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
Germany’s leading aces shot down thousands of Soviet aircraft during the war. Bundesarchiv

2. Otto Kittel was the leading ace killed during World War II

The Luftwaffe’s Otto Kittel flew his first combat mission in 1941, against the Soviet Air Force. By early 1945, Kittel had flown 582 combat missions, all against the Soviets, with 267 confirmed aerial victories. The first came on June 22, 1941, during the opening of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. During the early phases of the war in the East, Kittel flew in the bf 109. In the spring of 1943, Kittel failed to return from a mission over Soviet lines and was presumed lost by his superiors. He returned to his unit after two weeks, having evaded capture and crossed the lines to safety. He immediately returned to combat duty, eschewing a period of leave.

In May, 1944, Kittel visited the Berghof where Adolf Hitler bestowed on him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Germany’s highest military award. Throughout the summer of 1944 Kittel engaged in combat against the Soviets, piloting a Focke-Wulf FW 190, returning from several missions in damaged aircraft, riddled with bullet holes. In February 1945, his luck finally ran out. On his 563rd combat mission of the war, he attacked a formation of Shturmovik (ground attack) aircraft, which were armed with a rearward-facing gunner. His wingman reported Kittel’s plane went down in flames, and the pilot did not bailout. Kittel was history’s highest-scoring fighter ace to die in combat.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
In Finland, aircraft were modified to land on skis on ice and snow. Wikimedia

3. The highest scoring non-German fighter ace was a Finn

Finland’s air forces fought against the Soviet Union during the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1945). During the former the Finns fought against the Soviets alone. In the latter, material and logistical support for the Finns came from Germany, though most military operations were independent of the Wehrmacht. During the Finnish-Soviet conflict, the Finnish Air Force operated airplanes which were obsolescent against the frontline German fighters of the period. Nonetheless, they performed well against the Soviets. Later, in the Continuation War, bf-109 fighters from Germany augmented the Finnish effort.

In the hands of Ilmari Juutilainen, a Finnish officer and pilot, the aircraft provided were particularly deadly to the Soviets. Ilmari claimed 126 air-to-air victories against the Red Air Force, but stringent conformation standards of the Finns resulted in his being officially credited with 94 victories, flying 437 combat missions. He is the highest-scoring non-German fighter ace in history. All of his victories came against the Soviets, with his last occurring in September 1944. Fighting between the Finns and the Soviets ebbed as the Germans collapsed westward toward the end of 1944. Juutilainen continued to fly as a professional pilot for a decade following the war, and died at his home in 1999, on his 85th birthday.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Herman Goering addressing Adolf Galland in 1943. Bundesarchiv

4. Adolf Galland flew in combat until he was forbidden to do so by Herman Goering

Adolf Galland flew most of his 705 combat missions against the Western Allies during World War II. He gained combat experience in Spain during the Civil War there, and supported the invasion of Poland by flying ground support missions, a technique honed in Spain. He fought in the Battle of France, the ensuing Battle of Britain, and against the Allied bombing campaign on Nazi Germany. All of his eventual 104 victories came against the Western Allies, with most of them occurring before the Americans entered the war. Galland ascended to command to command the Luftwaffe’s fighter forces in November 1941, and was forbidden from flying further combat missions.

Throughout the remainder of the war, Galland dealt with falling morale among his pilots, and openly challenged Goering regarding the leadership of the air war. Several times he requested to be relieved from command and returned to an operational combat unit. He actively championed the development of jet fighters, frequently ignoring orders from Goering and even Hitler over their use. Among the orders he ignored was the ban on his flying in combat. He flew several missions against USAAF heavy bombers, shooting down at least one B-17, and possibly as many as three. He became one of the earliest pilots to win an air-to-air victory flying jets in 1945. Galland remained a controversial figure in Germany following World War II, accused of both pro-Nazi and anti-German leanings until his death in 1996.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
American pilots of No. 71 Eagle Squadron of the RAF. Wikimedia

5. The first American to become a World War II ace did so before America entered the war

As in World War I, when American volunteers served in the French air forces before the United States entered the war, Americans fought against the Germans before December 7, 1941. Most of them volunteered for service with Britain’s Royal Air Force. William Dunn, an honorably discharged veteran of the US Army, joined the Canadian Army in 1939, and later the RAF in 1940. Assigned to one of three Eagle Squadrons, which were all comprised of American volunteers, Dunn arrived in Britain in time to take part in air operations over France and the Channel. Dunn shot down five German aircraft in 1941, the last of which made him the first American to become an ace over Europe in World War II.

