A Tribute to a Hero of the Philippines

Outgunned, outnumbered, and flying an aircraft with distinct disadvantages, he bucked the odds and came out on top. America’s first “Ace” of World War II accomplished this feat in an aircraft that many people think was obsolete. But he knew how to use its advantages to his advantage.

Lt Boyd D “Buzz” Wagner commanded the 17th Squadron of the 24th Pursuit Group in the Philippines at the outbreak of World War II. The squadron had just recently acquired the P-40E model Warhawks, to augment their P-35s. Wagner learned the aircraft quickly, and developed tactics for dogfighting with it. A very heavy aircraft, its climb rate left a lot to be desired. But in a dive, it was fast. And it was heavily armored, so it could take a beating.

On 12 December, 1941, Wagner took off on a solo reconnaissance mission over the Japanese landing sites. Five Japanese Zeros pounced on him. He quickly dove, and outran them. When he saw that they were breaking off the attack, he turned around and shot down two of them.

As more Zeros joined in the fight, Wagner chopped his throttle, allowing them to quickly overshoot, and pass him. Two more were sent flaming to the ground.

Five days later, Wagner and two other pilots flew a mission to bomb and strafe a Japanese airfield. During the attack, one of the pilots was hit by ground fire, and crashed into the field. Wagner continued to make pass after pass, shooting up parked aircraft and gun emplacements. On his final pass, he noticed a Japanese fighter attempting to take off. He momentarily lost site of him, so he rolled his P-40 inverted, saw where the enemy pilot was, rolled back and chopped his throttle, allowing the enemy fighter to rise from the runway right in front of him. He was promptly blasted out of what little sky he managed to fly into. This was Wagner’s fifth victory, making him the first American Ace of the war.

Buzz Wagner was evacuated to Australia after being wounded, which spared him from becoming a prisoner when the Philippines fell. He scored 3 more victories in a P-39, and would probably have gone on to score more. Unfortunately, he was killed in a crash in Florida where he was sent to form a new squadron.

As an RC airplane pilot, I enjoy flying the warbirds of yesterday. It’s a passion of mine (my wife would call it an obsession) to build and fly scale models of World War II warbirds. Recently I completed a Top-Flight 60 sized P-40E Warhawk. The kit comes with decals for the AVG Flying Tigers, but I wanted something different. So I finished my aircraft in the color and markings of the 24th Pursuit Group, in honor of Buzz Wagner.

The project cost me 6 months time, numerous glued together fingers, two trips to the emergency room, and 7 stitches to complete. But I would do it all over again.

The model features a realistic pilot, fully functional ailerons, elevator, rudder, flaps, and rotating retractable landing gear. The decals are authentic for the period, including the red dot center which was removed from US Army aircraft in 1942 (red is seen at a longer distance than blue, and US aircraft were being confused with Japanese aircraft).

I’ve only been able to fly it once so far. Our flying season here in Montana was cut short by an early winter (thanks Owl Gore for the heads up on global warming). But as soon as my air strip thaws out, I will be taking to the skies. And for about 15 minutes, Buzz Wagner will be turning and burning once again.