The 20 Most Famous Pilots In WWII


WW2 Pilots

1. Francis Gabreski

During World War II countless aerial battles raged in deadly skies above throughout the globe. Nearly 40,000 pilots gave their last measure in aerial combat between 1939 and 1945. The men (and some women) bravely fought and will be remembered forever in a heroic way, but there are legends who stand above the others. While the aerial victories pilots accumulated are important facts, however, not the only facts in considering their greatness.

During his first year at the prestigious University of Notre Dame, Francis S Gabreski, began his flying career. After an initial rough going he persisted. He enlisted with the United States Army Air Corps in July 1940 and was later commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Reserve in March 1941. His first posting was to Wheeler Army airfield in the tropical Hawaiian Islands. Francis was there to witness the December 7, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.


Francis Gabreski, USAA

Several months later Gabreski convinced his commanders to let him serve with the Polish command where he could capitalize on his Polish heritage and gain valuable experience. Flying with the Polish 315th Gabreski was now flying one of the best fighter aircraft in the war, the superb Supermarine Spitfire Mark IX. When Gabreski rejoined the Americans, he would later become the leading ace in Europe.


2. Eric Brown

Captain Eric Melrose “Winkie” Brown was a British Royal Navy pilot who excelled at many different tasks during World War II. Brown was born January 1919 in Leith, near Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. He and his father attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In 1937 Brown enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, his choice of study was foreign studies with an emphasis on German. His choice of studies would later serve him well during World War II.


Eric Brown, RAF

After returning home now engulfed in what would be the worst war in human history, Brown chooses to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, then later switching to the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a naval pilot. Brown’s first assignment was to the Escort Carrier, HMS Audacity where he was posted to 802 Naval Air Squadron. Brown piloted the Grumman Marlet, the British version of the F4F Wilcat. Brown shot down his first two German aircraft on air sorties. Brown transferred in mid-1943 to Italy to begin what he would become best known for, the evaluation of captured Axis aircraft. Throughout the remainder of the war Brown would perform more and more important test and research projects.

3. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, was born December 18, 1912, in Washington, D.C. In 1954 Davis was promoted to Brigadier General, achieving the same rank his father did in 1940. In effect, Davis became the African American General in the recently formed United States Air Force. The high point of a brilliant career was the award of his fourth star elevating him to the level of general of the highest order within the U.S. military in 1998. After lengthy protest by the African American community the Roosevelt administration reversed a long-held policy of preventing African Americans from becoming air cadets.


Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., USAA

Davis and four others were the first to complete training and be commissioned officers. Upon his graduation he was swiftly promoted to lieutenant colonel, and he organized the99th Pursuit Squadron, the first entirely African American air unit, which flew tactical support missions in the Mediterranean theatre. In 1943 he organized and commanded the 332nd Fighter Group which were known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Men who overcame racism at home and a deadly enemy in the air

4. Adolph Galland

Among the best pilots in WWII was Adolph Galland. Adolph Galland was born March 19, 1912, Westerholt, near Recklinghausen, Germany. Galland was a German fighter ace and officer who commanded the fighter forces of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) during World War II. His military service began when he served with Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War in 1937–38, flying several hundred missions fly the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Galland held a staff post when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but he went on to serve in a fighter group during the campaign against France in 1940.


Adolph Galland, German Luftwaffe

Galland was in the thick of it when he led a fighter squadron during the Battle of Britain, by the end of which he had destroyed about 100 enemy planes. In late 1941 Galland was promoted to the post of commander of the Luftwaffe’s Fighter Arm, and a year later he was promoted to major general, becoming at age 30 the youngest general in the German armed forces. Near the war’s end was given command of an elite squadron of jet fighters.

5. Gregory (Pappy) Boyington

Gregory Boyington was born in the mountain-west state of Idaho in 1912. Boyington, a 1934 graduate of the University of Washington, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1936 and became a pilot. Boyington was a flight instructor when the call went for volunteers, he resigned from the Marines to join General Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group that was now forming up in China to defend against a Japanese invasion. After the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Boyington and other volunteers rejoined the Marines in 1942 in the defense of the U.S. In 1943, while stationed at the Espiritu Santo airfield in the New Hebrides, Boyington toiled away at a desk job handling the replacement pilot’s pool.


Gregory (Pappy) Boyington, USMC

6. Douglas Bader

Bader’s obsession with flight began at an early age. Douglas Bader had a marvelous start when he became a commissioned pilot in the RAF. After only a year and a half into his service an accident occurred that nearly derailed his dream. An aerobatics enthusiast, Bader took great thrill in demonstrating his skills in the air, despite the fact many of the stunts he pulled off were out of bounds to RAF officers. Bader routinely dismissed for the views of his superiors when it came to performing dangerous aerial stunts, and it was this headstrong recklessness that would eventually prove his downfall even if his downfall would prove only temporary.


