege of Malta in 1942, Beurling operated his Spitfire from bases on the island, after flying to it from the deck of the aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle. Chiefly operating against Italians, Beurling destroyed a remarkable 27 aircraft in 14 days, earning the appellations “Knight of Malta”, and “Eagle of Malta”. Eventually, his total for the war reached 31.5 enemy planes destroyed. Beurling’s military service, dotted with disciplinary issues over his penchant for stunt flying and aerobatics over aerodromes, came to an end in April, 1944. Over the course of his flying career, Beurling suffered 10 aircraft crashes, the final being fatal on May 20, 1948. He had been recruited to deliver P-51 Mustangs to Israel from Rome. He died in the crash of his transport plane as he attempted to land at dell-Urbe Airport in the Italian capital.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Lydia Litvyak, the highest scoring female combat ace in history. Wikimedia

24. Female combat aces fought in the Soviet Air Force

Several women fought in all branches of the Soviet military during the Second World War. Soviet pilot Lydia Litvyak accounted for a total of 12 German aircraft destroyed during her war service. In doing so she claimed several firsts. She was the first woman to shoot down an enemy airplane, the first to claim the title of ace, and the first to achieve twelve victories. Her record for women aviators still stands. Lydia, a Russian from Moscow, learned to fly at an early age. Her father became a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge, vanishing in 1937. By then Lydia was already an accomplished pilot, training others to fly. By the time of the German invasion, she had trained more than 40 students to fly.

Lydia falsified her flight log, adding more than 100 hours to her time, in order to join an all-female aviation unit. She first flew in combat in 1942, scoring her first victories in September. Wounded in several attacks, and forced to perform at least one belly landing in a badly damaged aircraft, her tally reached 12 victories by the late summer of 1943. On August 1, 1943, flying her fourth mission of the day, Lydia’s aircraft fell prey to a pair of bf 109s. Lydia failed to see them as she prepared her own attack on a formation of German bombers. A mere 21 years of age at the time of her death, she received the title Hero of the Soviet Union from Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Erich Hartmann, the Most Successful Fighter Pilot of All Time”. Diane Tedeschi, Air & Space Magazine. October, 2020

“Dogfight: The Greatest Air Duels of World War II”. Tony Holmes, ed.” 2011

“Air Aces of World War II”. Robert Jackson. 2005

“Americans in the Royal Air Force”. Online Exhibition, Royal Air Force Museum. Online

“The Three that Got Away”. Alan Burgess, NOVA Online.

“Forgotten American War Heroes”. Larry Holzwarth, History Collection, October 15, 2018

“Bong, Richard”. Entry, Medal of Honor Recipents, World War II. US Army Center of Military History. Online

“Japanese Naval Air Aces and Fighter Units in World War II”. Ikuhiko Hata; Yasuho Izawa. 1990

“The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business”. Khalid Elhassan, History Collection, 2020

Stalin’s Falcons: The Aces of the Red Star”. Tomas Polak, Christopher Shore 1999

“The Second World War in the Air: The story of air combat in every theater of World War II”. Merlyn Bourne. 2013

“The Greatest Generation”. Tom Brokaw, 1998

“The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II”. Khalid Elhassan, History Collection, 2019

“The Aces That History Forgot”. Bruce Callander, Air Force Magazine. April 1, 1991

“A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II”. Anne Noggle. 1994

“Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War”. Stephanie Schoppert, History Collection, July 8, 2016

“Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War”. Larry Holzwarth, History Collection, December 20, 2017

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