Roy Exum: ‘Buckwheat’ Bagged Us!

Thursday, June 25, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I sometimes think one of America’s greatest tragedies -- "a date which will live in infamy" – may have resulted into catapulting the American spirit into forming the greatest civilized nation the world has ever known. The Japanese sneak attack on our Pacific fleet on a quiet Sunday morning on Dec 7, 1941, was the biggest kick in the teeth our country has ever experienced and whether or not Japanese Navy commander Isoroku Yamamoto ever actually said the much-used Hollywood words, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve,” truer words were never better spoken.

An endless lists of experts for the last 75 years have clearly shown the USofA was a 98-pound weakling when we were forced into World War II, this compared to the evil Axis; Germany to our east, Japan to our west, and Italy predictably the first to fade. Yet you must endure the horrible defeats of Bataan and then Corregidor in the Pacific in the early months of 1942 and the revolting Bataan Death March that April, to understand the full might of the “awakened giant.”

A couple of months ago it was beautifully summarized in a column by Victor Davis Hanson. Read these four from a column entitled, “Is America a Roaring Giant or a Crying Baby?” … while remembering World War II began in 1939 and ended in 1945:

* * *

“In 1940, there were fewer than 500,000 service members in the U.S. military. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, that number had grown to nearly 2.2 million. By 1945, more than 12 million Americans were in the armed services. It was an astonishing mobilization for a nation of fewer than 140 million people.

The U.S. started the war with seven fleet aircraft carriers and one escort carrier. By war's end, it was deploying 27 fleet and 72 escort carriers.

The U.S. Navy ended the war with a fleet eight times larger than it was at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The American armada would become larger in total tonnage than all the world's fleets in 1945 combined.

More incredible, by the end of 1944, the American gross domestic product exceeded the economic output of all the major belligerents on both sides of World War II put together: the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, and Germany.

* * *

Are you kidding me? All of that and more, and the United States didn’t get in the game until December of 1941. Easily the American comeback in World War II was better than watching the movie ‘Rocky’ that very first time so imagine my joy earlier this week when in my endless Internet wandering I ran into one Louis Edward Curdes, radio call code “Buckwheat.”

His is easily one of the very best stories in “America’s Greatest Generation.” A corn-picked native of Fort Wayne, Ind., Curdes was in his third year of engineering at Purdue when Pearl Harbor was hit and three months later, he was in fast-forward basic training. The Army was double-desperate for pilots and on Dec. 3, 1942 he took his newly earned wings to the Mediterranean theater where he was promptly seated in a Lockheed P-38.

He quickly got acquainted with the plane and on April 29, 1943, he shot down three German Messerschmitt’s and badly damaged a fourth in the skies over Tunisia. Twenty-two days later he bagged two more Bf 109s near Villacidro, Sardinia, and – in less than a month – ‘Buckwheat’ was an ‘ace,’ quite a badge of honor in fighter-pilot lore. That June he knocked out an Italian Macchi C.202 over Sardinia. In July he sent a severely damaged Messerschmitt back to its barn and scored victories against two more German Bf 109 want-to-bes over Benevento, Italy.

Alas, Buckwheat’s luck ran out in August when a dogfight against German ace Franz Schiess fell shy over Solerno. He ejected and was captured by the Italians, and soon placed in a POW camp near Rome. He was “in residence” only a short time before Italy waved the white flag at Caserta. The guards at the POW camp found it compelling to “abandon their posts” before their German replacements could arrive. Curdes and some other POW pilots jumped the wire and were well into the woods when the Nazis arrived.

On May 24, the escapees made it to Allied territory and Curdes was immediately sent home to Fort Wayne with a “well done my son’ certificate. Curdes promptly called the Army Air Corps (The U.S. Air Force wasn’t created until 1947) and told ‘em his fight wasn’t done; could he be reinstated? Are you kidding me? An ace?

Curdes was immediately ordered into the fiery Pacific theater and, when he got to the Philippines in November, a shiny P-51 Mustang, faster and more agile than the Lockheed P-38 he had flown with such renown, was waiting. Painted on either side of the nose were the words, “Bad Angel,” and underneath is cockpit was a graphic that proclaimed his confirmed kills. Just aft of the cockpit, painted in the same red as “Bad Angel” was one word, all capital letters: ACE.