After his fifth victory, Dunn was attacked by several bf-109s, and suffered wounds to both legs, a bullet or shell fragment grazing his skull, and a badly damaged aircraft. Nonetheless, he managed to shake off his attackers and nurse his Spitfire Mark II back to his airfield in England. Dunn recovered from his injuries, served as a pilot instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and eventually transferred to the US Army Air Force. William Dunn remained in the Air Force following World War II, eventually serving in the Vietnam War at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Dunn achieved a total of six confirmed kills during World War II, five of which occurred before the United States entered the war.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Squadron Leader “Pat” Pattle, (left) leading ace for the British Empire in World War II. Wikipedia

6. The RAF’s leading ace of World War II is a matter of some dispute

Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, known somewhat understandably as Pat Pattle, holds the distinction of being the leading ace of World War II to fly for the Royal Air Force. The actual count of his victories remains disputed. Some claim he shot down 51, other sources can account for around 40, and the records left behind by contemporaries indicate upwards of 60. Pattle was from South Africa, served most of his time in the Mediterranean Theater and the Western Desert, and died in action on April 20, 1941. He flew both Gloster Gladiators and Hawker Hurricanes and is considered to have obtained the most victories for both types of aircraft.

At least 26 of his confirmed kills occurred against Italian aircraft in the early years of the war. Once shot down and eluding capture in the desert. He considered the episode an embarrassment and refused to discuss it with squadron mates. To Pattle, being shot down by Italians was humiliating. Because he was from South Africa, his name is often missing from lists of the top British aces of the war, though his entire service was in the Royal Air Force, flying British aircraft. No other pilot in the RAF exceeded his number of victories, though many flew several years longer than Pattle.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Bram “Bob” Van der Stok, participated in the Great Escape of 1944. Wikimedia

7. Bram Van der Stok shot down German planes while serving in both the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the Royal Air Force

Bram Van der Stok’s war began when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Flying a nearly obsolescent Fokker D-XXI, he scored his first victory when he shot down a bf 109 in May 1940. Following Germany’s conquest of the Netherlands, Van der Stok stowed away on a neutral freighter bound for Scotland, from whence he journeyed to England and service in the RAF. Flying the Supermarine Spitfire, Van der Stok, known as Bob to his British colleagues, became an ace by April, 1942. Five kills in the RAF added to his initial victory in the Netherlands for a total of six. On April 12, 1942, his aircraft was shot down, though he managed to bail out successfully, only to be captured by a German patrol. He was sent to a PoW camp in Silesia, though his war was not yet over.

In March, 1944, Van der Stok participated in the Great Escape, as it came to be called, from Stalag Luft III. Of the 76 prisoners who escaped that night, fifty were shot upon recapture by the Gestapo. Twenty-three were returned to German PoW camps. Three escaped to freedom, eventually returning to Britain. Van der Stok worked his way across Europe to Spain, then Gibraltar, and finally Britain, arriving there in July. He returned to active service with the RAF, and claimed to have destroyed seven V-1 buzz bombs during his return to combat, though no additional air-to-air victories. He is the most decorated aviator in the history of the Netherlands.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Richard Bong in the cockpit of his P-38 Lightning fighter. National Archives

8. America’s Ace of Aces earned the title in the Pacific Theater

America’s ace of aces during World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker, lived to see his title usurped and his record surpassed during World War II. Rickenbacker totaled 26 victories during World War I. Richard Bong reached 40 victories serving with the US Army Air Force in the Pacific. He flew the P-38 Lightning, a twin-engine, twin-tailed, fighter-bomber. Considering his own marksmanship to be unreliable, he frequently closed as near to his enemy as he could before opening fire. The results led to his own aircraft being damaged by debris as the Japanese airplane broke apart, and on one occasion he collided with an enemy plane.

