On April 1, 2012, George J. Wagasky, Jr. — “Ed” — passed away in Las Vegas, NV. Ed Wagasky was a fighter pilot during WWII, one of the men Bob Dorr and I chronicled in our book, “Hell Hawks!” He served in 1944 with the 386th Fighter Squadron of the 365th Fighter Group, the “Hell Hawks.” As a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, Ed flew combat on D-Day, through the breakout from the beachheads, the rapid advance across France, and into the Battle of the Bulge. Later he served as a photo-recce pilot and forward air controller. I compiled the following record on Ed through an interview conducted earlier this year. We will miss him…and his many contributions to our freedom. It’s up to us today to preserve the freedom that he handed on to us.
George J. Wagasky, Jr. was born June 2, 1922, in Duquesne, Penn. After initial flying training in the southeast U.S., he achieved his dream of becoming a fighter pilot and was assigned to P-47 Thunderbolts. On arrival in Europe, he was sent as a replacement pilot to the 365th FG, the Hell Hawks, in March 1944.
On D-Day, his unit, the 386th Fighter Squadron, was assigned to cut road and transportation links behind the German beach defenses in Normandy. Assigned to fly on Lt. Robert L. Shipe’s wing, he carried three 500-lb. bombs slung under his P-47, with one on the centerline in place of the drop tank. Wagasky was chagrined when, upon takeoff, the left bomb fell off on the runway at Beaulieu.
Over Normandy, he followed his leader, Lt. Shipe, on the target, an embankment at St. Sauveur de Pierre Pont. Faulty fuses on the bombs caused fatal damage to his leader’s Thunderbolt; Shipe went down in flames from his low-level run and was killed. Determined to hit the target, Wagasky dove in turn and released only his right bomb. The same fuse problem caused the 500-pounder to detonate on impact, and shrapnel from the blast shredded the right wing and fuselage of Wagasky’s P-47.
Pulling out, he could hear the slipstream whistling through the many holes perforating the Jug’s skin just behind his seat. Still, the engine ran on, and Wagasky set about nursing the plane home back across the Channel. First order of business was to climb above 1,000 feet, because aircraft below that height were considered intruders by the naval armada below.
Wagasky managed to stay above that threshold until he arrived over Beaulieu, where he shook the damaged landing gear down by rocking the wings and porpoising the airplane. Anticipating a blown tire on the right side, he made a straight-in approach with the left wing low. Upon touchdown, the damaged gear folded up and slammed the right wingtip onto the runway. Wagasky’s -47 spun to the right and almost stood on its nose before falling back on its left main and tail wheel. Despite the exciting landing, the ruggedness of the P-47’s construction protected the pilot from any injury.
With a new plane assigned, “Ed” was soon back in the air over Normandy.
On a later mission, he tangled with a long-nosed Fw 190D in a dogfight. The Focke Wulfs bounced his flight of P-47s; someone yelled “Break!” over the radio, and Wagasky pulled and rolled right. He “had a hell of a time” getting way from the enemy in his heavy Jug, nearly “nailed to a cloud” by Herman the German. His Thunderbolt shuddered as the Luftwaffe pilot put three rounds into him as he dove for the shelter of the clouds. One strike hit the tail, a second slug hit just behind the cockpit, and the third slammed into the engine cowling. After landing, Wagasky’s crew chief found an unexploded 20mm round inside the lower cowling, where it had come to rest after ricocheting from a pair of engine mount struts. He kept the “dud” slug as a souvenir, wondering since if some prisoner on a German ammo assembly line purposely sabotaged the round, later saving his life.
In the fall of 1944, Ed was assigned as a forward air controller with the 3rd and 4th Armored Divisions, flying a Piper L-4 Grasshopper observation plane. He was flying in this role at the start of the Germans’ Ardennes offensive on December 16, 1944. Shortly after the Bulge fighting, Wagasky was assigned as a “Sweepstakes” forward controller, involved in vectoring Hell Hawk and other P-47 strikes to their targets.
He later went on to fly F-6 (P-51) photoreconnaissance ships with the 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. At war’s end, he supervised the ferrying of an F-6 squadron to a field near Kassel, Germany. With the Air National Guard, Wagasky served in Korea as a forward air controller. He retired with the rank of Major, U.S. Air Force.
Clear skies and smooth air to you, George. God bless your family with great memories and His comforting grace.
— Based on an interview on Jan. 3, 2012, with Tom Jones. (www.AstronautTomJones.com)