1ST LIEUTENANT BOYD D. "BUZZ" WAGNER
LATER LIEUTENANT COLONEL WAGNER
IN AUSTRALIA DURING WWII

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1st Lt. Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner was evacuated from the Philippines where he had commanded the 17th Pursuit Squadron of the 24th Pursuit Group. "Buzz" remained in Australia until September 1942, when he suffered a case of appendicitis and subsequently returned to the USA. The Air Force brass planned to give "Buzz" a short recuperative tour in the US before shipping him off to Europe to command a Fighter Group. Unfortunately, he died on 29 November 1942 when his P-40K Warhawk plummeted to earth just north of Eglin Field, Florida.

He was apparently nicknamed "Buzz" because it was said he could buzz the camouflage off a hanger roof! I'm not sure of the voracity of this story on his nickname.

Whilst with the 17th Pursuit Squadron "Buzz" Wagner shot down 4 Japanese aircraft near Aparri in the Province of Cagayan whilst on a reconnaissance mission over North Luzon, Philippines on 13 December 1941.

On 16 December 1941 "Buzz" Wagner of the 17th Pursuit Squadron lead a dive bombing raid on a Japanese airfield at Vigan on the west coast of Luzon and shot down his fifth Japanese aircraft thus becoming the first AAF "Ace" during WWII.

On 31 December 1941 and 2 January 1942, a number of pilots, mostly 17th Pursuit Squadron personnel, including Blanton and "Buzz" Wagner, flew out of the Philippines for Australia in two twin engined C-45 Beechcraft. They were under the impression that they were going to Australia to pick up new aircraft. 

As mentioned earlier, Wagner was already an Ace, and had recently been convalesced back to Australia in early January 1942 with eye damage from his last combat mission with the 17th Pursuit Squadron. He received a hit to his canopy which sent shards of plexiglass into his eye. The book "Protect & Avenge" states that General Douglas MacArthur personally ordered "Buzz" Wagner back to Australia to take charge of reorganising the replacement fighter units in USAFIA.

The USS Langley anchored at Darwin, was ordered to Fremantle on the 11 February 1942 to collect a shipment of fifty assembled P-40Es (33rd and 13th PS (Prov)) to be ferried to Tjilajap in Java. On 11 February 1942, the Squadron Commanders, Captain Floyd Pell of 33rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) and 1st Lieutenant Boyd "Buzz" Wagner of the 13th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) received orders to fly fifty P-40's across Australia to Maylands Airport, Perth. The USS Langley sailed from Darwin on 17 February 1942. Originally the USAT Mariposa and the USAT Holbrook were to be loaded with crated P-40Es and were to accompany the USS Langley, with assembled P-40Es, to Tjilajap Java. However, due to the risk, USAT Mariposa was withdrawn and replaced by two Australian transports, SS Katoomba and SS Duntroon. On the arrival at Maylands, the 33rd and the 13th PS (Prov)'s once loaded on board the USS Langley, came under the command of 1st Lieutenant Gerald Keenan, who was Capt Pell's second in command of the 33rdPS(Prov).

1st Lt "Buzz" Wagner, who at that time was in command of the 13th Pursuit Squadron (Prov) was ordered to remain in Australia and was made Chief of Pursuit Aviation for the 5th Air Force and, as part of his duties, oversaw all combat training for new aircrew. Buzz was put in charge of the 49th Pursuit Group's pilot training program. He was appointed as the Group Operations Officer for the 49th Pursuit Group.

With the arrival of the 8th Pursuit Group, Buzz was detailed to directly oversee the unit's preparation for combat operations and, due to his recent combat experience and "ace" status, planned and led the fledgling group's first combat mission. Having heard of the vaunted Japanese Zero's near-mythical performance capabilities, the 8th Pursuit Group's young pilots were buoyed to have an aviator of Buzz's pedigree and fame in their midst. Though the Group lost a number of pilots and aircraft on the mission, the overall success of the surprise attack on Lae proved the wisdom of having a combat veteran like Buzz Wagner lead inexperienced pilots against the Japanese.