Bong’s exploits gave him considerable propaganda value, and he was sent home to America to support Victory Bond tours and boost morale. He returned to the United States permanently in January, 1945, having achieved 40 victories, and being awarded the Medal of Honor, along with numerous lesser awards. During the summer of 1945, he went to work as a test pilot for Lockheed, developing the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. On August 6, 1945, Bong encountered difficulties during a take-off. Forced to eject, his chute failed to open due to his low altitude. Bong’s death shared the front pages of several newspapers with the announcement of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. He remains America’s all-time leading ace.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Josef Priller shot down this B-17, nicknamed Lady Liberty, on August 19, 1943. USAAF

9. Josef Priller served as a movie consultant on a film which included his own exploits

The World War II film The Longest Day includes a sequence in which two Luftwaffe bf 109s strafe the troops landing on the beaches in Normandy. The flight is led by Josef Priller. The movie fictionalizes the event to the extent that it presents it as the only aerial attack mounted by the Germans against the invasion. In reality, there were several. The real Josef Priller’s war service concentrated on the Western Allies. He flew 307 sorties against the French, British, and Americans, and is credited with 101 victories, including 68 against Spitfires. Priller also destroyed at least ten heavy bombers of the USAAF over the course of the war.

He emerged from the Battle of France as one of the Luftwaffe’s most successful fighter pilots, a reputation he enhanced throughout the Battle of Britain. In 1943 Priller was assigned to command a unit scheduled to be transferred to the Eastern Front. The transfer was subsequently canceled, and Priller remained on the Western Front for the duration of the war. In January, 1945, Priller received orders to assume the role of Inspector of Day Fighters, removing him from operational flight status. He married the owner of a small brewery, Riegele and managed the brewery in Augsburg for the remainder of his days. The brewery remains in operation in the 21st century.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II

10. Japanese aces have contradictory kill counts in most cases

Aces of the Empire of Japan flew in both the Air Force and the Naval Air Forces, with records of victories by their pilots often unconfirmed. Tetsuzo Iwamoto is generally regarded as the leading Japanese ace of the war. Iwamoto flew for the Japanese Navy, for much of the war aboard the aircraft carrier Zuikaku, or from landing fields on Rabaul and other Japanese-held islands. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Iwamoto fought in China, and claimed an additional 14 victories there. Most sources credit him with 80 air-to-air victories, making him the ace of aces for the Pacific War, with twice the number of kills as the leading American ace, Richard Bong.

Iwamoto’s personal diary includes claims of victory over 48 American Corsairs, If true, he accounted for more than 25% of all the Corsairs lost in the Pacific during the war. He also claimed 29 victories over the F6F Hellcat, operated by the US Navy. Iwamoto’s diary claimed 78 victories over the SBD Dauntless dive bomber, including during the Battle of the Coral Sea, as well as in later operations at Rabaul. He also listed numerous aircraft destroyed on the ground by strafing, and several attacks on destroyers and other ships. If all of Iwamoto’s claims are true he destroyed far more than the 80 airplanes for which he is generally credited, but confirmation of his claims remains impossible. He survived the war, dying of sepsis following botched surgery in 1955.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Edward “Butch” O’Hare, in an F4F Wildcat in 1942. US Navy

11. The US Navy’s first ace of World War II had an airport named for him

On February 20, 1942, Navy Lieutenant Edward O’Hare, flying from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, singlehandedly attacked a flight of nine Japanese bombers. His wingman’s guns jammed, leaving O’Hare to face the Japanese alone while protecting the carrier. O’Hare flew an F4F Wildcat, armed with four 50-caliber machine guns, each with 450 rounds of ammunition. The Japanese aircraft were protected with rear gunners, and the planes flew in close formation, allowing a massing of machine-gun fire against attack. In a few minutes of frenzied action, O’Hare shot down three of the Japanese airplanes, damaging two others so badly they later crashed into the sea, and severely damaging a sixth airplane.

When he returned to Lexington, he was greeted with gunfire from jittery antiaircraft gunners before his plane was identified. O’Hare received credit for shooting down five bombers on the mission, becoming the Navy’s first ace of the war, and the first Naval Aviator awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. O’Hare was killed in action in late November 1943, according to some a victim of friendly fire, though a recent investigation disputes the allegation. Among other honors, Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport had its name changed to O’Hare International Airport in 1949. An F4F Wildcat altered to resemble O’Hare’s is on display there in Terminal 2.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Ivan Kozhedub, leading Soviet ace of World War II. Wikimedia

12. Soviet Air Forces produced several aces while fighting the Germans

The staggering totals of aircraft shot down by German pilots on the Eastern Front imply the Germans held air superiority over the Soviets. In truth, the Soviets produced an impressive number of aces themselves. More than sixty Soviet pilots achieved the designation of fighter ace, with five scoring 50 kills or more. Soviet pilots, besides engaging in aerial combat, worked closely with ground forces. They played a major role in attacking German armor and troop formations and disrupting supply chains behind the front lines. One reason the Germans scored so highly is they frequently encountered Soviet aircraft engaged in ground support missions, ill-prepared for aerial combat.