On February 7, 1945, he was flying about 30 miles southwest of Taiwan when he raced towards a Mitsubishi Ki-46-II and immediately kayoed it, thus becoming one of only three U.S. pilots to record kills against all three Axis powers – German, Italy, and Japan – but his most famous kill, one that gave Curdes one of his two Distinguished Flying Cross medals, was yet to come.

At dawn on the morning of February 10, call code “Buckwheat” Curdes led a squadron of four P-51s from the Philippines home base to search for a secret air base the Japanese were using in Taiwan. They found nothing and, coming back, Curdes ordered Lieutenants Scalley and La Croix to split and scour the north side of Bataan while he and Lt. Schmidtke would take the southern side.

The main strip on Bataan was heavily fortified by Japan but soon Scalley and La Croix discovered a small well-hidden landing strip. As the four planes bombed and riddled the strip with gunfire, La Croix was shot down by enemy fire and scuttled his plane in the ocean. Curdes followed La Croix, circling low to see his wingman was okay, and saw he had deployed a one-man raft and responded when Curdes wiggled his wings. Curdes kept circling, calling in coordinates for rescue efforts and then, behold! a strange sight.

There was a much-larger plane lumbering towards the Japanese-held airfield. Curdes raced forward to find it was a Douglas C-47 transport with US markings. Curdes grabbed his radio, calling the tail number and screaming, “No! No! No!” Every American pilot knew what the depraved and sadistic Japanese did to captured. They would torture them in inconceivable ways, send gruesome photographs to American air bases in the most blatant propaganda efforts ever known to me.

The C-47 never changed course. Now Curdes put his P-51 in full powers, diving and circles the big Douglas aircraft. It still never changed course. Curdes threw his Mustang into a quick loop and, from the rear of the huge cargo sent a precision, “Buckwheat” guided a stream of 50-caliber machine bullets into the C-47’s starboard engine. With black smoke billowing, again Curdes tried to wave of the C-47 away. It stayed on course. That’s when Curdes had no other choice than knock the port engine.

Unable to fly, the cargo pilot had no choice but to ditch the plane into the Pacific. Ironically, it stopped a well-controlled ditching about 50 yards from where Lt. La Croix watched the whole thing with his heart in I his throat.

Curdes, again circling as twilight came with his fuel dangerously low, watched La Croix swim madly towards the sinking C-47 and see his wingman be dragged into the larger lifeboat. La Croix told the ashen-faced crew the landing strip was heavily fortified by the Japanese and, in turn, learned the C-47 had been mauled by a storm and that lightening had knocked the radio, all navigation and other flight instruments out. They scuttled the plane with no fuel and had no idea where they were. The destination had been the Philippine base.

Thirty minutes before dawn the next morning, Curdes -- with Lts. Schmidtke and Scalley in heavily-armed and  fully fueled P-51s, followed the “Bad Angel” to the rescue site, circled as rescue boats and able crews arrived for La Croix and the 11-member C-47 crew, that included three females nurses, and then under heavily-fortified escort, watched over the boats as they arrived at the Philippine military hospital for observation and rest before release.

* * *

Louis Edward Curdes, who transitioned into the US Air Force, retired in October of 1963 as a Lt. Colonel, but not before he flew high-security fighter aircraft during the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War. He died in 1995 at the age of 75 in Fort Wayne but there is quite a monument in his name at the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Ariz., to this very day. It is a perfectly restored P-51 Mustang. On its snout are the bold words, “Bad Angel.”

On its fuselage is a visible chart that includes seven German swastikas, an Italian marking, a Japanese flag and, yes, an American flag. To this day it is believed he is the only American ace who downed one of our own to save the lives of all who were aboard. May God bless America, the P-51 “Bad Angel,” and memory of World War II ace Lt. Louis Curdes, call code: “Buckwheat.”

Louis Edward Curdes
Louis Edward Curdes

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