The initials are inscribed on a 1934 Nanty Glo High School class ring pulled last month from the ground in western Florida.
The ring was all retired Air Force Col. Jim E. Moschgat needed to confirm he had uncovered remains of Lt. Col. Boyd D. Wagner, the first Army Air Corps flying ace of World War II and the youngest lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army.
The discovery was the culmination of five years of research conducted by Moschgat for a book he is writing on the aviation legend.
Moschgat, a 1973 graduate of Windber Area High School, first learned of the wartime hero from older relatives in the area.
Now, from his home in Colorado Springs, Moschgat has made it his mission to learn all he can about Cambria County native son Wagner, who became an international hero.
That class ring and other relics may provide clues as to how a World War II flying ace – who had survived numerous dogfights with enemy planes – crashed during a routine flight from Florida to Alabama in 1942.
“It was incredible,” Moschgat said. “I dug down five feet and started finding things. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.
“I made more than a dozen trips to Florida to finally locate the site, which was lost to history for more than 60 years.”
Wagner was born in Emeigh on Oct. 26, 1916.
Shortly after his 1934 high school graduation, his family moved to a house along Irene Street in Johnstown’s 8th Ward. He attended the city’s Pitt Extension for two years and then went on to the University of Pittsburgh to study aeronautical engineering.
But before he earned his degree, Wagner joined the Army Air Corps and took to the skies.
Days after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor officially launched the U.S. into a raging world war, Wagner captured international attention by taking on 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.
His brave adventures earned him superhero status. Comic books featured him, and he appeared on wartime trading cards.
He earned the distinction of being the first Army Air Corps ace of World War II, recording five downed Japanese fighter planes. He was nicknamed “Buzz” because it was said he could buzz the camouflage off a hanger roof.
At the age of 26, Wagner lost his life.
It was not at the hands of the enemy, but rather while on a routine flight from Eglin Field, in the Florida panhandle, to Maxwell Field, in central Alabama.
The flying ace crashed in a factory-new P-40K on Nov. 29, 1942. His body was not discovered for nearly six weeks.
Found and forgotten
Once Wagner’s plane was found, an Army team was brought in to clean up the wreckage.
By today’s standards, the cleanup was primitive. There wasn’t a forensics team on the scene.
Basically, what was above ground was removed and the rest was covered.
Since the plane is believed to have crashed nose down, the impact had an accordion effect.
According to Moschgat, the engine is about 12 feet down, and the soil and sand snuffed out any fires – preserving the plane and its contents.
At the time, partial remains of Wagner were found and returned to Johnstown for burial. It is estimated 15,000 to 20,000 mourners attended his funeral at Grandview Cemetery on a cold, snowy January day in 1943. Time Magazine and Life covered the event.
A world war and the passage of time distanced the nation from the crash site – leaving official records and memories unclear on its exact location until Moschgat took up his quest.
The mystery unearthed
In March 2008, while again exploring the crash site, Moschgat found human remains. He was hopeful the remains would be identified as Wagner’s, but Mosghat found no conclusive evidence that the plane belonged to the airman.
The remains were turned over to the Air Force and were sent to the Pentagon for identification on April 29, 2008.
Moschgat since has revisited the site multiple times to continue digging for clues to how Wagner’s crash occurred. During a weekend excavation last month, key evidence was uncovered that pinpointed the exact location Wagner fell to the earth.
The class ring from the war hero’s alma mater – with the inscribed initials – left no doubt for Moschgat that he was standing on the 1942 crash site. For him, the ring validated that the human remains uncovered a year earlier at the site were those of the aviation legend.
Boyd Wagner Gilbert – Wagner’s nephew and closest surviving relative – lives in Bowie, Md.
DNA was extracted from the Florida remains and a sample of Gilbert’s DNA was taken for identification purposes and sent to The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.
Gilbert was told the process could take up to a year. He is hopeful confirmation will come soon.
But for Gilbert, the DNA analysis is now a formality. The evidence at the crash site speaks volumes and allows an opportunity for closure.
“I will never forget that phone call,” Gilbert said. “Jim called and said, ‘You’ll never guess where I’m standing and what I found.’”
The crash site is located 25 miles east of Eglin Field – well off the course Wagner would have flown when traveling north to Maxwell Field.
“It is far from, and perpendicular to, the ace’s planned due north line of flight toward Maxwell Field, Alabama, Wagner’s intended destination,” Moschgat said. “The fact that his P-40 Warhawk plummeted to earth in a location exactly 90 degrees from its flight planned route has never been explained and deepens the mystery surrounding Buzz Wagner’s disappearance and demise.”
In addition to the ring, another key piece of evidence was retrieved from the site that may shed new light on Wagner’s final hours. Found in the soil and debris was Wagner’s wristwatch.
Moschgat refers to the watch as a “witness mark.”
The band and crystal are missing from the nearly 70-year-old relic. Dirt and sand encase the hands of time, but according to Moschgat, once the years of earth are removed from its face, evidence may be revealed to show the exact time of impact on Nov. 29, 1942.
Wagner was featured on the cover of the November 2008 issue of the Johnstown Magazine. The flying ace is wearing the ring and the watch in the photo.
Other items retrieved included the large eagle emblem from his wheel cap and the brass belt buckle he often sported in later photos.
Two Parker pens were found, along with a comb and part of his still-packed parachute, which dispels rumors that circulated at the time of the crash claiming Wagner parachuted to safety and was alive.
“From the pieces I found,” Moschgat said, “you can tell he never deployed his parachute.”
Coming home again
Once the DNA analysis is completed by The Joint POW/ MIA Accounting Command, Gilbert plans to bring his uncle home and inter the newfound remains at Wagner’s Grandview grave site.
Gilbert said he will be working closely with Johnstown’s local chapter of the Air Force Association renamed to honor the hero – The Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner Air Force Association.
Gilbert said until final notification from the government, the date will not be confirmed.
However, he is considering several dates this fall: Wagner’s birthday of Oct. 26, the date of his death on Nov. 29 and possibly Veterans Day in November.
William Burns is president of the local chapter of the Air Force Association.
Burns said he is thrilled to hear of the success Moschgat had at the crash site.
“His find gives credence to it, without a doubt, that it is the crash site,” Burns said. “I know Boyd and his wife are quite elated over it.”
Burns said his organization is be proud to play a role in the final chapter of the life of Buzz Wagner and at the same time, reintroduce a new generation to the World War II hero.
Not only has Moschgat’s research renewed attention on the life and death of Wagner, it is giving a community a second chance to pay homage to a hero by bringing him home 67 years later.