Hubert “Hub” Zemke
Military Strategist/Military Combat
Without a doubt Hub was both catalyst and driving force behind the 56th Fighter Group. Forming lone wolves into a cohesive unit challenged his leadership skills. Hub’s philosophy, forged in the boxing ring as a youth and refined by the military, molded the Wolfpack into a successful fighter group. They heeded his advice to “use your wits, size up the opposition, keep hitting him what it hurts … and always keep the initiative.”
- As the leader of the 56th Fighter Group, better known as Zemke’s Wolfpack, Zemke is credited with several combat tactical innovations including the Zemke Fan.
- Before his fateful October 1944 mission over Germany he had become an outstanding fighter ace with 19 ½ aerial victories and 11 ground victories.
- By the end of World War II he was a prisoner-of-war at Stalag Luft I and commander of nearly 9,000 POWs.
A general once described Zemke as a typical fighter pilot: “chip on his shoulder, makes excellent eye contact, not insolent, just confident.” He was an extraordinary man, meeting the challenges of extraordinary times. He was outspoken and courageous, with unflagging personal integrity and conviction.
Hubert Zemke was born on March 14th, 1914, in Missoula, Montana, the only child of German immigrants, Anna and Benno Zemke.
Growing up bilingual proved to be an asset later in life, but it was a liability in Missoula following World War I. Anti-German sentiment was still high when Zemke began grade school, and an 11-year-old bully on his block regularly terrorized him.
Zemke’s childhood necessity for self-defense may have influenced his enthusiasm for amateur boxing, a skill that earned him two state middleweight wins and several regional titles during high school and college. His success in the ring prompted a sports writer to dub him, “The Hub,” a name that stayed with him all his life.
Zemke’s philosophy, forged in the boxing ring, and refined by the military, would help mold his successful fighter group, Zemke’s Wolfpack. He advised his men to “use your wits, size up the opposition, keep hitting him where it hurts … and always keep the initiative.”
When Great Depression-era employment proved elusive after college, Zemke took the advice of two friends and explored the fighter training program of the Army Air Corps.
Zemke had never nursed his passion for airplanes, but he displayed a proficiency that found him assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron at Langley Field, Virginia. Before long, he was logging 20-30 hours a month testing P-40s at Wright Field and flying in the Cleveland Air Races.
April of 1941 saw “Hub” transferred to England as a combat observer.
By June he was serving as Assistant Military Attaché to the American Embassy in Moscow, where he trained Soviet pilots in British P-40s. The United States had entered the war by February 1942, and Lt. Zemke was anxious to join the fray for the U.S. With war raging in Europe had to weave his way through Tehran and Cairo before finally reaching American soil.
Subsequent assignments included the 56th Fighter Group, an inspection tour of 120 Chinese pilots, squadron commander of the 59th fighter group, and by August 1942, reassignment to the 56th. This time he was the commander.
In early 1943 the 56th was transferred to King’s Cliffe, England, where Zemke began experimenting with new flight formations. He first initiated staggered squadrons and flights so that the group formed a giant “V.” It was the first of many innovations.
His group, now known as “Zemke’s Wolfpack,” proved to be the catalysts for numerous organizational and tactical developments. These included the creation of a combat fighter group, which integrated aircraft maintenance. They also conducted the first planned starfing of an enemy airfield and the first dive-bombing attempt. Their planes carried cameras for aerial photography and extra fuel tanks to boost flight distance for bomber escorts.
The 56th was truly a formidable force. And Zemke was both the catalyst and the momentum behind their success. In May 1943, at age 29, Zemke received a promotion to full Colonel and he promptly initiated a new combat tactic, the “Zemke Fan.” It allowed fighters to roam freely ahead of the bomber formation, preventing the Germans from forming up to attack.
By November 1943, the 56th had produced six aces, including Zemke. He would eventually score 19.5 aerial victories, and the Wolfpack would end the war with 992.5 confirmed kills, more than any other Eighth Air Force fighter group.
Zemke’s exceptional fighter pilots didn’t escape then otice of the top Army “brass.” The Wolfpack’s best men were relentlessly tapped as replacements for other groups.
When headquarters once again requested one of Hub’s top pilots to command the 479th Fighter Group Zemke volunteered. The 479th was trading their P-38s for the re-engineered P-51 Mustangs, and Zemke wanted one.
On October 30th, 1944-in his last mission before “retiring” to a desk job, Zemke flew over Germany into foul weather. His P-5 1 grappled with turbulence, twisted into a spin and threw a wing. He parachuted from the plane sustaining injuries … that desk job would have to wait.
He eluded capture for several days before his luck ran out. For six weeks Zemke was interrogated and shuffled between German camps before arriving at Stalag Loft I on December 16th, 1944.
As the senior Allied officer at Stalag Luft I, Zemke ended the war responsible for nearly 9,000 men. With Germany’s defeat imminent, Zemke convinced the Nazis to turn the camp over to the prisoners before the Soviets arrived. He then prodded the Russians to turn over American and British prisoners to nearby American forces, rather than take them to the Soviet Union.
As his war weary men returned to the United States, Zemke remained in Europe, searching for missing American prisoners-of-war and returning them home.
Zemke spent the remainder of his outstanding Air Force career in various leadership roles, including as president of the Air Force’s Air War College, secretary of NORAD and commander of the Reno Air Defense Sector. In 1966 Zemke retired to a ranch in Oroville, California, where he lived until his death in 1994.
For his innovative tactical accomplishments, and super military leadership, this highly decorated fighter ace has earned his honored spot in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
For more information on Hubert Zemke, you may want to visit the following websites: