aviation in World War 2

the aces - Australian
the aces - Belgian
the aces - British
the aces - Canada
the aces - Chinese
the aces - Czech
the aces - Finland
the aces - French
the aces - German
the aces - Hungary
the aces - Italian
the aces - Japanese
the aces - New Zealand
the aces - Polish
the aces - Russian
the aces - Romania
the aces - Slovakia

the air aces of World War Two

Air War's Greatest Aces

Amid horrendous losses, a few talented individuals rose to prominence. Most famous was Aleksandr I. Pokryshkin, who was flying the mediocre Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 when he downed an Me-109E of JG.77 near Jassy on June 23, 1941. Surviving the war with 59 victories -- 48 of which were scored flying a Lend-Lease Bell P-39 Airacobra -- Pokryshkin won the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union three times, as well as the American Distinguished Flying Cross.

Another special case from the war's early days was Aleksei P.P. Marasyev, who downed his seventh victim, a Junkers Ju-52, in April 1942, before being shot down by a flight of 10 Me-109s. Marasyev emerged from the wreckage of his Yakovlev Yak-1 with both legs crushed, and over the next 19 days he crawled back to Russian lines. By the time he was found by partisans and evacuated, gangrene had set in and both legs had to be amputated. With a determination worthy of Douglas Bader, however, Marasyev mastered both artificial legs and aircraft. Flying Lavochkin La-5s, he achieved a final score of 19.

A relative latecomer was Ivan N. Kozhedub, whose flying skill made him so valuable as an instructor that he was not able to wangle a combat assignment until June 1943. Once he did, however, he became the leading exponent of the Lavochkin LaG-5, La-5FN and La-7 fighters and the leading Allied ace of World War II -- his 62 victories included a Messerschmitt Me-262A downed on February 18, 1945. Kozhedub was also the only Soviet fighter pilot other than Pokryshkin to earn three Gold Stars.

Like the RAF, the V-VS formed foreign units, including regiments of Czechoslovakian, Polish and French airmen. The famed Normandie-Niemen Regiment produced the leading French ace of World War II, Marcel Albert, with 23 victories. Another of the unit's members, Roger Sauvage, a Parisian whose mother came from Martinique, added 14 victories to the two he had scored in 1940, to become the war's only black ace.

Unique to the V-VS was the formation of three all-female regiments, of which one, the 586th, was a fighter outfit. None of the 586th Fighter Regiment scored more than four victories, but two women serving in male units did -- Lidya Litvak with 12 and Ekaterina Budanova with 11. Both, however, were killed in action.

Like the Soviets, the Chinese fought a desperate but costly air war against the better equipped and trained Japanese. Among those gifted Chinese fighter pilots who rose to prominence, Liu Chi-sun flew the Curtiss Hawk III, the Polikarpov I-152 and I-16 to account for a total of 11 1/3 Japanese aircraft between August 1937 and May 1941. The most successful Chinese fighter pilot after 1941 was Wang Kwang-fu, who scored 6 1/2 victories flying Curtiss P-40s -- including 3 1/2 on October 27, 1944 -- and two more in a North American P-51 Mustang.

Americans were involved in the air war long before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The first to become an ace, William R. Dunn, got his fifth victory on August 27, 1941, flying in No. 71 Squadron, one of three "Eagle Squadrons" in the RAF made up of American volunteers. During the Pearl Harbour raid, 2nd Lt. George S. Welch managed to take off from Wheeler Field in a Curtiss P-40B and in the course of two sorties was credited with downing four Japanese aircraft. Later flying Lockheed P-38s over New Guinea, he eventually brought his total up to 16.

In the early months of the Pacific War, the general gloom of Allied defeat was broken somewhat by the exploits of a force of flying mercenaries in China, Colonel Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group (AVG). Also known as the Flying Tigers, the AVG produced its first two aces on Christmas Day 1941, when Charles H. Older added three JAAF aircraft to two previous kills, and Robert P. "Duke" Hedman downed four Mitsubishi Ki.21 bombers and a Nakajima Ki.43 fighter. Older would bring his score up to 10 by the time the AVG was disbanded on July 4, 1942; he later returned to China as deputy commander of the AVG's U.S. Army Air Force successor, the 23rd Fighter Group, and brought his total up to 18. Another Flying Tiger, David L. "Tex" Hill, was credited with 12 3/4 enemy aircraft by the time the AVG was disbanded, then added six to that total with the 23rd Fighter Group.

