Herbert A. Wagner Jr., 85, businessman, fighter pilot

November 29, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,SUN REPORTER

Herbert Appleton Wagner Jr., a retired business owner who during World War II joined Britain's Royal Air Force and survived being shot down over the English Channel, died of renal failure Saturday at his Owings Mills home. He was 85.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Green Spring Valley near Owings Mills, he was the son of the president of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the old Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad. He attended Calvert School and was a 1939 graduate of Gilman School, where he played football.

He played golf throughout his life and won the 1941 Middle Atlantic Tournament at Hot Springs, Va., after taking the Maryland State Junior Open Tournament at the Baltimore County Club.

Mr. Wagner was an insurance agent and was taking courses at the Johns Hopkins University at the outbreak of World War II in Europe. In 1941, before the U.S. entered the conflict, he wanted to become an Army Air Corps pilot, even though he had no flight training nor a required college degree.

Family members said Mr. Wagner approached a friend in a Royal Air Force delegation in Washington, who assisted him in enlisting in the fall of 1941.

He received his cadet training in the Mojave Desert near Lancaster, Calif.

Newspaper stories of that time reported his marriage to Ouida LaBranch, the niece of film star Basil Rathbone, but their union lasted only briefly.

Mr. Wagner was sent to Britain and assigned to fly Spitfires, the legendary English fighter planes.

"Flying Officer Wagner is the only American in a south of France Spitfire squadron of the RAF fighter command," said a 1943 Sun article, which noted he destroyed "three of four locomotives he had attacked in northern France."

Four days before D-Day in 1944, Mr. Wagner was shot down off the coast of German-occupied Guernsey in the English Channel.

"I sat in my dinghy all day long ... two airborne life boats were dropped by a special air-sea rescue squadron, only to blow away beyond my reach," he said in a memoir.

"Finally, at dusk, the Germans sent a French fishing boat out to get me. As I stepped ashore in Guernsey harbor, a German officer saluted me and said, in broken English, "For you, the war is over."

Mr. Wagner spent a year in an air prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft 1, in Barth, Germany, and after the war left the RAF.

Returning home, he founded Management and Development Corp. and was president of Canada Dry-Frostie Corp. of Baltimore. He had also been a vice president of the old Robert Garrett & Sons brokerage.

In 1980, as owner of Art Fac of Maryland, he purchased Blakeslee-Lane Inc. in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, one of the city's oldest commercial photo labs. He sold the business and retired several years ago.

He remained an active golfer and was a 16-time men's champion at Green Spring Valley Hunt Club. He was a past president of the Middle Atlantic Golf Association.

He was a founding director of the Valleys Planning Council and belonged to the Maryland Club and Bachelors Cotillon.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. 232 St. Thomas Lane, Owings Mills, where he had served on the vestry.

Survivors include his wife of 37 years, the former Brooke Taliaferro-Merrick; two sons, Herbert A. "Tony" Wagner III of Cambridge, Mass., and Peter M. Wagner of Richmond, Va.; a daughter, Wendy E. Wagner of Holualoa, Hawaii; two stepsons, Francis T. Merrick of Charlottesville, Va., and Robert G. Merrick III of Owings Mills; a stepdaughter, Jean M. Maddux of Baltimore; six grandchildren; nine step-grandchildren; and a great-grandson. Another previous marriage, to Betty McConnell, ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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