Invasion of the Philippines
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Lt. Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner
and Lt. Russell Church

Approximately 4,000 miles due west of Pearl Harbor, lie the Philippine Islands. At the time of the Japanese attack, America had many important military installations on these islands, especially airfields. The most vital US bases were on Luzon, the northernmost island in the group, and Luzon was only 600 miles away from powerful enemy airfields on Formosa.

The Japanese knew their bombers could easily fly this distance and back, but they also knew American fighter planes in the Philippines, would be alerted by the news from Hawaii. Therefore, the Japanese bombers would need protection. This was where the versatile Zero again played an important part in the Japanese plans. By now, the Zero pilots had learned how to keep the plane in the air an amazing ten to twelve hours, and fly it up to 1,400 miles nonstop.

As at Pearl Harbor, fate seemed to be on the side of the attackers. When the warning was flashed to Philippine headquarters, P-40s at Iba Field took off immediately, to intercept the expected Japanese bombers and fighters. But unknown to the Americans, the enemy had been held up by bad weather. When the Japanese did make their first strike, it was at an unlikely place named Baguio, the summer capital. US planes had either been sent to protect the wrong targets, or were already back on the ground.

The major and most devastating raids came approximately two hours later, at 11:30 a.m., when the Japanese struck Iba and Clark fields. At Iba, US P-40s were coming back after the first attack, out of fuel and unprepared. They had downed one bomber but had lost eight fighters, and many more were destroyed on the ground.

It was Clark Field, however, that proved to be the real disaster, it was later called "Little Pearl Harbor." The largest four-engine bombing force in the world, twenty-two new Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortresses" were sitting on the field. Most of the B-17s were destroyed as seventy-five Japanese bombers roared overhead, strafing and bombing. Only four P-40s managed to get into the air. Lieutenant Randall Keaton skillfully machine-gunned two of the attackers, and was credited with the first official air "kill" in the bitter battle for Luzon. The slow old-fashioned P-35s ordered to Clark from Del Carmen arrived too late, as did the P-40s of the 17th Pursuit Squadron, led by a pilot who was to become one of the most famous in the Philippines, Lieutenant Edward Dyess. It wasn't Dyess' fault he missed the interception, the radio station along with almost everything else, had been wiped out at Clark Field.

By December 10th, US forces had only twenty-two P-40s and eight P-35s left in the Philippines. Sometimes as many as 150 Zeros would accompany the Japanese bombers, and American fighter planes simply couldn't cope with them. On this same day, the Japanese made small landings in the north at Aparri and Vigan, and General MacArthur ordered that our remaining fighters be used mostly for observation.

Despite this order, the most courageous exploits of our fighter pilots were yet to come. On the very next day, December 11th, Lieutenant Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner took off on a hazardous one-man reconnaissance mission over the landings at Aparri. Wagner became the first American fighter pilot to shoot down five enemy planes in the Pacific, and therefore he became the first US ace in World War II. He was called "Buzz" because, according to his buddies, he could buzz the camouflage off a hanger roof.

As he flew over Aparri, Wagner couldn't resist going down lower to strafe, and he was jumped by five Zeros. Rolling over, Wagner dived for the sea, but he couldn't shake the two Zeros which followed. Suddenly he chopped his power. The two speedy Zeros roared past him. He kicked his rudder hard right and then left, machine guns blazing. Both Zeros burst into flames. Coming back toward Aparri, flying low over the water, "Buzz" surprised the Japanese on the ground. He strafed twelve parked Zeros with murderous accuracy, leaving five of them burning hulks.

A few days later Wagner led a flight of three P-40s against an enemy-held field at Vigan. He ripped up the field first with 30-pound fragmentation bombs. Then Lieutenant Russell Church, coming right behind Wagner, was hit by ground fire. Nevertheless, Church bravely continued his attack, guns chattering, until he crashed.

Wagner returned to avenge Church. Recklessly, he made five low-level passes at the field, not only destroying several planes, but also setting fire to a fuel dump. A Zero tried to take off right under Wagner. Buzz couldn't see exactly where the enemy fighter was, so he flipped into a half roll, then back, and waited until the Japanese pilot flew into his sights. Wagner then touched the trigger. His .30-caliber slugs, chewed the Zero to pieces.

On December 22nd, the main Japanese invasion force of 43,000 landed at Lingayen Gulf, only 100 miles north of Manila, and could not be contained. Slowly and courageously, MacArthur's stubborn forces withdrew toward Bataan Peninsula, across the bay from Manila.

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