Robert L. Scott, Jr., joined the AVG just before it became the 23rd Group and proceeded to behave like a one-man air force, frequently repainting the spinner of his P-40E to make the Japanese think that the group had more aircraft than it did. He got his first two victories over Leiyang, China, on July 31, and had brought his tally up to 10 by the time he was shipped home in January 1943.

Another morale-boosting hero of the early months of 1942 was Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare, a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat pilot from the aircraft carrier Lexington who received the Medal of Honor for downing five attacking Mitsubishi G4M1 bombers on February 20, 1942. Returning to combat aboard the carrier Enterprise in September 1943, O'Hare downed two more Japanese aircraft over Wake Island on October 5, and later experimented with night interception tactics. During a nocturnal mission over the Marshall Islands on November 27, however, O'Hare was lost -- either shot down by the gunner of a Japanese bomber or by one of his own team.

The American invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, brought on an all-out air and sea battle of attrition between Japanese and U.S. Marine, Navy and Army Air Force pilots. Among the leading Marine aces to emerge from the struggle were three Medal of Honour recipients: John Lucien Smith (19 victories), Robert E. Galer (13) and Joseph J. Foss, whose total of 26 made him the top U.S. Marine ace. The campaign's top Navy ace, Stanley W. "Swede" Vejtasa, got his first three kills as the pilot of a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber with VS-5 from the carrier Yorktown during the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. After retraining on fighters, he was flying an F4F-4 with VF-10 from the carrier Enterprise during the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 26, when he shot down two Aichi D3As and five Nakajima B5Ns. Vejtasa's final victim was a Kawanishi H6K flying boat on November 13.

By early 1943, the Americans were taking the offensive on all fronts. In the Solomons, Vought F4U pilot Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, commander of Marine "Black Sheep" squadron VMF-214, added 18 confirmed and four probable kills to the six he had already gained with the AVG over China; he was shot down near Rabaul and taken prisoner on January 3, 1944. Over New Guinea, two rival Lockheed P-38 pilots of the Fifth Air Force, Richard I. Bong and Thomas G. McGuire, became the leading American aces with 40 and 38 victories, respectively. Both would also receive the Medal of Honor, but neither survived the war; McGuire was killed when his P-38 stalled and crashed during a fight over Los Negros Island on January 7, 1945, and Bong was killed test-flying a Lockheed P-80 jet fighter on August 6, 1945.

During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, fought on June 19, 1944, Grumman F6F Hellcats won such a lopsided victory that the Americans called it the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." Alexander Vraciu from the second carrier Lexington got six of his eventual total of 19 that day, while David McCampbell, commander of Essex's Air Group 9, got seven. McCampbell would later outdo himself during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944, when he attacked a formation of 40 enemy planes and shot down nine, while his wingman, Roy W. Rushing, accounted for six (Rushing's eventual total came to 13). McCampbell won the Medal of Honour for that action, and his final score of 34 made him the leading U.S. Navy ace.

The leading American aces over Europe were Republic P-47 pilots from Lt. Col. Hubert Zemke's 56th Fighter Group (better known as "Zemke's Wolfpack") of the Eighth Air Force. Zemke himself scored 17 3/4 victories before being shot down and captured on October 30, 1944. Robert S. Johnson downed 27 German aircraft, but his record was narrowly exceeded by Francis S. Gabreski, who got 28 before crash-landing on July 20, 1944, and being taken prisoner.

Although it did not produce top scorers, the North American P-51 Mustang was the preferred mount of a number of notable aces, including Dominic S. Gentile, the leading Mustang proponent with 21 5/6 victories; future test pilot Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager of the 357th Fighter Group, whose 11 1/2 victories included five on October 12, 1944; John J. Voll of the 31st Fighter Group and leading ace of the Fifteenth Air Force with 21 victories; and Fred F. Ohr, the only Korean-American ace, with six.

Only two American night fighter pilots became aces. Northrop P-61 Black Widow pilot Paul A. Smith downed five German aircraft over Europe in 1944. Major Carroll C. Smith, commander of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron in New Guinea and the Philippines, scored two of his night victories in modified P-38Js and five in P-61As, including four on the night of December 29-30, 1944.

As a curious postscript, two Allied pilots who did not make ace in World War II got a second chance as volunteers in Israel's Sherut Avir during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Rudolf Augarten, an American P-47 pilot who downed two Me-109Gs on October 3, 1944, added four Egyptians to his score while flying Avia S×-199s (ironically, Czech versions of the Me-109G), while Canada's Denny Wilson flew Spitfires in both conflicts to account for two German and three Egyptian aircraft -- the last of which was a Spitfire.