Douglas Bsder, RAF

On December 14, 1931, Bader attempted a roll at low altitude while flying his Bristol Bulldog near Woodley Airfield. He clipped his left-wing on the ground, lost control of the aircraft and crashed. He was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital where surgeons amputated his legs, one above and one below the knee. For most people a tragic accident like this would have been a sad end. Not Bader. With a dogged determination Bader persevered, determined to fly again despite his handicap status. Ten years later with war on horizon and the assistance of Air Vice Marshal Frederick Halahan, Bader was given back his wings. During his country’s time of need in the Battle of Britain his leadership and pilot skills came to the forefront in the Hawker Hurricane and Super Marine Spitfire.

7. Hiroyoshi Nishizawa

Hiroyoshi Nishizawa was born on January 27, 1920, in a mountain village in the Nagano prefecture. In June 1936, Hiroyoshi volunteered to join the Yokaren (flight reserve enlistee training program). He was accepted and later qualified as a student pilot in Class Otsu No. 7 of the Japanese Navy Air Force (JNAF). He completed his flight training course in March 1939, graduating 16th out of a class of 71. In October 1941, Nishizawa was assigned to the Chitose Kokutai (Ku.). After the December 7, 1941, raid on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war with the United States, a squadron from the Chitose group, which included Petty Officer 1st Class (PO1C) Nishizawa, was posted to Vunakanau airfield on the newly won island of New Britain, arriving in the last week of January 1942.


Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, JNAF

Nishizawa first encountered the enemy on February 3, 1942, when he and his squad confronted Royal Australian Air Force aircraft near Port Moresby, New Guinea while flying the obsolete A5M fighter. Soon after that encounter Hiroyoshi and his group transitioned to the new deadly and lethal A6M Zero. The tide of the war began to turn after the U.S. captured and fought off Japanese attempt to re-take Guadalcanal. After a brief return to Japan to refit and train new pilots Hiroyoshi returned to the Solomons Islands fighting only to be confronted by more and more highly trained Allied pilots in WWII and several new game changing fighters, the P-51 Mustangs, Grumman F6F Hellcat and Chance Vought F4U Corsair that quickly eclipsed the Zero. By the time of his demise in the fighting for the Philippines it is thought that Hiroyoshi’s victories were thought to be 85.

8. Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak

The role of women in the dangerous occupation was very limited. There were women pilots in WWII who served as ferry pilots moving aircraft to various destinations. Most countries had strict restrictions against permitting to fly in actual combat with one exception, Soviet Russia under Stalin. One of its most heroic pilots was Lydia Litvyak. Air Forces Sr. Lt. Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak, known as the “White Lily of Stalingrad” for her air support during that battle, was history’s first female fighter ace. Litvyak was born in Moscow on Aug. 18, 1921, to a Jewish family. She was accepted and joined the all-female 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment.


Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak, Soviet Air Force

When Litvyak completed her qualifying trials on the Yakovlev Yak-1 fighter, she was assigned in late summer 1942 to the 437th Fighter Aviation Regiment, then supporting Red Army in its vicious fight against the invading Germans at the doorstep of Stalingrad. It was on her third combat mission on September 13, Litvyak scored two aerial victories, earning the distinction of becoming the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. During the climatic Battle of Kursk Litvyak achieved her 16th aerial victory. By the time of her death, she’d received the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner, her nation’s second- and third-highest decorations.

9. Clarence Bud Anderson

Clarence “Bud” Anderson flew fighter mission during WW II when he served two combat tours escorting heavy bomber over Europe in the P-51 Mustang, Nov 1943 through Jan 1945. He flew a total of 116 harrowing combat mission and destroyed 16 and 1/4 enemy aircraft in aerial combat and another one on the ground. Bud was attached to the 357th Fighter Group “Yoxford Boys” and was the highest scoring ace in the 363rd Fighter Squadron. Anderson learned to fly at age 19 obtaining his private pilot’s license in 1941 by way of the Civilian Pilot Training Program while attending college.


Clarence Bud Anderson, USAA

In Jan 1942 he entered the US Army Aviation Cadet Program receiving his wings and commission in Sept 1942. After training on the P-51 Mustang Anderson notched his first victory on March 3, 1944, when he shot down a Bf-109 that was attacking a straggling B-17 on one of the first Berlin missions. Towards the end of Anderson's two combat tours in Europe in 1944 he was promoted to major at 22, a young age even for a highly effective officer in wartime.

