Death of the Nonpareil
December 14, 1942
pursuit pilots never spoke of "Buzz" Wagner except in superlatives. He was to
them the best, the bravest, the hottest pilotand the swellest guyin
the Air Forces. They said he could buzz the camouflage off the top of a hangar
without touching it. Once, in the Philippines, he shot down a Jap Zero while he
was flying upside down. He knew how to get between the Japs and the sun, then
pop them off while they were blinded.
Buzz Wagner could lick the Japs: he
had seven planes to his credit in aerial combat, and he had probably destroyed
50 more on the ground. But no man can lick fickle luck. Last week, in a solitary
routine flight between Eglin Field, Fla. and Maxwell Field, Ala., Lieut. Colonel
Boyd D. Wagner, at 26 the youngest officer of his rank, was missing. It was just
about a year after the U.S. had first heard of Buzz Wagner.
Force. Among the men on Bataan Wagner attained the proportions of a superman.
After the first few hours his P-4O squadron had nearly all its planes shot down
or destroyed on the ground. Buzz and a few others carried on, strafing airfields
as soon as the Japs landed planes on them, tossing bombs and hand grenades out
of their cockpits, even sinking small transports with .50-caliber bullets. One
day over Vigan, Buzz and Russ Church saw 30 newly arrived Jap bombers lined up
on the field. Two Zeros intercepted. Lieut. Church got one, Lieut. Wagner the
other. Church was on fire, but he kept going and laid his bombs in the middle
of the field before crashing. "I think a man really gets mad for the first time
when he sees his friends killed," said Buzz later. That day he swept back & forth
over the Jap planes until he had set them blazing.
Killer. They sent Buzz
to Australia to fetch more planes that were not there. By the time some P-40s
arrived Java was being invaded. Charles ("Bud") Sprague and Buzz were told to
flip a coin to decide who would go to Java, who would remain in Australia to teach
some green pilots just arrived from the U.S. Sprague went to Java, where he was
killed. "You won the toss?" a newsman asked Buzz. "No, I lost. Bud Sprague was
my friend," said Buzz, his blue-green eyes ablaze.
As Buzz saw his teaching
job, it was a question of preparing youngsters who had never seen death for the
task of killing. With little groups of men younger than himself the 25-year-old
lieutenant colonel sat under eucalyptus trees and expounded the kill-or-be-killed
philosophy which President Roosevelt and Lieut. General Lesley J. McNair were
to adopt in their speeches months later. "You've got to get in there and kill
the Jap or he'll kill you," said Buzz. "Don't try to dogfight the Japs. You cannot
do it with the planes you've got," said Buzz Wagner. But one day in May, when
Wagner himself went along to initiate one of his green squadrons, some stragglers
tried to dogfight Zeros with P-39s. Four of them were shot down. Four Japs were
also shot down, three of them by Buzz Wagner, who knew better than to dogfight
except when he had to. Buzz was bucking orders that daya Jap bullet had
splintered windshield glass into his left eye in the Philippines”but the
chance to kill more Japs was too tempting.
Engineer. The U.S. lost more
than an ace pilot in Buzz Wagner. Before he joined the Air Corps in 1937 Buzz
studied aeronautical engineering three years at the University of Pittsburgh,
where he "failed to flash any scholastic lights." But he learned about airplanes
and airplane engines as few pursuit pilots ever do. From what he learned in the
acid test of battle, Buzz Wagner had keen ideas about improving U.S. planes. "Engineering
is my profession," he used to say proudly.
Three months ago Buzz got his
chance. Returned from New Guinea, he was assigned as an engineering expert to
the Curtiss-Wright (P-40) plant, was sent around the U.S. several times to talk
to the men who draw plans for U.S. planes. One of his stops was Wright Field,
No. 1 U.S. airplane laboratory. There a noted engineer put the finest stamp on
the fine career of Buzz Wagner. "During the two weeks Colonel Wagner was here,"
he said, "we learned more about what was needed in the way of certain airplanes
than we learned in the previous year."