'It was just a business your people and our people had to do.'
More than 40 years ago, in flying machines sporting swastikas and 20-millimeter cannons, they ranged over Europe, five fighter pilots who between them shot down 821 Allied airplanes. Over London, in frozen Russia and above the hedgerows of France, they won duels as their nation lost a war.
Now they are relics, aging men holding tight to their medals and to their memories of glorious missions and close calls.
On Saturday night, more than 1,000 people who had paid $25 each crammed into the Long Beach Elks Lodge as five of Germany's greatest surviving World War II aces--retired Gens. Adolf Galland, Guenther Rall, Walter Krupinski, Fritz Obleser and Dieter Hrabak--detailed how they were able to score so many "kills" with such proficiency.
Sponsored by an East Coast aviation art dealer, the event was billed as a symposium on Luftwaffe fighter tactics. The symposium, however, offered not so much a chance to understand the nuances of dogfighting as it did to stare at the living past, a past when there was still room amid the clouds for eager young men in silk scarfs to carry their nation's honor into single combat.
"It was just a business your people and our people had to do," said Obleser, 64, who downed 120 airplanes during the war, most of them on the Russian Front.
They were the enemy once, dreaded and loathed. Yet on Saturday in Long Beach, the five German aces were greeted with reverence, the kind Americans usually reserve for elder statesmen or baseball greats.
Among the crowd were former Army Air Corps pilots, some, no doubt, who lost friends to the German air force. But there was no finger-pointing, no angry outbursts of "You killed my buddy!" Four decades have offered time enough to forgive but not nearly long enough to forget, the aces and audience seemed to agree.
"The few survivors came to see the other survivors," said Gene Simpson, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who flew out from Phoenix.
"Take a look at these guys," Simpson urged. "When these guys are gone, they're all gone."
Such has been the sentiment at similar gatherings around the country put on since 1978 by Virginia Bader, a Virginia-based aviation art dealer whose second cousin, Sir Douglas Bader, was a famous British flier.
Back home in Germany, meanwhile, the retired Luftwaffe generals are hardly lionized for their wartime exploits, they said. Viewed as symbols of Germany's militaristic rise and destructive fall under Adolf Hitler, they are 20th-Century anachronisms whom many of their countrymen would just as soon forget.
So they admit to being both flattered and mystified by the fascination that American audiences continue to have with them. Their mail from the United States regularly includes missives or books from baby-boomers who request their autographs "as if we were famous or something," Rall, 68, marveled. He blasted 275 planes out of the skies during the war and ultimately was hired as an adviser to Lockheed Corp. to head development of the F-104 fighter.
Americans have become so friendly, according to Galland, that in the six years he has been coming to the United States to lecture, he could only remember one ugly incident. It happened in a hangar in Maine where Galland was reminiscing about combat before an otherwise receptive gathering.
"A guy appeared, and he was blaming me, telling the audience, 'He's responsible for Buchenwald and all the (Nazi death) camps' " Galland, 74, recalled. "It was so ridiculous what he was saying. He was stopped immediately" by others in the crowd.
On Saturday, symposium-goers lined up by the dozens with aviation prints that they had purchased from Bader for Galland and the other retired aces to sign.
There was Krupinski, 66, who flew more than 1,100 missions during the war and scored 187 kills, including 11 in one day. His officers called him the "The Count" for his inexhaustible love of the good life.
And there was the daring Hrabak, 72, who claimed 125 aerial victories flying with Rall against the Russians.
But it was Galland who was the star attraction.
A shrewd, cigar-chomping tactician who was always impeccably dressed (British pilots nicknamed him "The Fighting Fop"), Galland downed 104 enemy aircraft. By age 29, he had been promoted to general--the youngest in the German military--and by November, 1941, was in command of all German fighter forces.
After a two-year stint in a postwar prison camp, he wrote his memoirs and became a successful aerospace industrialist.
"It is impressive how much people in your country know of me," Galland remarked. "I have no explanation."
Perhaps it is a respect for courageous acts no matter the cause that was the basis of his celebrity. He and the four other aces were each awarded the Knight's Cross, a decoration bestowed much less often than the American Medal of Honor or England's Victoria Cross.
Perhaps it is America's obsession with records and statistical achievement. After all, this country's leading World War II ace, Richard Bong, scored 40 confirmed aerial victories before being killed in August, 1945, when the jet fighter he was testing crashed in Burbank.
Whatever the reason, Galland was not seeking an answer Saturday as he discussed dogfighting and signed autographs.
He and the others downplayed their own abilities in explaining their aerial successes. Victory, they insisted, came because enemy pilots were often less-experienced or were flying obsolete planes.
"Our intention is not to glorify war; we know exactly how terrible war is," Galland told the crowd. "We are only here as witnesses of history."