10. Hans-Joachim Marseille

Marseille accomplished something very few pilots did in World War II. He became a triple-ace in a single day. Meaning he shot down 15 aircraft aircraft in one day. In his case it was actually 17. This has been achieved by only five pilots ever. All from the Luftwaffe. Hans-Joachim Marseille, also called “Stern von Afrika” (Star of Africa) by the Germans, This German Luftwaffe fighter pilot, flying ace of World War II was known for his aerial battles during the North African Campaign and his Bohemian lifestyle.


Hans-Joachim Marseille, German Luftwaffe

One of the most successful fighter pilots, Marseille claimed all but seven of his 158 victories against the British Commonwealth’s Desert Air Force over North Africa, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter through his entire combat career. No other pilot claimed as many Western aircraft as Marseille.

12. George Beurling

In September 1940, young Canadian George Beurling was accepted by the Royal Air Force (RAF). A year later, on September 9, 1941, he qualified as a pilot and earned his wings. In May of 1942 he scored his first two victories, flying a Supermarine Spitfire Mk. Vb against Focke-Wulf Fw-190As. Beurling gained notice for his piloting skills in the fight in Europe. In particularly, his gunnery skills. Also, he would soon be known for his lone-wolf tendencies when without permission he would brake formation to engage the enemy.


George Beurling, RAF

Command became very frustrated with him and assigned him to duty in the dangerous Mediterranean theater. It was here that the sometimes trouble pilot excelled in the defense of Malta. Buerling would end the war with 31 victories.

13. Saburo Saki

Saburo Saki enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1933. After a rigorous and difficult recruit training, his first duty assignment was aboard the battleship Kirishima. He graduated in his enlisted pilot training class late in 1937, receiving a silver watch from the emperor as the outstanding trainee of the year. In the summer of 1938, Sakai was assigned to the 12th Kokutai (air group), flying Mitsubishi A5M fighters from Formosa (now Taiwan).


Saburo Saki, JNAF

Sakai and 43 other pilots of the Tainan Kokutai made aviation history on December 8, 1941, taking off from Formosa and flying 1,100 miles round trip to Clark Field in the Philippines—at the time the longest fighter mission ever attempted. After peeling off from the Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” bombers they had escorted, the Zeros attacked targets of opportunity. Sakai claimed a P-40 War¬hawk shot down and two B-17s strafed on the ground.

14. Ivan Kozhedub

In 1940 Kozhedub answered his country’s call for military service in the Red Army. His previous flight experience made him eligible for the Military Pilots’ Aviation School in Chuguev in 1941. Kozhedub proved to be an excellent student, graduating as an aviation instructor. At the beginning of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, he continued to be retained as an instructor. In March 1943 he was posted, as a Senior Sergeant, to the famed 240th Fighter Aviation Regiment operating on the Voronezh Front.


Ivan Kozhedub, Soviet Air Force

Kozhedub received his first baptism of fire during the deadly battle of Kursk. After countless air battles Kozhedub’s victory totals began to rise precipitously so much so that by October 1943, his victory total was 20. In fighting over the Dnieper region he increased his total by 11 and was awarded with the order of the Hero of the Soviet Union on 4 February 1944. By war’s end Kozhedub had become the leading Allied ace with over 60 aerial victories.

15. Zdislaw Krasnodebski

In 1920, during the Polish-Bolshevik war, as a 16-year-old, Zdislaw he volunteered to join the Polish Army. On August 20, 1920, he was assigned to the 5th company of the 201st Infantry Regiment, largely composed of volunteer scouts. When the fighting of the Polish-Bolshevik war ceased, on October 10, 1920, Krasnodębski left the army and decided to complete the interrupted education. He applied for aviation and at the beginning of October 1926 he appeared at the Officers' Aviation School in Grudziądz.


Zdislaw Krasnodebski, RAF

After a nearly 10-year distinguished career Zdislaw and the Polish Air Force would face their greatest challenge at the beginning of World War II. Although the Poles would fight valiantly, they were simply over matched by the Germans from the West and Soviets from the East. With the fall of Poland, Zdislaw first made his way to France to fight for the French. Then with the fall of France Zdislaw and other Polish pilots made their way to beleaguered England. It was here that the RAF recognized the talent, skill and commitment of these skilled pilots and formed them into an effective group. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said, "I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle (of Britain) would have been the same.

Robin Olds

Robin was born into fighter pilot linage as the son of Robert Olds a World War I fighter pilot who later served as an aide to legendary pilot Billie Mitchell. After the tragic death of his mother Eloise, early his father stepped in to raise his young son. As Robert Olds advanced in military rank, young Robin was often surrounded legends of the Army Air Corps. Robin later entered West Point where he played football. His play on the field earned him an All-American nod.


