In writing over 40 nonfiction books and some 600 articles I’ve interviewed a few hundred WW II veterans from at least seven nations. Naturally, the huge majority have been Americans but I also got to know Allied airmen from Britain, Canada, Australia, and Poland, and fliers from Germany and Japan.
Only one or two of the Japanese fliers spoke passable English but fortunately translators were available. However, all the former Luftwaffe pilots I met were fluent in English, and most of them in other languages as well. In prewar Germany most students learned at least two and sometimes three foreign languages.
In the 1980s I worked for my friend Doug Champlin running the publishing arm of his aircraft museum in Mesa, Arizona. Through mutual contacts we met Adolf Galland who was interested in printing updated editions of two books: his classic The First and the Last, and A Pilot’s Life. By then of course “Dolfo” was extremely well known; his 1954 memoir was an immediate classic published in a dozen languages.
Dolfo’s combat career began in Spain in 1937 and ended in 1945, hence the First to Last title. In 1940 he became one of the Luftwaffe’s leading aces and in late 1941 rose to command the day fighters as Germany’s youngest general. However, his blunt demeanor and mission-oriented attitude inevitably clashed with Hermann Goering, who preferred sycophants. In mid 1944 Goering accused the fighter arm of cowardice, a charge that outraged Galland whose command was losing 25 percent aircrews and 40 percent aircraft per month. If nothing else, Dolfo Galland was a leader who stood up for the troops—a serious risk in the chilling environment of Nazi Germany. Very few American admirals or generals have matched his standard, even facing vastly lesser consequences.Fired from his cormmand, Galland formed a small unit of Me 262 jets and ran his total tally to 104 victories before being wounded. After the war he worked where he could, emigrating to Argentina for awhile before returning to Germany. He easily made friends among former enemies in Britain and America. He died in 1996, age 83.
Perhaps the most impressive man I ever met was General Johannes Steinhoff. A prewar pilot, he fought from 1939 to 1945 scoring 176 victories over Europe, Africa, and Russia. He ended the war in a hospital, grievously burned in the crash of an Me 262, but he recovered not only to fly but to resume his career. He served as head of the new Bundesluftwaffe and retired as chairman of the NATO military committee in 1974.
But to my mind, “Macki” Steinhoff’s greatest legacy is principled leadership. He stood with Galland in opposing Goering’s corruption and incompetence, and was banished to “the squadron of experts” with the minimal compensation of flying the world’s first jet fighter. Widely respected, he died at 80 in 1994.