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German Pilot Reported 352 Kills : Hope of Top WWII Flier: No Need for New Air Aces

January 03, 1986|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

As his victory tally continued to mount, Hartmann, by then a captain, was asked to test the new jet-powered ME-262. Accepting that job would have kept him in Western Germany. He tried out the new craft but, by then a group commander with the 52nd Fighter Wing, he insisted on returning to his command.

Col. Hermann Graf, a brilliant ace with 212 victories, was his wing commander, and they both fought a rear-guard action in the skies against the Soviet advance.

Hartmann shot down his last plane--the 352nd kill, a Yak 11--on the last day of the war.

He and Graf received instructions from the German fighter command to fly to Dortmund to turn themselves over to the British, who presumably would have treated them as captured Luftwaffe officers.

Instead, the two airmen decided to remain with their unit, to help lead the pilots, crewmen and ground personnel away from the advancing Soviet army so they could surrender to American troops in western Czechoslovakia.

All Taken Prisoner

The Americans, however, quickly handed the flight personnel over to the Soviets, who soon realized that they had in hand two pilots who together had shot down more than 500 Soviet planes. All members of the wing were taken prisoner. Over a period of years, the Soviet intelligence services tried to brainwash Hartmann into signing a declaration that he was, as they charged, a war criminal, having killed defenseless civilians.

"I told them I was a German officer, a fighter pilot, who had never fired on civilians and who was only doing his duty in the air," Hartmann said.

The Soviets kept trying to break his spirit and, over the years, his refusal to knuckle under to them is reminiscent of both the fictional British Col. Nicholson in "Bridge on the River Kwai" and the real-life senior American military pilots who withstood torture and brainwashing in North Vietnamese prisons.

At one point, Hartmann refused to do manual labor because officers, under the Geneva Conventions, did not have to work. He insisted that he was a prisoner of war and not a war criminal. He was thrown into solitary confinement in a filthy bunker. But the rest of the German prisoners in the camp revolted until Hartmann was released and all were then accorded more humane treatment by camp officials.

Word spread throughout the network of prison camps, and Hartmann became a hero even to many German POWs who were unfamiliar with his aerial exploits. To them, he was the symbol of resistance.

The Soviets, realizing they could not break him, then tried to persuade him to speak out on behalf of the Soviet regime or even to join the East German air force.

Laudatory Article

To Hartmann's shock, his old commander, Graf, decided to cooperate with the Soviets and wrote a laudatory article in a POW newspaper about the Soviet air force. For this, Graf was repatriated to Germany in 1950.

Hartmann continued to hang tough, however, despite the fact that he learned that a son whom he had never seen had died in 1947 and that his father, too, was dead.

Finally, in 1955, with the intervention of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Hartmann was released. He refused an arrival celebration--until all German prisoners were released later that year by the Soviets.

After a few months' recuperation, he was asked to join the new Luftwaffe and did so, training pilots to fly jet fighters--after he himself mastered the new planes.

"If you're a pilot, you're a pilot," he recalled of his jet training. "There's not much difference."

Because he was associated with the new Luftwaffe, whose pilots received instruction in the United States, Hartmann managed to escape the taint that attached to some other German aces after the war because of their continuing connections with Nazi sympathizers.

Remained Outspoken

But, as always, Hartmann was outspoken in the new German air force, as he had been in Soviet prison camps and to Hitler himself.

He became commander of the Richthofen Wing of F-86 Sabres, the new air force's first all-jet fighter unit.

But he opposed the introduction of the supersonic interceptor, the American-built F-104 Starfighter, on the grounds that German pilots were not yet ready for it, that they hadn't built up enough postwar experience flying jets.

Hartmann was overruled by senior officers on the grounds that it was a "political" decision. However, his judgment turned out to be correct: The West German air force lost dozens of the planes in training accidents in what grew to be a national scandal.

Retired as Full Colonel

But Hartmann decided that a hell-for-leather fighter pilot was out of place in the upper ranks of the new German Luftwaffe, dominated by bureaucratic generals, and he retired as a full colonel.

Today, he seems a man without rancor, as he tends to his house here, builds a swimming pool and entertains air-minded friends from many countries.

His wife, Usch, poured another beer for Bubi Hartmann and a visitor and pulled out a scrapbook she kept during the war years and the decade that she waited while he remained a Soviet prisoner.

He was dashing as a young pilot, hard-living and hard-flying, and still looks several years younger than his 63 years.

"Our new German pilots are quite as good as we were, I think," he reflected. "And NATO is much the stronger because of it.

"In combat, you must be well-trained first. But you must, too, survive your first few missions to get the hang of it. Then, good tactics pay off--seeing the other pilot first, getting in close, shooting accurately and avoiding action when judicious.

"But with all of that said, luck still plays a role in whether you survive or not. And fate."

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