#3. Willy Coppens
Poor little Belgium, sandwiched in between France and Germany and with all the natural defenses of a cabbage. Belgium did, however, manage to produce at least one genuine ass-kicking hero in World War I. Willy Coppens, despite being fobbed off with obsolete aircraft and inadequate supplies of ammunition, became the undisputed champion balloon buster of the war, with 34 kills to his credit. This would probably be a good time to explain that "balloon busting" wasn't a bizarre party game played on the battlefields during WWI, but a serious endeavor for the only the bravest pilots.
"That's gonna take one hell of a needle."
In the days before satellites and unmanned reconnaissance planes, armies would station observers in moored hot air balloons with wireless radios to report back on enemy action. And even though you'd think that taking pot shots at a giant bag of explosive gas would be child's play, it totally wasn't. Balloons were guarded by anti-aircraft batteries pumping wads of hot lead into the air, and they often had their own squadrons of fighter planes swirling around the area to protect them.
Get past all that, and you run into the mid-air booby traps the Germans set, which included surrounding the balloons with silk-covered kites attached to steel cables that were all but invisible to pilots until they noticed their airplanes being torn in two.
"Tee hee hee."
In other words, balloon busting was as foolhardy as setting up a mosh pit in a minefield. And Coppens was really good at it. In fact, Coppens's electric blue Hanriot airplane became such a pain in the ass for the Germans that they hatched a cunning plan to dispose of him. Basically, they took an ordinary observation balloon and jammed it so full of explosives that a single bullet would be enough to atomize anything within 500 feet of it. With Coppens regularly swooping in to attack from as close as 50 feet, he didn't stand a chance.
The Germans were so proud of their little plot that word of the scheme eventually got back to Coppens himself, who decided that after they went to all that expense and effort, it would be rude not to go have a look at this balloon.
In fairness, balloons kick ass.
When he got there, he discovered that the Germans had really made a day of it, with dozens of soldiers and staff officers standing around to watch the fireworks. The balloon itself was still being winched up and was, crucially, only at half its intended height. It was then that Coppens, demonstrating that fine line between bravery and just plain bat-shit insanity, said "Fuck it" and dove in shooting.
The resulting explosion sent his plane rocking through the sky like a kangaroo on a pogo stick, yet it remained intact. If the low height had saved Coppens, it proved disastrous for those below, with the resulting fireball killing and maiming dozens of the watchers on the ground. See, that's what you get for standing around watching a war.
#2. William Barker
By October 1918, Canuck pilot William Barker had already survived three years in the Royal Flying Corps, and his official score of downed enemy aircraft stood at 46. So, on Oct. 26, 1918, Barker was ordered home for a well-earned rest. While most people would skedaddle home in a heartbeat in war time, Barker elected to swing by the front lines. Sure enough, he quickly spotted a low-flying enemy two-seater observation plane, which he promptly shot down. But that was a mistake.
As was being alive in 1918.
Those sneaky Germans were using the two-seaters as bait while about 60 faster fighter planes lurked higher up, hidden in the clouds. Barker's first indication that all was not well was when an explosive bullet shattered his right thighbone, leaving the leg attached by the sinews.
Now able to make only left turns, Barker swung his plane around to discover an entire squadron of German fighter planes bearing down on him.
Bad odds ... for the Germans!
But instead of trying to flee like a normal person, Barker plowed through the middle of the squadron in a suicidal banzai charge, and he shot down both his original assailant and another luckless German who wandered into his sights. By now, the Germans had managed to get their shit together and began attacking him in a coordinated fashion, riddling his plane with over 300 bullets and wounding his left leg.
And that was when Barker fainted the first time.
Normally an occurrence only brought on by a quarter-gallon of trench-gin.
His aircraft went into an uncontrolled spin for over 6,000 feet before he came to and discovered that the Germans had followed him down, shooting all the way. Having long since given up any hope of surviving, Barker began attempting to ram the enemy and even managed to shoot one more down -- taking his tally to four in the space of less than 10 minutes. Then his left elbow was shattered by another bullet.
And that was when Barker fainted the second time.
He didn't regain consciousness until he was almost at ground level. But, crucially, by this time he had crossed over the Allied lines. Given that he was half-delirious from blood loss and pain and only able to move his right wrist, it's not surprising that he made a bit of a mess of his landing. And by "mess," we mean that he plowed into the ground at 90 mph.
Barker was pulled from the wreckage blood-soaked, unconscious and with both legs held on by threads. He lay in a coma for 10 days, and two days after he woke up, the war ended. Not bad for a guy who twice fainted in the middle of a dogfight.
#1. Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen was the first world war's ace of aces, with a score of 80 confirmed victories. As an utterly remorseless killing machine, Richthofen's greatest passion in life was hunting -- before the war it was boars, during the war it was men. Basically, the guy just really, really loved sneaking up on things and shooting them in the head.
He's standing behind you right now.
Richthofen quickly became Germany's leading ace and was awarded command of his own elite squadron, Jasta 11, which eventually became known as the Flying Circus because of the wild colors they painted their machines and their habit of traveling from one hot spot to another along the front with caravans and trailers.
In the camouflaged world of khaki and field gray that was the first world war, Richthofen's decision to paint his plane entirely red was a bold declaration of confidence bordering on arrogance.
Otherwise known as "peacocking."
By the April 1917, the British were so obsessed with finding the famous "Red Baron" that they coordinated a massive aerial raid on his home. And even though German intelligence alerted him to the coming onslaught hours ahead of time, Richthofen stayed put, allegedly hosting a lavish dinner for his officers in his dugout shelter. Not only did the Allied bombers attack and not kill the Baron, but he ended the month with 20 more kills added to his tally.
But it wasn't until after his death a year later that everyone really appreciated what an impact Richthofen had made on the fledgling German and British air forces. Because when the Baron was finally shot down in his last dogfight, the RAF ended up treating him like their own royalty. The Australian infantry that held the area he landed in stripped the plane for souvenirs, the British carried his flower-covered body to a hangar, where hundreds of soldiers filed past to pay their respects, and the next day, his former enemies buried him with full military honors.
And a fine line of frozen pizzas.
John Lepper doesn't have a site of his own, but you can visit this one his friends made.
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To read about more war heroes, check out 5 Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy.