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First WWII Ace Launched Career at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of series of stories of fighter aces who served at Selfridge Air National Guard Base)

Using the tactics he learned at Selfridge Field, Buzz Wagner became the first American ace in World War II.

In his first assignment after earning his wings and commission as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner was assigned to the 27th Pursuit Squadron with the 1st Pursuit Group, flying the P-36 Hawk, at what is today known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Wagner would go on to become the first U.S. ace in the second world war, flying a P-40 Warhawk in the Pacific campaign against the Japanese Empire.

Wagner is just one of many of America's top aces - including World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacher and the leading ace of the European theater in World War II, Francis S. "Gabby" Grabeski - who served at Selfridge at various points in their careers.

A native of Pennsylvania, Wagner enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the Army Air Corps - forerunner to the Army Air Forces and later the U.S. Air Force - in June 1937. After training at Kelly Field, Texas, Wagner earned his wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant. His first permanent duty station was at Selfridge Field, where he arrived in June 1938. It is said that Wagner's nickname - Buzz - came from the fact that he could "buzz the camouflage off a hangar roof."

While at Selfridge, Wagner perfected his flying skills, participating in numerous training exercises at Selfridge and at the developing remote bases in Oscoda, which later became the now-closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base, and Alpena, now the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. In fact, while in Michigan Wagner served alongside Paul B. Wurtsmith, a fellow pilot at Selfridge for whom Wurtsmith Air Force Base would later be named.

In December 1940, with war clouds looming in both Europe and in the Pacific, the 1st Pursuit Group was sent west, with the 27th Pursuit Squadron assigned to California and the 17th Pursuit Squadron forward deployed to the Philippines. In May 1941, Wagner was promoted to captain and re-assigned as the commander of the 17th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines. The 17th sported a Great Snow Owl logo on their aircraft and came to be known as the "Hooters."

While most Americans are familiar with the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, to open World War II, fewer are aware that the Japanese Empire followed those attacks with similar attacks against the American outposts in the Philippines the next day.

On Dec. 12, 1941, Wagner was flying alone in a P-40 on a reconnaissance mission when he was attacked by enemy fighters. Wagner was able to return the attack and shot down his first two enemy aircraft in the engagement. In addition to the aerial victories in that engagement, Wagner also destroyed at least two enemy aircraft on the ground while over an enemy airfield. Several days later, flying with wingmen Allison W. Strauss and Russell M. Church Jr., Wagner again attacked the same airfield, damaging several enemy aircraft. During the attack, Wagner was engaged by enemy fighters once more. In a fierce dogfight, Wagner shot down one of the enemies in an aerial battle that claimed the life of Lt. Church. As a result of that engagement, Wagner earned his status as America's first World War II ace - destruction of five or more enemy aircraft - and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (the citation of which is below.)

Wagner became an American hero of the war effort, with his name and likeness appearing in comic books and trading cards.

Wagner was later promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel - at age 25 believed to be the youngest lieutenant colonel in the Army at the time - and was assigned to the 8th Fighter Group in New Guinea, flying the P-39 Airacobra. There, he scored three more aerial victories.

Given Wagner's early success as a combat pilot, senior military leaders decided that his knowledge of combat aircraft could best be put to use training new pilots and serving as liaison with the Curtiss Aircraft Company, which was manufacturing the P-40s and other aircraft for the war. Despite Wagner's protest, he was re-assigned to the U.S.

Back in the States, on Nov. 29, 1942, while flying from Eglin Field, Fla., to Maxwell Field, Ala., Wagner's P-40 disappeared. A crash site was discovered a month and a half later and a funeral, attended by at least 15,000 mourners, was held in Wagner's home town. The cause of the crash was never identified. In 2008, what were believed to be additional human remains from the crash site in Florida were discovered. These additional remains were buried with full military honors at Wagner's graveside.

Several legacies exist in honor of Lt. Col. Wagner, including the names of the former Dept. of Defense middle and high schools at the former Clark Air Base in the Philippines. At Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Wagner Street recalls the heroic service of one of America's great combat pilots.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first military flight at the base took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.

Distinguished Service Cross Citation for Lt. Col. Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner:
For extraordinary heroism in action near Vigan, Abra, Philippine Islands, on December 16, 1941. While leading a reconnaissance mission Lieutenant Wagner left one airplane of his formation above a hostile airfield to continue observation and with a companion drove through heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire to obtain vital information. Observing about twenty-five hostile airplanes on the landing strip he dove directly on them releasing six fragmentation bombs and making several direct hits. In spite of being left unsupported due to the destruction of the accompanying airplane he continued his attack sweeping the hostile airplanes on the ground five times with machine gun fire and setting fire to the enemy's fuel supply before returning to report the accomplishment of his mission.