Erich Hartmann, history's greatest fighter ace at 352 kills, was born on April 19, 1922 in Germany's Wuttemberg republic. When he was just a few years old his father moved his family to China to avoid the post-World War One turmoil in Germany. China's own political troubles led the family to move back to Germany four years later.
Erich learned to fly from his mother who operated a glider club, and he had a glider pilot's license by age fourteen. He joined the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in 1940 and was assigned to the elite Jagdgeschwader 52 (52nd Fighter Wing) in the fall of 1942. JG-52 served on the southern end of the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. While confined to his barracks for an accident cause by a mechanical failure, his roomate flew a training mission meant for Hartmann, and was killed when engine trouble caused a fatal crash.
On his first mission he scored no kills and had to crash-land his Me-109G when it ran out of fuel. At one point in the battle he was so confused he fled from his flight leader believing him to be a Soviet pilot. His first kill was a Soviet Il-2 Shturmovik bomber. He was so close to it when the bomber detonated that his plane was damaged and he had to crash-land. Within his squadron he gained the nickname "Bubi" (boy) for his boyish looks. He soon married Ursula Paetsch, his boyhood love.
On August 20, 1943 he was downed behind Soviet lines. Feigning injury he was taken to a local doctor, but enroute he incapacitated his unwary guard, and leapt out of the truck. Hiding all day, and then moving at night he managed to make it back to his own lines where he was almost shot by a German sentry; the slug tore through his pants' leg.
When fighting he always tried to avoid dogfights, and instead would pounce on enemy fighters in hit and run tactics like those used by Manfred von Ricthofen (the Red Baron), Germany's leading ace in World War One. He also believed in not firing until the "the enemy filled the entire windscreen" and so was almost always assured of a kill when he fired. His ferocity in combat earned him nicknames from the Soviets, the first of which was "Karaya" (sweetheart). But as more and more Russian pilots were downed this changed to "Cheriye Chorni": the Black Devil, inreference to the black tulip petal shaped design on his nose. The Soviets put a bounty of 10,000 rubles on his head, but Soviet pilots were still avoiding him, and so he had his infamous black nose design removed.
Eventually as Allied pressure increased, his airfield and all the fighters on it were destroyed, along with their remaining fuel and ammunition. Hartmann and the rest of his squadron surrendered to a tank officer in the US 16th Armored Division, but due to Allied politics he ended up as a Soviet prisoner of war. After ten and a half years he was released to West Germany and rejoined the Luftwaffe. After advanced jetfighter and gunnery training from US pilots in Arizona, he returned to Germany to found and train their first post-war all jet fighter wing JG-71. This wing was made up of American F-86 "Sabres" with the addition of Hartmann's famous black nosed design.
In the fall of 1970 he retired as West Germany's most decorated officer. During his career he flew 1,425 missions within a little over two and a half years, and took part in over 800 aerial battles. During this time he downed 261 single-engine and 91 twin-engine aircraft, a feat which will almost certainly never be matched due to the nature of modern air combat.