The Hail Mary Shot

There’s nothing shooters like more than a good fish story.

And there is no group of shooters that participates in legend-mongering with as much glee as partisans of the Colt M1911A1, which was the service handgun of the US military for over eighty years, and over 100 years after its development is still one of the world’s premier defensive firearms. 

But 72 years ago today, this story – possibly but probably not aprocryphal – may have established itself as the grand-daddy of all handgun legends.

In 1943, the Tenth Air Force was the smallest, most isolated, and most under-reported unit in the US militiary.  Flying out of airfields in rural India, they hauled supplies over the Himalayas – “over the Hump” – to support US and Chinese troops cut off from the coast by Japanese invaders; they also harassed the Japanese supply lines. 

On one of those raids, by the 9th Bomber Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group, was against a railroad bridge between Rangoon (today called “Yangon”) and Mandalay, in Japanese-occupied Burma.  One of the planes – at the right wing of the squadron leader – was a B-24 “Liberator” flown by 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Jensen.  His co-pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Owen Baggett. 

On the approach to the bridge, the formation was attacked by Japanese fighters.  The squadron leader was badly wounded; Jensen’s plane took severe damage.  After an uncontrollable fire broke out, Jensen ordered the crew to bail out.  Five of the nine man crew escaped before the plane exploded.

The Japanese pilots then began shooting at the airmen in their  parachutes, killing two of them, and grazing 2LT Baggett’s arm with a bullet.

And then…:

The pilot who had hit Baggett circled to finish him off or perhaps only to get a better look at his victim. Baggett pretended to be dead, hoping the Zero pilot would not fire again. In any event, the pilot opened his canopy and approached within feet of Baggett’s chute, nose up and on the verge of a stall. Baggett, enraged by the strafing of his helpless crew mates, raised the .45 automatic concealed against his leg and fired four shots at the open cockpit. The Zero stalled and spun in.

Jensen, Baggett and one of the gunners were captured by the Japanese.  And it was in a POW camp that Baggett learned the unbelievable:

A few months later, Col. Harry Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter Group who had been shot down, passed through the POW camp and told Baggett that a Japanese colonel said the pilot Owen Baggett had fired at had been thrown clear of his plane when it crashed and burned. He was found dead of a single bullet in his head. Colonel Melton intended to make an official report of the incident but lost his life when the ship on which he was being taken to Japan was sunk. Two other pieces of evidence support Baggett’s account: First, no friendly fighters were in the area that could have downed the Zero pilot. Second, the incident took place at an altitude of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. The pilot could have recovered from an unintentional stall and spin. Retired Colonel Baggett, now living in San Antonio, Tex., believes he shot down the Japanese pilot, but because that judgment is based on largely indirect and circumstantial evidence, he remains reluctant to talk much about it. We think the jury no longer is out. There appears to be no reasonable doubt that Owen Baggett performed a unique act of valor, unlikely to be repeated in the unfolding annals of air warfare.

Try that with a .357 Magnum!

4 thoughts on “The Hail Mary Shot

  1. Good story Mitch, this kind of thing is what you do well and I appreciate.

    That said, if he shot him in the head, the pilot would not have recovered the stall, he’d have nearly immediately lost consciousness, so the second “supporting” point is counter to the story.

    Second, shoot someone in the head with a .357 and they will be just as likely to not survive as someone hit by a .45 ACP round.

    The Colt 45 1911 is a quintessential American firearm. Candidly, if it weren’t a 12 gauge with slugs or 00 buckshot, I’d chose a 1911 as my self-defense weapon. It’s a great design in weapon design. You know what else it is? It’s not a super-high capacity weapon. It holds 7 rounds, 8 if you chamber one first, and YET it provides fully adequate self-defense firepower. Go figure.

    Agreeing you in pointing out the lack of need of high-cap weaponsly yours,
    Charming

  2. “the pilot would not have recovered the stall”

    True enough. Two possibilities.

    1) The pilot didn’t die immediately (seems unlikely, but instant kills are very rare, even with head shots).

    2) The Zero had extremely forgiving stall characteristics (much more likely, given its very low wing loading).

    Just saying.

  3. Second, shoot someone in the head with a .357 and they will be just as likely to not survive as someone hit by a .45 ACP round.

    Third, same for a .22 at a range described herein.

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