Born on October 31, 1916 in Pennsylvania, Wagner studied aeronautical engineering for three years of the University of Pittsburgh before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1938. He completed flight training in June, and in late 1940, was assigned to the 17th Pursuit Squadron, based in the Philippines and equipped with Curtis P-40 fighters. Wagner was placed in command of the squadron.
Due to its strategic location, the Philippine island group was an obvious target for Japanese expansion, and American pre-war strategists planned on this. After the Japanese take-over of French Indochina and the subsequent U.S. embargo on oil shipments to Japan, reinforcing the American position became even more important. By the time war broke out, over 240 warplanes, including 35 B-17 bombers and 107 P-40s, were based in the Philippines. Most of them were at Clark air field and surrounding bases, on the northern island of Luzon. Boyd’s squadron was at Ida, several miles west of Clark.
On Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese fighters and bombers from bases in Taiwan attacked the air bases on Luzon, wiping out almost half of America’s air power in the Philippines in one stroke, including most of the P-40s of the 17th PS. On December 10, the Japanese landed troops on the northern and northwestern sides of the island, near the towns of Aparri and Vigan, respectively.
Wagner first saw action against these forces when he flew a recon mission of the landing zone at Aparri on the morning of December 12. After diving to evade anti-aircraft fire from destroyers off shore, Wagner saw that the Japanese had already set up a landing strip with several fighters based there. Coming under fire from two Japanese fighters (most accounts identify them as Zeroes, but at least one claims that the fighters were Ki-27 Nates ), Wagner went into a roll and got behind them, flaming them both seconds later. He completed two strafing runs on the parked aircraft, destroying at least five, possibly as many as ten. Zeroes attempted to ambush him as he headed home, but he evaded their attacks and shot two more down.
A few days later, Wagner led Lts. Allison Strauss and Russell Church on an attack on another new Japanese air field, this one near the landing site at Vigan. Church and Wagner’s Warhawks carried small fragmentation bombs, while Strauss flew cover. Wagner went in first, bombing the Japanese aircraft, but as Church began his run, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Rather than bail out of his burning aircraft, he completed his attack, destroying several enemy fighters. Church went down with his plane right after this, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Now joined by Strauss, Wagner made repeated strafing runs on the field, leaving more aircraft burning on the field. As Wagner made his last pass, he spotted a Japanese fighter taking off. He eased in behind him and shot him down, becoming the first American ace of the war a week after Pearl Harbor. Now out of ammunition and low on fuel, the two P-40s turned for home, having destroyed an estimated seventeen aircraft on the ground in addition to Wagner’s aerial victory. For his two highly successful missions which put a significant, albeit temporary, dent in Japanese air power, Wagner was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Some days later, while on another mission to Vigan, he earned the somewhat more dubious honor of the Purple Heart, when anti-aircraft fire shattered his windscreen, causing several glass shards to fly into his face. He was able to bring his plane home, but he was out of action for a while. Wagner, along with several other pilots, was evacuated to Australia in early January. The plan was for some of the pilots to return with reinforcements, but when it became apparent that the Philippines could not be effectively defended with the resources then available, the plan was abandoned. See also: Battle of the Java Sea
Wagner was promoted to Captain in January, and had made Lt. Colonel by April. With his new rank came new responsibility, and Buzz was tasked with rebuilding Allied fighter power in the region. Among the reinforcements were several Bell P-39 Airacobras, and Wagner had the honor of leading the first P-39 combat mission.
The 8th Pursuit Group, based at Port Moresby, New Guinea, and including several veterans, was equipped with Airacobras, and had finally achieved operational readiness at the end of April. Their first mission was an offensive sweep of the Japanese airfields at Lae and Salamaua. Thirteen P-39s sortied, led by Buzz Wagner in his first combat action since leaving the Philippines. Four planes went high to act as top cover, and the rest attacked from the seaward side. They caught the Japanese by surprise, accounting for a fuel dump, a radio station, a number of supply dumps, and three seaplanes at anchor. About a dozen Zeros responded, and Wagner led the strafing planes to help out the covering Airacobras. A classic aerial melee developed, and four Zeros were shot down in exchange for four P-39s. Wagner downed three of the Zeroes himself, taking his score to eight, which made him the top-ranking ace in the theater at the time. In contrast to the general negative evaluation of the P-39, Wagner was happy with the machine and considered it generally better in performance than the P-40.
That mission would be Wagner’s last combat flight. The USAAC sent him and his valuable combat experience home to train new pilots, and Wagner was killed on November 29, 1942 when his P-40 suffered a mechanical failure and crashed.
- Aces, by William Yenne, Berkeley Books, 2000
- Oxford Guide to World War II, ed. by I.C.B. Dear, Oxford University Press, 1995
- Lt. Col. Boyd “Buzz” Wagner at Acepilots.com
- P-39 Airacobra Aces of World War 2, by George Mellinger and John Stanaway, Osprey Publishing, 2001
- Article in Time Magazine, written soon after Wagner’s death