It was while flying out of Rapid City that I first heard about the "Ten Thousand Foot Club."
I happened to be in the operations office catching up on paper work on a Saturday afternoon before going into town for the weekend when our Group Executive Officer walked in and asked if I had a skeleton crew and plane available to fly some folks to a base in Nebraska. There went my weekend as a quick look at the map indicated about three hundred miles. I gathered a co-pilot, navigator and engineer and was doing a walk-around when a staff car pulled up and out stepped some attractive ladies who were part of an entertainment group who had put on a show that I had not seen the evening before and had somehow failed to get away this morning for their next engagement. We got their gear loaded and got them packed away in the radio room after they scurried around the plane like they owned it.
We cleared the runway. I got a heading from my navigator and settled in for a three or four hour flight. The ladies had brought goodies and were running back and fourth serving coffee and sandwiches. They seemed to have no fear of walking across the bomb bay catwalk. I was about to sit them down for a short lecture on what not to do. It was like whistling in the wind. One of them asked permission to go into the nose. I was surprised that she even asked. When I granted permission, she inquired whether I had ever heard of the Ten Thousand Foot Club. This was news to me and I said so. She said, "Come to the nose with me and I’ll show you." The nose was not occupied. The navigator was in the waist having his picnic goodies with the others. I left the cockpit to my co-pilot and squeezed into the nose. The moon and stars literally filled the nose from the sides, above and ahead and the clouds below seemed to reflect the brightness of the night above. I had never thought of that cramped area suspended in space as romantic, but whatever effect I had felt was exacerbated by the presence of an attractive lady. One tended to overlook the discomfort. She indoctrinated me into the Club.
The milk run turned into sheer hell as we encountered the most intense flak I had experienced. Our visiting firemen learned about the war in a hurry. I was told much later that Colonel Hunter had lost a toe when, at the last moment, he too had also taken a position on one of our ships. As we approached the bomb run, one of our wing tips disappeared. I looked at Hoppie who was actually doing the flying, and he was bleeding profusely, but operating well. Something hit the armor plate beneath my seat with a big thud. I thought Hoppie was bleeding on me. Wrong! I was bleeding and didn’t even feel it. It took a moment to realize we were both hit. Our right outboard engine flamed. Hoppie feathered it. Suddenly there was fire in the cockpit. I pulled on our engineer’s leg. He was in the top turret. I pointed to the fire. He stepped down, grabbed an extinguisher and went to work. A second engine went out. We feathered it also. Hoppie was having trouble holding the lead position. I called our deputy lead to take over and we pulled down and out of formation. It didn’t appear that we could make England, much less the Channel, or even to the area occupied by our troops. We were losing altitude very fast and were becoming sitting ducks for ground fire.
I ordered the crew to bail. Each position responded. I tapped Hoppie on the shoulder. Guys in the nose had already slipped out the hatch. As soon as Hoppie cleared, I dropped down between the seats to the hatch. I am not certain why I paused, but I did sit there with my legs dangling outside. I recall being struck with the fact that right here in the middle of hell it seemed so deathly quiet. I also recalled Mother’s admonition, "Son, if something goes wrong up there, don’t you worry about the other little boys. You get out!"
I pushed clear. Someone asked me years later, "Weren’t you afraid?" Hell, I would have used a golf umbrella. I was afraid of staying there, not of leaving.
M. C. "Buddy" Wagner, Jr. was born in Houston, Texas in 1918. A graduate of Tulane University and the University of Texas School of Law, he volunteered to serve in the United States Air Corps in 1941. Captain Wagner received the Silver Star for gallantry in action while serving as Wing Commander on a bombardment mission on August 8, 1944. When the war ended, Wagner practiced law in Houston, married his wife Barbara, and moved his family to Dallas. He has been in the insurance business for over fifty years. Wagner continues to pursue his passion for hunting, fishing and golf. Husband, father, grandfather -- always a hero to his family; now he adds "author" to his list of worthy accomplishments.