With Major Wurtsmith's agreement, General George chose "Buzz" Wagner to lead the 8th Pursuit Group squadrons in Port Moresby by the end of April 1942.

Airacobra #41-7170 was flown by "Buzz" Wagner O-021623 (Class 38B), Commanding Officer of the 8th Pursuit Group on a mission on 30 April 1942 mission. He scored three victories flying in a P-39 Airacobra in New Guinea.

In May 1942, Lt. Col. Boyd "Buzz" Wagner forwarded a report "Fighter Aircraft Report to USAFIA, 21 May 1942" to the Commanding General USAFIA on the P-39 Airacobra. Wagner criticized their low rate of climb and excessive wing loading, which precluded aerial combat with the Zero.  He also criticised the vulnerability of its liquid-cooled engine and its constant problem with the guns jamming. The .30 caliber wing guns and the 37mm propeller-mounted cannon jammed repeatedly. The two cowl-mounted .50 caliber machine guns were the only reliable guns. Wagner felt that the P-39 was "10 percent better than the P-40 in every respect except maneuverability below 18,000 feet."

 

May, 1942

SUBJECT: Report on first action against Japanese by P-39 type airplane.

TO: Commanding General, USAFIA, Melbourne, (thru channels).

On Friday April 30th, 13 P-39D's took off from Port Moresby on a ground strafing mission against Lae Airdrome, 180 miles north.

Approach was made on Lae from fifty miles out to sea at about 100 feet to avoid detection. When about 20 miles out, 4 planes were sent ahead to engage Japanese security patrol over Lae Drome and no resistance by air was encountered during the strafing. Inaccurate ground M.G. and ack-ack fire was ob-served. A line of 13 to 15 bombers were strafed from a sea approach in 3 - 3 plane element. The planes in each element were disposed in echelon right.

Our strafing planes were then attacked from above by several Zero fighters. Belly tanks were dropped immediately and throttles opened. Our formation began to pull away from Zeros when last four P-39s in formation engaged in combat with the Zeros. In the meantime, more Zeros appeared and it is estimated that there were twelve to thirteen altogether. The four P-39s were hopelessly outnumbered so the entire formation was turned back and a terrific dogfight ensued between 13 P-39s and about equal number of Zeros. This fight continued down the coast for about 30 miles and back again.

The Zero outperformed the P-39s very markedly in maneuverability and climb. The P-39, however, with no belly tank could pull away from the Zero. The Zero (that was) used had several differences in construction and performance than those heretofore observed. A larger engine cowling was very evident indicating the possibility of a higher power engine. This was further borne out because the Zero was able to keep up with the P-39 to an indicated speed of about 290 mph. At 325 indicated just above the water, the P-39 pulled slowly away out of range. In acceleration, the Zero was markedly better than the P-39, attaining a high speed from cruising in a very few seconds while the P-39 was much slower. As a result, from a cruising start, the Zero could actually pull ahead of the P-39 for a few seconds and then the P-39 slowly drew away at full throttle and high RPM.

As a result of this low altitude dogfight, (between 50 and 1000 ft.) four Zeros were shot down and three P-39s were shot down. All P-39s before going down had apparently been hit in the coolant system as glycol spray could be seen streaming behind. All Zeros shot down went down burning indicating no leak proof fuel tanks. All three pilots of P-39s shot down by Zeros were safe upon landing, either bailing out or crash landing on the beach.

The following day 10 Japanese Type 97 bombers escorted by eight Zeros were interrupted by 12 P-39s at 23,000 feet. The P-39s made head on attacks on bombers in two waves of 7 and 5. Three bombers were shot down by cannon fire before P-39s were engaged by Zero escort. Two Zeros were shot down by cannon fire in head on attacks and one P-39 was shot down in flames by Zeros.

