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Artist’s painting depicts Buzz Wagner’s WWII heroic flight

July 14, 2018

After Buzz Wagner died in 1942, more than 10,000 people crowded Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown to pay respect to the first American Ace of World War II.

Thousands of others lined the 5-mile route from his parents’ home to the cemetery, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from that time. As time went on, the amount of attention paid to Wagner’s exploits as a pilot decreased and some, including artist Paul Jacobs, think he was overlooked as one of the great airmen of the war. Jacobs created an artwork that is on display at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport showcasing one of Wagner’s most dangerous and successful missions.

“I think it’s important because he was a significant contributor when he first got into World War II. When he first got in, the Air Force was part of the Army,” Jacobs said. “When they came out of the Depression, the readiness of the forces had gone down. So there weren’t a lot of talented people to take on the war. But he was an exceptional pilot. He emerged as a natural flier and first-class fighter pilot.”

Jacobs, a 1966 graduate of Greater Johnstown High School, recently painted and donated his painting titled “First Ace” depicting Wagner’s most notable flight. The artist, himself a former Air Force career officer, and aerospace engineer, traveled from his home in Montclair, Virginia, to his hometown during this year’s Showcase for Commerce to present the painting to the Buzz Wagner Chapter of the Air Force Association for permanent display in the city, according to a news release.

The painting shows an upside-down plane targeting a Japanese fighter aircraft that is trying to take off the ground. Jacobs read a lot about the mission that he depicted. He looked up Wagner’s squadron and his P-40 plane. He took the markings that were appropriate for that period and depicted them.

“What happened was he had attacked this airfield with a couple other pilots,” Jacobs said. “They shot up a couple of silos on the ground. What Wagner did was come in low and shoot at planes on the ground. One guy was taking off, and Wagner was multitasking. When you’re flying really fast and a guy is taking off, he’s going much slower. You can lose sight of him.

“That’s the last thing you want to do. So he rolled and inverted and kept his eye on the guy taking off. So he’s going 200 mph 1,000 feet off the ground upside down. Just that alone was an indication of how much talent he had.”

In the month following the Pearl Harbor attack, soldiers from the Johnstown area distinguished themselves. Wagner shot down two planes and destroyed 12 others on the ground when he got into aerial combat over the Philippines. He was cited by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Local newspapermen and other Johnstowners praised his heroism. Fox Movietone News went to Wagner’s mother’s residence to film her. She told the camera that she was “the happiest mother in the world.”

Life magazine also profiled Wagner for his heroism.

Bob Rutledge, secretary and treasurer of the Air Force Association Buzz Wagner Chapter, said his organization was thrilled when Jacobs offered to donate the painting for permanent display.

“As Paul Jacobs, the artist, said, the painting details what it may have looked like in real time as Buzz engaged the enemy that day,” Rutledge said. “I totally agree. The painting is really well done. From what I have read and heard about Buzz Wagner, he lived and flew on the ‘edge.’ He was a daring young pilot.”

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