Sunday, July 27, 2014


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.

Steinhoff received numerous plastic surgeries, including replacement eyelids.  From our first discussion it was obvious that behind that ruined face was an active, alert, and inquiring mind.  He spoke flawless idiomatic English, barely accented, far better than most young Americans.  His interests ran from history (he wrote two memoirs) to painting, and he enjoyed visiting his daughter Ursula and son in law in the U.S.

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.

The world’s third-ranking fighter ace was Gunther Rall, credited with 275 victories against the Western Allies and the Soviets.  His combat career was marked by sensational scoring sprees at expense of the Russians as well as severe injuries. In 1941 he broke his back in a crash landing, and three years later he was wounded by P-47s, spending most of the duration recovering.

Like Johannes Steinhoff, Rall joined the postwar Luftwaffe and rose to high rank. His role in the German F-104 project brought him to Luke AFB in the 1960s, and he mastered American aviation slang.

I worked with Gunther on three occasions and came to enjoy his non-Teutonic sense of humor.  During one session he was asked how a mission began in the Luftwaffe.  I was going to dismiss the question when Gunther’s baby blues twinkled.  He said, “I would start my motor and when it warmed up I held up two thumbs.  The mechanics would pull the chocks, I would close the cabin and take off.  But after (Col. Hubert) Zemke’s people shot off my left thumb, I would raise my right thumb, the men would pull the right chock and I would go around in circles to the left!”

Gunther departed the pattern in 2009, age 91.

Many Germans emigrated to North America after the war, including two I got to know fairly well.  Airshow fans may recall Oskar Boesch’s sailplane aerobatics performed to classical music and narration of John Gillespie Magee’s lyric poem High Flight. He flew in some 600 airshows across North America, gaining an appreciative following.

But Oskar was fortunate to survive his run of the odds.  In 1944-45 he joined aSturmstaffel, flying heavily armed and armored FW-190s against American bombers.  His unit suffered 200% losses in the last year of the war, and I asked how the pilots coped with such attrition.  He grinned.  “You are 20 years old and you think you are rough and tough.  You can fly all day and drink all night and please the girls.  Then you climb into your 190, turn the oxygen up to 100 percent, and when you take off to engage 1,000 Viermots, you are immediately sober!”

Oskar died in 2012.

Another naturalized Canadian was Franz Stigler who became known in 1990 when a B-17 pilot tracked him down to express heartfelt gratitude for sparing the shot-up Fortress over the North Sea in 1943.  The American pilot, Charlie Brown, arranged a “reunion” where Stigler met other crewmen of Ye Olde Pub.  They introduced their erstwhile enemy to the 25 children who were born due to Franz’s chivalry.

I met Franz at Northwest airshows in the 1970s where his Messerschmitt 108 shared ramp space with our N3N Navy trainer.  He was a popular figure, and his wife Haya was at least as well known.  In hangar parties she would dance with any aviator bold enough to polka with her.

A mutual friend, a P-51 ace, asked Franz what he did on the last day of the war. Franz replied, “Vell, I tell you.  I dit vat any American fighter pilot vould have done.  I got on my motorcycle with my girlfriend und I vent home!”

Franz died in Canada in 2008, age 92, mourned by friends and their descendants alike.

The Luftwaffe veterans I was fortunate to know confirmed a suspicion: the main difference among fighter pilots is merely the paint on their airplanes.