The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

October 19, 2010

Events to honor WWII flying ace

JOHNSTOWN — A World War II hero from the Johns-town area will receive a long overdue military flyover during a service Saturday at Grandview Cemetery to honor him and to inter additional remains of his that have been discovered in recent years.

The ceremony for Lt. Col. Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner, from Cambria County, the first WWII flying ace, will be held at 11 a.m.

Wagner was born in Emeigh but also lived in Nanty Glo and Johnstown.

Plans for the special honor were announced during a press conference Tuesday by the Johnstown-based Col. Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner Chapter of the Air Force Association.

The Rev. Frank Brosius of Ebensburg, a retired Air Force chaplain, will preside over the service.

Two planes from the 17 Weapons Squadron, the successor to the squadron that Wagner led while fighting the Japanese in the Philippines at the beginning of the war, will conduct a flyover.

An honor guard consisting of local members of the Army Reserve 458th Engineer Battalion will conduct a military service that includes a 21-gun salute. The Air National Guard Band of the Mid-Atlantic, based at Fort Indiantown Gap, will play ceremonial music during the service.

The Blacklick Valley High School marching band will perform patriotic music before and after the service.

Bob Rutledge, a member of the Wagner chapter, said it is appropriate that the Blacklick band be invited because Wagner grew up in Nanty Glo and attended its schools.

Local Civil Air Patrol members will help to direct guests to the site of the ceremony, he said.

Because many people are expected to attend the ceremony, the public is being asked to park at Memorial Medical Center’s parking lot on the Easy Grade Highway near the cemetery, where a shuttle will take them to the cemetery, he said.

The shuttle will start running at 10 a.m.

Wagner captured international attention by battling a wave of Japanese planes over the Philippines from the cockpit of his P-40.

His valiant actions during the war included nose-to-nose battles and a great escape from behind enemy lines.

He earned the distinction of being the first Army Air Corps ace of the war, with five confirmed kills. He eventually recorded a total of eight kills.

He was nicknamed “Buzz” because it was said he could buzz the camouflage off a hanger roof.

Wagner was 26 years of age when his plane crashed on a routine flight from Eglin Field in the Florida panhandle to Maxwell Field in central Alabama on Nov. 29, 1942. His body was not discovered for nearly six weeks.

At the time, the partial remains were found and returned to Johnstown for burial. It is estimated that 20,000 mourners attended his funeral at Grandview Cemetery on a cold, snowy January day in 1943. Time and Life magazines covered the event.

Rutledge said a military flyover was canceled at the time because of the weather.

Wagner was a hero to many people, including retired Air Force Col. Jim E. Moschgat, a Windber native, now living in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 Moschgat wanted to bring his hero home and started exploring the crash site. He found more of Wagner’s remains plus a watch and personal artifacts.

After the remains were confirmed by an Army laboratory, they were taken to Grandview Cemetery in August and kept in a vault until the interment could be held.

“It’s important to honor our past heroes,” said Rutledge, a Vietnam veteran.

Wagner made a difference in fighting the battles when the war started, he said.

Saturday’s service will remember not only Wagner’s service but the service all the heroes from all wars that our country has fought, he said.

“Freedom is not cheap,” he said.

Retired Air Force Col. James M. Kirkstadt, another member of the chapter, said Wagner was not only a hero during combat.

While recuperating after being injured during fighting, he helped to find ways to make the nation’s planes more effective in fighting the enemy, Kirkstadt said.

Chapter President William Burns, an Air Force veteran, said Saturday’s service will offer the opportunity to reintroduce new generations to what Wagner did for our country and to remember the ultimate sacrifices made by everyone who has fought for this nation.

Wagner’s nephew, retired Air Force Col. Boyd Gilbert of South Carolina, said during a teleconference call at the news conference that he is grateful for what the chapter is doing to honor his uncle.

Gilbert, who will be at the ceremony Saturday, said the ceremony will be a time to honor not only his uncle but all the men and women who have served the United States.

Also planning to attend the ceremony is Wagner’s only other surviving relative, Jan Bolha of Johnstown, who is a cousin.

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