The following story may or may not be true, but the US Army Air Force (USAAF) believes it is. It is about a man who successfully shot down a plane. There is nothing unusual about that – happens in a war. It is how he did so that makes it interesting.
Owen John Baggett was born on August 29, 1920, in Graham, Texas. After graduating from college in 1941, he moved to New York City to work in Wall Street with an investment securities firm.
Probably bored to death from doing so, he quit, joining the USAAF in February 1942. Sent to the New Columbus Army Flying School, he graduated from pilot training on July 26.
Baggett was sent to a small airbase in Pandaveswar – then part of British India, close to the Burmese border. He was there as a 2nd Lieutenant with the US 7th Bomb Group of the Tenth Air Force.
The Tenth’s forces at Pandaveswar were among the smallest. Despite this, they were responsible for a massive area, as well as one of the most important – protecting Allied supply lines between India and China. They also had to disrupt the Japanese network throughout Japanese-occupied Burma.
It was on one such mission that Baggett entered history. It happened on March 31, 1943.
The 7th Bomb Group’s 9th Bomb Squadron had to take out a railroad bridge at Pyinmana, Burma. Located roughly halfway between Rangoon and Mandalay, it was a vital Japanese supply route. This was why the Japanese defended the area with two fighter bases.
In charge of the operation was Colonel Conrad “Nick” Francis Necrason – commander of the 7th Bomb Group. First Lieutenant Lloyd Jensen piloted the Consolidated B-24 Liberator with Baggett as his copilot. None made it to their target.
A squadron of Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters intercepted the Americans and fired. Necrason was severely hurt.
So was Baggett’s plane. The rear of his bomber caught fire. Worse, some oxygen bottles shattered – excellent fuel for the flames that spread further into the already damaged craft.
Sergeant Samuel Crostic slid his 19-year-old frame out of his top turret. He ran for the fire extinguishers, doing the best he could, all while on the catwalk that stretched over the still open bomb bay.
The Japanese continued firing, taking out the fuselage and causing, even more, carnage in the now plummeting bomber.
Baggett jumped out of the cockpit and ran to the empty turret, firing at the attackers – knowing perfectly well how vulnerable he was up there. Below, Crostic’s extinguishers had run out, but the fires still raged, choking and blinding the entire crew.
Jensen had enough. The plane was a goner. His men had only two choices – stay and suffocate or burn, or jump over enemy territory and take their chances. Jensen chose the latter option.
He went on the intercom and ordered everyone to bail, but there was a problem. The damage had short-circuited the intercom system. Fortunately, Baggett heard him.
Gesturing wildly, he ordered the men to put on their parachutes and jump. He yelled at Jensen to do the same, refusing to leave till he was satisfied with the head count. Choking on the fumes and half-blinded by the smoke, he unsteadily made his way to the opening and leaped.
Despite the plane making a beeline toward the ground, the Japanese still were not finished. They watched as the parachutes deployed in the air and began their next round of attacks – firing at the bodies hanging beneath.
Baggett was one of nine making a controlled descent over Burma. He later remembered yelling as he saw five friends jerk in their harnesses before going slack while they slowly floated down.
Baggett screamed and jerked! A Zero had strafed his arm before zooming off – but the American was still alive. The Japanese Ace circled back to finish the job.
Gritting his teeth against the pain and rage, Baggett unholstered his M1911A1 0.45 pistol and slowly lowered it beside his leg. Hoping against hope, he forced himself to go slack while keeping a firm grip on his gun. Maybe the enemy pilot would think he was dead.
That is exactly what the Ace was wondering. To find out, he slowed his plane to nearly stall speed and flew almost vertically up to the floating body. He still could not tell. He opened his plane’s canopy when he was just a few feet away from the parachute. He slowly leaned out to get a better look… Baggett lifted his arm, aimed his gun, and fired four shots.
The Zero stalled. Then it fell and spun downward – falling faster than the Americans.
Baggett’s game was up. The other Zeros, seeing what happened, fired at him. They missed, and he made it to the ground with no further mishap. Jensen landed near him, and they found Crostic shortly after.
Unfortunately, so did the Burmese who turned them over to the Japanese. All three were sent to the Changi Gaol in Singapore where things got interesting.
Unlike the other prisoners, the Japanese treated Baggett almost like a celebrity. The commandant in charge, Major-General Arimina (later executed for war crimes) offered Baggett the greatest honor.
He happily instructed the American on the beautiful art of hara-kiri. Step 1: Write a poem. Step 2: Stab your stomach with a sword. Step 3: Someone chops your head off to end the pain. To Arimina’s surprise, however, the American did not think of it as an honor.
Baggett refused to do it. He did not understand why Arimina had made his offer.
That changed when Colonel Harry R. Melton Jr. was shot down over Rangoon on November 25, 1943. On the way to Changi, Melton’s captors told him an interesting story.
Some crazy American had parachuted out of his bomber and shot a Japanese pilot straight through the head. With one bullet! The plane crashed so hard, the pilot whooshed out of the open cockpit and landed many yards away. Amazing!
Melton wanted to make an official report about the incident but died before he could do so. Baggett died in 2006 without entirely believing Melton.
Despite this, the circumstantial evidence (retrieved from the records of both sides) suggest that Baggett pulled it off.