Owen J. Baggett: The Man Who Shot Down an Enemy Aircraft With a Pistol

Updated on February 7, 2020
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Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

This is the story of the only pilot to ever take down an enemy aircraft with an M1911 pistol,
This is the story of the only pilot to ever take down an enemy aircraft with an M1911 pistol,

We love it when action heroes do manly stuff no matter how ridiculous it might be. We all know that fighting multiple opponents in real life counts as recklessness, even legally problematic (it is hard to explain to the judge that you are just an innocent bystander that got caught in a gang war). Yet, we love it when bodies fly around and fall, when our larger than life heroes start swinging. At some point, things got corny, and we are left with something hilarious rather than brutal. We have seen it all in some movies, and once it left me scratching when I saw a Kung Fu master destroy a warplane overhead with a grenade.

To be short, we know that outrageous stuffs like that never happened in real life. Most of the time that is. Because there are some well documented cases where seemingly superhuman feats happen for real. And the exploits of World War II have a lot of stories to tell. It got clandestine missions that rival the wildest James Bond stories. Among them is the story of a pilot that did something that no other pilots have done before. Armed only with a M1911 pistol, someone going by the name Owen J. Baggett managed to bring down an enemy plane.

Owen J. Baggett

Shoulder sleeve insignia of the Army Air Forces (World War II).
Shoulder sleeve insignia of the Army Air Forces (World War II).

I was intrigued on the story on how someone could do such a feat. After doing a bit of research online, I found information about the man. His whole name is Owen John Baggett. His life before the war was just like anyone else’s. In 1920, at Graham, Texas, Baggett was born. He graduated from the Hardin-Simmons University in 1941. There he was a drum major. He found work in Wall Street soon after he graduated.

Then there was the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He and others like him of the “Greatest Generation” then set off to become part of World War II. From the ordinary life, he entered the military and was enlisted in the Army Air Corps in February 1942. It’s worth mentioning that in 1947, the Army Air Corps will be renamed as Army Air Forces. In July 26, 1942, Baggett graduated from pilot training. He trained at the New Columbus Army Flying School.

Baggett became a second lieutenant, and he was sent to British India, to be assigned in the 7th Bombardment Group (he was stationed in Pandaveswar, to be exact). And one day, on March 31, 1943, he was ordered to fly and destroy a railroad bridge somewhere in Burma.

Little that he knew that he was about to make history there.

The Plane He Piloted During the Mission

The B-24 Liberator.
The B-24 Liberator.

Again, the date is March 31, 1943. He and his US airmen was given the mission to bomb a railroad bridge in Pyinmana, Burma. There he flew a B-24 Bomber, the Liberator. Before we move on, let’s first take a walkthrough on the bomber Baggett piloted.

The B-24 bomber was designated as a heavy bomber, made by an American company Consolidated Aircraft. Together with the other heavy hitter, like the B-17, it’s widely used during the war. The bombing operations in the Pacific was its preferred usage, due to its range. In fact, it saw action in the long-range bombing of Japan. It was even used in anti-submarine warfare.

In history, the B-24 was the most produced American bomber. But compared to other bombers of that time, the B-24 was difficult to fly and had a poor low speed performance. It is also less robust than the B-17, and lower ceiling. Yet for a variety of roles, the B-24 was favored.

The Liberator carried bombs, as well as defensive M2 Browning machine guns in 4 turrets. Again, as was mentioned, this was the plane that Baggett and his squadron flew in their mission in Burma. But during the mission, they were intercepted by a group of Japanese fighters. The planes belonged to the 64 Sentai of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service. The fighters were the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon).

The Enemy Aircraft

Ki-43 Hayabusa. The "Army Zero".
Ki-43 Hayabusa. The "Army Zero".

Again, we will make a brief walkthrough on the fighters used by the enemy at that time. There was a total of 12 B-24s in Baggett’s squadron during the mission. But they were intercepted by 13 Ki-43 fighters (the “Hayabusa”). The Hayabusa is a land-based tactical fighter, named by the Allied as “Oscar”, but known as the “Army Zero” to the Americans due to its resemblance to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the carrier bourn counterpart. Both Imperial Japanese fighters have similar layouts, but to the untrained eye the Hayabusa had finer fuselage lines. In the heat of the dogfight, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Much like the Zero, the Hayabusa is light and agile. It could outmaneuver enemy aircrafts, but it lacked protections like armor. Allied pilots pointed out how hard it is to target but could broke apart easily with few hits. Nevertheless, it became a feared fighter and became well known for its performance in East Asia. The Hayabusa shot down more Allied aircrafts than any other Japanese fighters.

And now, thirteen of these finely tuned fighters is about to engage the B-24 squadron of Baggett.

Confrontation

The Ki-43 Hayabusas showed up before the 12 B-24s could reach its target. The B-24 is a superb bomber, with its multitude of turrets bearing heavy machine guns to defend itself from incoming fighters. But against the agile Hayabusas, the Liberators proved no match. Baggett’s plane quickly sustained heavy damages, and using the top turret, Baggett tried to fend off the Hayabusas with machine guns. Then after several hits to the fuel tank, the plane was set on fire. With the bomber now severely damaged, Baggett and the crew were forced to bail out, and they escaped seconds only before it blew.

The Japanese pilots then set their sights on the parachuting US airmen, attacking them as they drifted back to earth. Two of the airmen were killed, and the wounded Baggett played dead, hoping the Japanese pilots will ignore him. But one Hayabusa flew close to him, and Baggett saw the pilot open his canopy. Baggett decided to act then.

And Baggett Pulled out his Pistol

The M1911, the pistol used by Baggett.
The M1911, the pistol used by Baggett.

With the enemy pilot close and exposed, he pulled out his weapon. The .45 caliber M1911 pistol saw wide used during the First and Second World War. The venerable handgun was still in use up to now among special forces, and it became popular due to its stopping power. And when Baggett saw the opportunity, he fired four shots with his M1911 at the pilot. The plane then stalled and plunged towards the ground.

Now, Japanese wartime records indicated that no planes were lost during that day. Possibly, the Japanese pilot survived, regained control of the aircraft and flew back to the airfield. There are also reports of the plane found crashed, the pilot with a bullet to the head. Nevertheless, Baggett became successful of fending off an aircraft attack with a mere sidearm, whether the plane crashed or not.

After landing, Baggett was captured by Japanese soldiers and became a POW for the rest of the war. By the end of the war, he and 37 others were liberated by OSS agents. Later in his life, he was assigned to Mitchel Air Force Base and retired as a colonel.

References:

1. Raleigh, Craig (December 5, 2019). "Remembering the Pilot Who Shot Down an Enemy Aircraft with His M1911 Pistol". wideopenspaces.com.

2. Stilwell, Blake (January 29, 2018). "This Pilot Shot Down an Enemy Fighter With His 1911." wearethemighy.com.

3. "Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar"". GossHawk Unlimited. GossHawk Unlimited, Inc. Retrieved 25 February 2016

4. "The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress vs. The Consolidated B-24 Liberator". warfarehistory.com.

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