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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wagner, Charles Arthur (1916–1943)

by Peter Sinfield

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Charles Arthur Wagner (1916-1943), army officer, was born on 12 August 1916 at Bondi, Sydney, seventh child of native-born parents Edward Wagner, pipe-layer, and his wife Annie Eliza, née Thies. Educated locally, Charlie became a Boy Scout, gaining his King's Scout award and later becoming a scoutmaster. While working as a pump hand for a boot-making firm, he served in the Militia, specializing in intelligence. At the district registrar's office, Paddington, on 30 January 1936 he married Audrey Thurza Blackburn.

On 3 June 1940 Wagner enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 2nd/18th Battalion, he was appointed its intelligence sergeant in September. The battalion moved to Malaya in February 1941 as part of the 22nd Brigade. Wagner immediately set about getting to know the country, gathering information and learning Malay. When the Japanese attacked in December, the 22nd Brigade was defending the Mersing area on the east coast. The 2nd/18th Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel A. L. Varley, first went into action on the night of 26/27 January 1942, when it ambushed a large enemy force near the Nithsdale rubber estate. At a critical time in the battle, Wagner moved forward through enemy lines and accurately ascertained the Japanese positions; this action allowed supporting artillery fire to land 'with pin-point accuracy amongst the Japanese, causing severe casualties'. He later went into the area a second time bearing withdrawal orders for the survivors of the 2nd/18th's forward companies. For his 'coolness, courage and devotion to duty' he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Commissioned lieutenant on 14 February 1942, Wagner became a prisoner of war when Singapore fell next day. At first he was incarcerated at Changi, but passive acceptance of this fate was not in his nature. Shipped to Borneo in March 1943 as a member of 'E' Force, he escaped from Berhala Island on 4 June with seven companions, among them R. K. McLaren, and the eight made a hazardous journey to the island of Tawitawi. There the Australians joined the Filipino guerrillas and were attached to the 125th Infantry Regiment, United States Forces in the Philippines. A 'truly aggressive character with evidently some high leadership ability', Wagner was 'short, dark and tough with a ready smile'. He led the first offensive action with the guerrillas in August, when his party ambushed a Japanese submarine chaser as it left the wharf on the island of Bongao. At least eleven of the crew, including the captain, were reportedly killed.

In late October 1943 the Australians were ordered to report to guerrilla headquarters at Liangan on Mindanao. After a dangerous voyage by boat and an arduous trek across the mountains of western Mindanao, they reached their destination in December. While helping to repel a Japanese attack, Wagner was killed by a sniper's bullet on 21 December 1943. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he was buried locally. After the war his remains were reinterred in Sai Wan war cemetery, Hong Kong. He was posthumously mentioned in dispatches.

Select Bibliography

  • O. L. Ziegler (ed), Men May Smoke (Syd, 1948)
  • H. Richardson, One-Man War (Syd, 1957)
  • W. Wallace, Escape from Hell (Lond, 1958)
  • S. Ross, And Tomorrow Freedom (Syd, 1989)
  • J. Burfitt, Against All Odds (Syd, 1991)
  • A. Powell, War by Stealth (Melb, 1996)
  • Salute (Sydney), 9, no 3, Apr-May 1997, p 35
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Sinfield, 'Wagner, Charles Arthur (1916–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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