Robin Olds, USAA

Robin graduated in 1943 from West Point and flight training, however, his joy was tainted by the death of his father. It was little wonder the Olds soon became a sensational fighter pilot. While operating in Europe, he flew 107 missions, scored 12 aerial victories, and destroyed another 11-and-one-half enemy aircraft on the ground. Robin began his tour flying the venerable P-38 Lightning then later switched to the war winning P-51 Mustang.

17. Chuck Yeager

Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, the small town of Hamlin, West Virginia. Yeager joined the US Army Air Corps shortly after graduating high school in September 1941. As a youth Yeager had a fascination with engines and anything mechanical. Based on his skills, initially Yeager trained as a mechanic, but in 1942 he enrolled in an Army Air Forces initiative to increase the number of American combat pilots by accepting applications from enlisted men with no college education. He earned his wings the following March and joined the363rd Fighter Squadron, which was equipped with Bell P-39 Airacobras.


Chuck Yeager, USAA

Yeager and the rest of the 363rd Fighter Squadron, part of the 357th Fighter Group deployed to England, in late 1943. Yeager’s group replaced the under-powered P-39’s with powerful P-51’s with the updated Packard built Merlin engines. During his first combat missions Yeager discovered he had a natural aptitude for dogfighting in large part, due to his excellent eyesight and his ability to rapidly react while remaining calm.

18. Bob Doe

Robert Doe was born March 10, 1920, in Reigate, Surrey. After leaving school before taking examinations, he started work as an office boy for theNews of the World news publication. Doe joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in March 1938 and made his first solo flight on 3 months later. Doe joined the RAF a little over a year later when England stood on the brink of war. Doe’s first posting was to No. 234 Squadron, a Spitfire Squadron at RAF Leconfield. Doe was one of the many young men who defended British skies in the monumental Battle of Britain in 1940.


Bob Doe, RAF

Doe’s first victory occurred on 15 August 1940 when he flamed two Messerschmitt Bf 110’s then a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and later a Dornier Do 18 on August 16. At this time Doe transitioned to several pilot training assignments to give trainees firsthand knowledge from experienced frontline pilots. After distinguished service in the European theatre Doe was transferred to the Pacific in October 1943 where he was assigned to Squadron 10 of India. It was here that Doe began flying the P-51 Mustang.

19. Richard Bong

Like many boys of his era, Bong was smitten with flight. While in college he learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training program; at the age of 20 he became a flying cadet in the US Army Air Corps, as the world was engaging in war. Bong proved to be very adept at aerial fighter gunnery, leadership assigned him to instructor service as an instructor at Luke Field in Arizona before transferring to Hamilton Field near San Francisco, California.


Richard Bong, USAA

General George C. Kenney realized the young pilot’s talent and assigned Bong to his group that deployed to the Pacific. In combat Bong credited his success to his preferred method of flying as close to the enemy as possible, thus lessening the chance to miss the target. This strategy would one day make Bond America’s ace of aces with 40 victories in his P-38 Lightning and be awarded the nation’s highest honor the Medal of Honor.

20. Eric Hartmann

During his service in Germany’s Luftwaffe in World War II, Erich Hartmann flew more than 1,400 missions in the Messerschmitt Bf 109, enabling him to score an astonishing 352 kills, the majority of which occurred on the Eastern front. Hartmann’s mode of operation is well known for striking at very close range. This tactic made his gunfire lethal, it also helped him to save ammo for other enemies. Many of Hartmann’s victims never knew anyone was there until one of their wings ripped off or their engine blew up. On several occasions Hartmann essentially shot himself down a few times by running into his enemy’s shrapnel—that’s how close he liked to get.


Eric Hartmann, German Luftwaffe

The black tulip, as he would be known as, struck fear in the hearts of the enemy so much so that they would just head for home whenever Hartmann appeared in the skies. Hartmann broke his tactics down in the simplest terms, "See – Decide – Attack – Break". In the final months of the war Hartmann transitioned to the new ME-262 jet powered aircraft. Hartmann's last aerial victory occurred over Brno, Czechoslovakia, on 8 May, when he shot down a Soviet Yak-9 on the last day of the war in Europe.


The memorable and outstanding pilots listed here are just a few of the many who took to the skies in World War II. Each was to master their craft at a time when success or failure meant victory or defeat for their country. And in some cases, some would lose their lives. What I found truly remarkable was the ages of these men and women, the majority of which were under the age of 25. It is only fitting that we take time to remember what once took place around the world. Like the outstanding fighter aircraft they flew, many of the pilots have become legends.

Evolution Of World War 2 Fighter Aircraft

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