Soviet flyers operated aircraft from their own factories, as well as those supplied via lend-lease from the British and Americans. While many of these were nearly obsolescent early in the war, by its end the Soviets flew Spitfires, Airacobras, Hurricanes, and several other front-line fighters. They used them effectively in 1943 over Kursk, and throughout the drive to Berlin in 1944-45. The leading Soviet ace, Ivan Kozhedub, scored 62 victories, including one of the first against a jet fighter by a piston-engine aircraft. He primarily flew a Soviet-built airplane, the Lavochkin La-7, considered equal to the best German piston-engine aircraft of the time.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
French aviators continued to fight Germans and Italians throughout the course of the war. Wikimedia

13. France produced air aces during the Second World War, despite the German occupation

It is a commonly held belief among many that France effectively left the war in June, 1940, after their defeat in the Battle of France. This is both inaccurate and unfair. France kept fighting, despite the collaborationist puppet government at Vichy. The Resistance in France continued throughout the war, supported by British and American special forces. The Free French Forces under deGaulle fought the Germans in all areas of the European Theater. They included Free French Air Forces, which contained pilots many of whom defected, with their airplanes, to the British in Gibraltar, as well as to Great Britain.

Besides operating their own squadrons, including one sent to the Eastern Front in support of the Soviets, Free French squadrons served in the RAF, operating Spitfires and Hurricanes. The leading French ace of the war, Pierre Clostermann, scored 33 victories, though he frequently flew ground-attack missions. In his reports to superiors, he claimed the destruction of over 200 motor vehicles, including five German tanks. He also claimed more than 70 railroad locomotives and trains, and the sinking of two E-Boats, the German equivalent of the American PT-Boat. Following the Normandy invasion, Clostermann and his unit became one of the first French aviation units to return to operations on French soil.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
One of the more successful Italian aircraft of the war, the Macchi C. 205. Wikimedia

14. Aces served in the Italian Air Force as well

The Italian Air Force, the Regia Aeronautica, fought mainly in North Africa and the Mediterranean region. Its leading ace, Teresio Vittorio Martinoli, started the war flying an obsolete Fiat biplane, graduating to a Macchi C. 202, and later a C. 205, the latter two being more advanced fighters. The Regia Aeronautica was the air force of Fascist Italy; it disbanded after the Italian surrender, with many of its pilots joining a new organization, the Aeronautica Co-Belligerent. Martinoli joined the new air force following the Armistice in 1943, effectively changing sides to support the Allies.

At first, he continued to fly Italian-built aircraft, gaining his 22nd and final air-to-air victory over Yugoslavia in November. In 1944 the Allies decided to equip the Aeronautica Co-Belligerante with American P-39 Airacobras, considered a superior ground attack aircraft. Martinoli went to Camp Vesuvio for training in the new (to the Italians) aircraft. During training, several aircraft were lost in accidents, due to the unsuitability of the terrain around the site, and poor maintenance procedures. Martinoli was killed in a training accident, one of three pilots to suffer similar fates during the program. Italy’s ace of aces at the time, his total later was surpassed by another Italian ace, Franco Lucchini.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Luftwaffe ace Emil Lang destroyed 18 enemy aircraft in one day. Find a Grave

15. One German ace shot down 18 Soviet aircraft in a single day

German fighter ace Emil Lang holds the record for the most kills in a single day. His first air-to-air victories occurred over the Eastern Front in March 1943. By the end of that year, his tally stood above 100 victories, including a spurt in the fall which remains unsurpassed, and likely will never be achieved again. On October 13, Lang claimed ten victories, all confirmed. On October 21 he achieved 12 victories, over the course of the three missions he flew that day. As the Battle of Kiev began on November 3, Lang flew four separate missions, shooting down 18 Soviet aircraft in the course of a single day. During October and November 1943, Lang destroyed 72 enemy aircraft.