Japanese fighter teamwork in these combats was excel-lent. They flew what was apparently a 3 ship stagger formation. Number 2 flew approximately 100 yards behind the leader, and number 3 about the same distance behind number 2. Their elements were grouped together in flights in no particular manner. Flights were loose and ragged with all planes except the leader, apparently "weaving" loosely. During an attack on a single enemy aircraft in an attempt to "box" their victim. First one and then another would place his plane behind the P-39 firing intermittent bursts for about 10 seconds, then zooming up to either side to be replaced by the most forward plane on that side. Accuracy of fire was not very high especially at long range while P-39 was making himself a poor target by roughly slipping and skidding violently.

The pilots' reactions after the above described combats are interesting to note in as much as this was initial combat engaged in by all pilots excepting one. Most pilots recalled quite vividly their first and last "shots," but few remembered very accurately what transpired between. Psychologically, effect of first combat was consistent-a deep feeling of the seriousness of fighter combat, and a keen anticipation for the next combat mission. All were impressed with a thorough respect and admiration of the flying qualities of the Zero Fighters.

CONCLUSIONS:-

1. Lack of armor plate rear protection for the engine and the resultant high vulnerability are the greatest disadvantages of the P-39 type airplane. All P-39s shot down were hit in the engine and the coolant system.

2. P-39F Hydraulic propellers throw oil making visibility forward very poor due to oily windshield. Attempts have been made to stop this oil leakage by installation of new type gaskets, but complete success has not resulted.

3. Armament.

a. All guns should have hydraulic gun chargers. Charging forces are too great except for .50 calibre fuselage guns for average pilot.

b. .50 calibre gun solenoids are too weak and frequently fail indicating either inferior equipment or faulty installation design.

4. Main landing gear tires are too small causing the plane to bog down very easily in soft ground or spongy runway. P-40 size tires have proved quite satisfactory.

5. Nose gear is too delicate to withstand normal operations on the type landing strips now in use. Many have been broken even while taxying.

6. Radio installation is out of date. A single transmitter and receiver has been found to be insufficient in close up operations where our frequencies are frequently and easily jammed. Radio installation in the Curtiss P-40E-1 is the most desirable. This installation provides for two transmitters and three receivers.

7. Only one belly tank is provided for each P-39 airplane. For missions over 100 miles from home airdrome, belly tanks should be used, be dropped in case of combat. It is estimated that at least five belly tanks should be provided with each airplane.

8. P-39 gives very poor performance above 18)000 feet. The hand wobble pump or emergency electric fuel pump must be used to maintain sufficient fuel pressure for good engine operation.

Generally speaking, the P-39 is an excellent anti-bombardment fighter at altitudes up to 18,000 feet. Above 18,000 feet performance is sluggish and rate of climb very low. The 37mm cannon is an extremely desirable weapon but "bugs" are still being eliminated. Stoppages in the air are frequent and it is difficult to reload and recharge during combat because of the high loading and charging forces. Its effect against enemy aircraft in the two previously described missions was excellent.

Comparatively speaking in performance the P-39 airplane is believed to be about ten percent better in every respect than the P-40 airplane, except in maneuverability in which case the P-40 is slightly better.

Above statements are the consensus of opinion of pilots participating in the above described combat missions.

B.D. WAGNER Lt Col., Air Corps.

 

1st Lt Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner

 


Photo:- State Library of Queensland Image No 99795

1st Lt. Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner on left with Lt. Mark Muller, Signals Officer
 with Base Section 3 Headquarters. Photo taken in Brisbane in 1942

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Colonel (Ret) James E. Moschgat buzzresearch@aol.com for his assistance with this web page. James shares the same hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania as "Buzz" Wagner. James is researching the life of Lt. Col. "Buzz" Wagner and plans to write his biography. James would love to hear from you if you have any more information on "Buzz" Wagner.

 

REFERENCES

13th Fighter Command in World War II
by William Wolf

"Protect & Avenge"
"The 49th Fighter Group in World War II"
by S.W. Ferguson & William K. Pascalis

"Attack & Conquer"
"The 8th Fighter Group in World War II"
by John C. Stanaway & Lawrence J. Hickey

 

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This page first produced 16 December 2015

This page last updated 03 February 2017