Ernie Wagner, 86, can remember charging across an open expanse and firing his bazooka twice to protect the lives of his fellow servicemen like it was yesterday. Now, 66 years later, the government found the paperwork and awarded Wagner the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism during World War II.
Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst pinned the award on the 86-year-old's lapel during a ceremony Feb. 17 in Panama City Beach at the local senior center.
On Feb. 24, 1945, Wagner's 37th infantry unit could have been history, held down by enemy crossfire on their march to Manila, Philippians. Instead, Wagner made history by saving the unit with his act of heroism. Wagner ran into an open area and fired his bazooka twice into an enemy stronghold, putting himself in harm's way to protect his fellow infantrymen.
Shortly thereafter, he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. However, he never received the Distinguished Service Cross because the paperwork got lost and went undiscovered. Recently, a military researcher realized the medal was never awarded to Wagner. Wagner, a Panama City Beach resident, thanked the crowd gathered for the ceremony.
“This is very heartwarming,” Wagner said. “I certainly appreciate all the people who have come out to celebrate this occasion after all these years.” Wagner recalled the fateful day and explained how, with a carbine on his back, he had a helper load his bazooka and proceeded to an open area where he fired on an enemy stronghold. Wagner then reloaded the bazooka and fired on another enemy bunker. He used his carbine to eliminate fleeing enemy soldiers. More than a dozen Japanese soldiers were killed, but there were no American casualties during the battle.
“Frankly, my adrenaline was so high I didn’t even worry about getting shot or anything like that,” said Wagner, who was discharged as a sergeant. Wagner did not receive his Distinguished Service Cross medal while in the Philippines because he had been sent home after being wounded in battle a second time. His medal was almost as well traveled and storied as Wagner himself since, by quirk of Fate, while Wagner was traveling East and home to Virginia, his medal was traveling west to the battle site. After the war, the paperwork was lost and went undiscovered for decades.
The organizer of the event to honor Wagner was Col. Art Bergman. Besides Oberst, Panama City Beach Councilman John Richard and representatives for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, and a number of veterans groups were also on hand.
Earlier in the day Wagner had been playing bridge with his friends at the senior center. “I think I’ll go home now,” Wagner said, a wide smile spreading across his face. “It’s been a long day.”
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