He was celebrated in German magazines and newsreels. In April 1944, following an awards ceremony at Hitler’s residence in Obersalzberg, Lang transferred to the Western Front. At the time his score stood at 144 enemy aircraft destroyed, all of them on the Eastern Front. He gained another 29 against the British and Americans during the heavy fighting before and following the Normandy landings. On September 3, 1944, Lang and his wingman engaged a flight of American P-51 Mustangs. Lang had already experienced mechanical problems with his aircraft, a Focke-Wulf 190, unable to retract his landing gear. During an attempted evasive maneuver he was hit and crashed in flames. He achieved his tally of 173 victories in just 18 months.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Erich Rudorffer (wearing Iron Cross) in Russia, June, 1944. Bundesarchiv

16. Another German ace shot down 13 enemy planes during one mission

Emil Lang’s multiple victories often came in more than one mission, with the indefatigable pilot flying several sorties per day. Another German flyer, Erich Rudorffer, shot down 13 Soviet planes over the course of a single mission. Rudorffer achieved ace status before deploying to the Eastern Front in 1943. He flew against the British and French in the Battles of France and Britain. He participated in the German response to Operation Torch, and attacks against American bombing raids. Several times he completed missions in which he shot down five or more enemy aircraft, though never reaching double figures in a single mission on the Western Front.

When Rudorffer transferred to the Eastern Front, he brought with him his combat experience against pilots flying aircraft superior to those presented by the Soviets. His experience served him well. On October 11, 1943, he claimed his 100th enemy aircraft was destroyed. On November 6, during the fighting around Kiev, Rudorffer shot down 13 Soviet fighters in an action which lasted but 17 minutes, bringing his total to 122. His final victory tally over the course of the war included 222 enemy aircraft. He achieved his last twelve flying the Me 262 jet fighter, making him one of history’s first jet aces. He survived the war, dying in 2016 at the age of 98.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
Douglas Bader stands on two artificial legs in this photograph from 1940. RAF Museum

17. Douglas Bader became an ace despite having lost both of his legs before the war

Douglas Bader first joined the RAF in 1928, achieving Pilot Officer status two years later. He quickly developed the reputation of being a daredevil, contemptuous of regulations limiting acrobatic flying at lower altitudes. In 1931 he engaged in some acrobatics which led to a crash causing significant injuries. Both of his legs were amputated, one above the knee and the other just below. After recovering, and being fitted with artificial legs, Bader attempted to remain in the RAF, with flying status. In 1933, over his vehement objections, he received a medical retirement from the service. When World War II began he successfully lobbied to be returned to active service.

Bader received credit for 22 aerial victories and several probable victories in the Battle of France and Battle of Britain. In August, 1941, he became the victim of a German fighter, bailing out over occupied France. He had to detach one of his artificial legs to free himself from the aircraft. The Germans provided another by special request from England, and Bader became such a persistent escape artist he eventually found himself imprisoned at Colditz Castle. He remained there until the American Army liberated the camp in 1945. When Bader died of a heart attack in 1982, German ace and former adversary Adolf Galland attended his funeral.

The Most Notable Fighter Aces of World War II
A German Heinkel 219 night fighter. Wikimedia

18. Some German aces only came out at night

The British bombing campaign against Nazi Germany favored night-time wide-area bombing rather than the daylight precision bombing practiced (at first) by the US Army Air Forces. British bombers were less heavily armed than their American counterparts, and Bomber Command believed night raids meant fewer casualties. To counter them, the Luftwaffe developed night fighters, vectored to British bombers detected by ground-based radar via radio. Eventually, airborne radar made the night fighters even more effective. Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer developed night fighting skills which led to him becoming the leading night fighting ace of the war.

Schnaufer claimed 121 victories during the war, nearly all of the British heavy bombers, and nearly all of them shot down in the dark. During 1943 the Germans developed several tactics for following the British bomber streams (the RAF eschewed formation flying). One included placing a fighter within the bomber stream, from which it radioed direction, heading, altitude, and other information to waiting fighters. Schnaufer was just 22 years of age when he achieved his 50th victory in 1944. On February 21, 1945, Schnaufer became an ace-in-one-day for the second time, destroying 9 Lancaster heavy bombers, two in the early morning, and seven that same evening. He survived the war, restoring and running a family winery in West Germany until his death in 1950.

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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