AN EARLY BENNINGTON PILOT
Commander Erwin J. (Buddy) Wagner
AN EARLY BENNINGTON PILOT
A story from A Treasury of Texas Tales
By Jack Maguire
A NAVY PILOT TO REMEMBER
Fifty five years after the World War II incident happened, Commander Erwin J. (Buddy) Wagner of Denison still couldn’t believe that he "scared" a Japanese bomber into crashing into the Pacific Ocean without firing a shot!
The Navy didn’t believe it, either. At least, not at first. It happened this way.
In March, 1944, the United States began its first major South Pacific offensive against Japan. Wagner, then a lieutenant with two years of experience as a pilot, was assigned to a flight group aboard the USS Montpelier, a light cruiser from which small Curtis seaplanes could be launched.
For a week, Lt. Wagner, with a spotter in the rear seat of the tiny fabric-covered plane, had been searching the area off Turk Island and had yet to find any evidence of the enemy. But then came a memorable day in the life of the young pilot.
When their plane emerged from a squall cloud only an hour after being catapulted off the deck of the Montpelier, Wagner noted that the sea was clear of traffic. Then his earphone crackled with these ominous words from his spotter:
"Lieutenant, there’s a Jap plane on our tail."
Wagner says that when he looked over his shoulder through the rain, "there was the biggest damn plane I had ever seen! It was a Japanese medium bomber—the one we called ‘the Betty.’ His intent was obvious. He was going to shoot us down."
Wagner took the only option available to him. He shoved the stick forward and headed toward the water.
"Still the bomber stayed on our tail, trying to get us in his gun sights," Wagner recalls as if it were yesterday. "My response was to crank the biplane’s flaps down as far as they would go and drop my speed from 60 knots to a snail pace 28. Then I flew in tight little circles five feet above the water."
The Japanese pilot tried to follow Wagner’s tight maneuvers, but apparently forgot to watch his speed and altitude.
"The next thing he knew, the Pacific Ocean was in his face. He smashed his plane into the waves and disappeared!"
As Lt. Wagner pulled his plane up and headed back to the Monpelier, oily black smoke was rising and sharks were converging on the wreckage.
When Wagner and his spotter returned to their ship and reported the incident, their story was met with amazement and disbelief. Fortunately, an admiral and some war correspondents from national media were aboard. Whether it due to pressure from these journalists or second thoughts by the command, it was decided to dispatch a destroyer to the site and verify Wagner’s story.
The sailors found the wreckage still smoldering and were able to send some personnel aboard what was left of the bomber. They found the pilot’s body and discovered some valuable intelligence.
"In his pocket was the map of an airfield that we didn’t know existed," Wagner says. "Thanks to the map, we blasted the field into rubbish the next day."
When the story of the crashed bomber was verified, the correspondents on board rushed the story to newspapers and radio stations around the world. Wagner made headlines as the only pilot ever to frighten an enemy pilot to death. However, the Navy
command apparently did not consider it worth a commendation. Undaunted, Wagner went on to win promotion to commander and to be awarded a chest full of ribbons.
It was another bizarre experience that won Wagner the Navy’s highest honor. It happened 16 months after he had enticed the bomber into its watery grave when he sank a 38,000-ton Japanese warship, the Hyuga, by dropping a single bomb down its smokestack.
By then, he had been assigned to the USS Bennington. Instead of flying tiny seaplanes, he was piloting SBC-2 Helldiver bombers. The Japanese forces were on the run and Admiral William (Bull) Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, ordered his flotilla to a northern Japanese island, Hokkaido, to begin ship-to-shore bombing attacks. Wagner’s experience in flying scout planes won him an assignment from Halsey himself.
Intelligence had reported that the Hyuga was in the area. On July 28, 1945, Wagner took off from the Bennington, leading a 12-plane squadron of Helldivers to search for the ship. Each plane was armed with 2,000-pound bombs. Aloft only a little while, Wagner sighted the battleship about the same time he was seen by it.
Buddy started his dive at 15,000 feet just as the Hyuga guns started their barrage.
"They were shooting the hell out of the sky," he told an interviewer. "Ack-ack was bursting in different colors—red, blue and black—and we had to dodge between them."
With his right hand on the stick, thumbing the button that sent 50-caliber bullets from his wing guns to the decks below, he used his left hand to open the bomb bay doors. The deadly bomb, armed and waiting, slid out of the plane’s belly. Wagner’s spotter tossed a stream of "windows"—strips of tinfoil designed to jam the Japanese radar—out of the cockpit.
As Wagner pushed the stud that released the bomb, he hauled back the stick. The effort caused his blood, reacting to the high-gee strain, to sink momentarily from his brain. This caused a condition known as "red out" that produced a momentary lapse of consciousness. At the same time, the plane shook violently as it took a burst of ack-ack in the belly.
As the "red out" faded and Wagner fought to regain control of the bucking ship, he could hear his spotter screaming from the rear seat.
"The guy had taken some shrapnel that came through the plane’s belly, then through the sole of his shoe and up into his leg," Wagner said. "But he was worried about me! He was yelling, trying to find out if I was all right and in control of the aircraft. I was!
"The spotter got two tourniquets on his leg and I headed toward the flight deck of the Bennington. It took us 2-1/2 hours to get back to the ship and land. As soon as I got out, they lifted the spotter out. We took one look at the Helldiver, decided that it was beyond saving and tossed it over the side.
"It was only then that we learned that my bomb was the only hit on the Hyuga.
The armor-piercing bomb had hit amidships, going through the smokestack. When it exploded, so did the ship’s boilers. Then the Hyuga rolled over and sank."
For this, Wagner received the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor
as an award for military valor. By the time he ended his Navy career, he also had received the Distinguished Flying Cross with two gold stars, eight Air Medals and a dozen other commendations and citations.
July 28, 1945—the day he sank the Hyuga—was his Mother’s birthday. When she read about his feat in the newspapers, she sent Buddy a telegram:
"Quit trying to win the war by yourself. Let somebody else help!"
Copyright, 1999, by Jack Maguire
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