By: Randy Tucker
An urban legend that gained traction in the 1970s had two versions.
The first involved a spear thrown by an Ethiopian soldier that penetrated the fabric of a cloth-covered Italian fighter plane in 1935; the second version had an arrow fired by another Ethiopian soldier doing the same thing.
The Italian military has a less-than-stellar reputation in battle, so it was an easy myth to believe. The spear, or arrow, penetrated the fabric, hit the pilot under the chin, severely disabling or killing him. Either way, the plane crashed, and the legend was born of a Stone Age weapon bringing down a 20th century military aircraft.
But that is just an unsubstantiated urban legend.
The story of Owen John Baggett is true and meticulously documented.
Baggett was born in rural Texas in 1920. He was the drum major in the college band at Hardin-Simmons, then a power in collegiate sports.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack on December 7, 1941, Baggett enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
He graduated from the New Columbus Army Flying School in Ohio in the summer of 1942.
Baggett was sent to India, as part of the 7th Bombardment Group, flying B-24s on raids over Japanese-held Burma.
Baggett was the co-pilot on one of a dozen B-24s in the squadron in a raid on a bridge near Pyinmana, Burma on March 31, 1943.
The Japanese were ready, with more than a dozen Ki-43 fighters. The Ki-43, with a top speed of 330 miles per hour, was much faster than the low-flying Liberators.
The Japanese fighters quickly ripped the approaching B-24s apart.
Baggett’s aircraft was hit in the fuel tanks, quickly catching on fire. The entire crew bailed out just seconds before the plane exploded.
The Japanese were brutal in battle, ignoring the rules of civilized war.
Though it is expressly forbidden in the Geneva Convention, the pilots of Imperial Japan ignored any limits on their brutality.
As the crew of the stricken bomber floated to the earth, Japanese pilots began killing them with fire from the 7.7 mm machine guns.
Baggett watched as two of his fellow crewmen were ripped apart by Ki-43 automatic weapons fire.
With Japanese fighters swarming around the parachuting Americans like bees, they couldn’t tell who they had murdered, or if a fellow pilot had.
Baggett was wounded with visible blood and decided to play dead. He hoped the Japanese would buy the ruse and let him descend to the earth. It almost worked.
A Ki-43 pilot slowed to make sure Baggett was dead. He circled once, suspicious that the American might still be alive. On his second pass, he slowed to near stalling speed.
The Ki-43 cockpit was open on the final pass.
Baggett pulled his 1911 .45 ACP, firing four quick shots at the pilot. A 230 grain .45 bullet packs a wallop, and at least one of them struck the Japanese pilot.
The fighter spun away. Baggett watched it fall into the clouds above the jungle below. Baggett assumed he had shot down the plane.
Japanese records don’t indicate a Ki-43 shot down in the area that day. The pilot may have recovered enough to land the aircraft, or the Japanese records weren’t accurate.
What is known is that Baggett was the only downed airman in any branch of the service, Axis or Allied, who disabled or shot down an enemy aircraft with a sidearm.
The reception waiting for Baggett on the ground wasn’t pleasant.
Japanese soldiers watched him descend and captured him as he hit the ground.
He spent most of the remainder of the war in a prison of war camp near Singapore.
He and 37 of his fellow POWs were rescued by eight OSS agents (the precursor to the CIA) on a clandestine mission that had the OSS men parachuting into the area before overpowering the Japanese prison guards.
Baggett returned to the Army Air Corps. In 1947, he joined the fledgling US Air Force, where he spent the next 26 years, rising to the rank of colonel before he retired in 1973.
It is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary man.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.