NO. 17597 • 26 Jul 1926 - 10 May 2004
Died in Fair Oaks Ranch, TX
Interred in Air Force Academy Cemetery, Colorado Springs, CO
Walter "Buz" Hope Baxter III spent almost 50 years as a pilot. With his "hand upon an aircraft throttle and his eye upon the wild blue yonder," no other career could have suited him better or made him happier.
Buz was born in San Benito, TX, to Walter and Olga (Arnold) Baxter. Buz grew up in nearby Weslaco, graduating from high school in 1943. He participated in sports, lettering in football his senior year. He attended the University of Texas, Arlington, until he reported to Keesler Field in Biloxi, MS, for basic training in January 1945.
Buz had always dreamed of becoming a military fighter pilot, but first he served as a fighter aircraft crew chief at Luke Field, AZ, and then he was sent to Scott Field, IL, for training as a B 29 bomber radio operator. Buz was a second alternate for an appointment to West Point and went to Amherst College to better prepare for West Point academics. He studied there until November 1945 when he was released from active duty but retained in the Reserves.
Returning to Weslaco, Buz invested his mustering out pay for part ownership of a vintage military trainer aircraft and flying lessons. He had achieved about 75 hours of flying time when he was informed of his West Point appointment (the principal appointee and first alternate had declined to attend).
On arrival at West Point he found he was well prepared for the military and athletic aspects and appreciated the value of his preparation at Amherst. What surprised him most was the awe in which other new cadets held him. Buz was a pilot who had flown solo and had been on active duty already. His classmates liked him, and Buz soon became a leader in the Class of '50.
During his cadet days Buz ran track one year, lettered in squash three years, and lettered in tennis as manager his final year. Upon graduation, Buz's class standing was high enough for him to select duty in the Air Force, the service that "flies and fights."
His first assignment was to James Connally AFB, TX, for basic flying training. Because of his previous civilian flying experience, he breezed through basic and picked Craig AFB, AL, for advanced flying training. He wanted a chance to fly the best of the WWII fighters, the P 51 Mustang.
Leaving Craig with silver wings, Buz completed gunnery school in Arizona and then was sent to Korea, where he completed 87 combat missions in the P 51 (now F 51). His operational assignments showed continued advancement and increased responsibilities on return to the States. At Clovis AFB, NM, he upgraded to jet aircraft, flying the F 86. Later, as a captain flying the F 100, he became a flight commander, assistant operations officer, and wing gunnery and bombing officer during a tour in England.
From 1958 to 1961 he taught military studies at the Air Force Academy. Buz then spent a year as a student at the Air Command and Staff College. Then it was back to flying duties in Training Command as a major-wing executive officer, director of plans, section commander always jobs of increasing importance. These assignments led to more duty overseas as a lieutenant colonel, with Buz becoming commander of the 22nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, a combat ready (F 4) unit in Germany. Next came a year at the Army War College.
In 1970, COL Baxter was back in combat, flying F 4s as vice commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand. He flew 125 combat missions over Viet Nam. Back in the States he continued flying as commander of the 64th Flying Training Wing at Reese AFB, TX. In 1975 he picked up his first star as vice commander of Keesler Technical Training Center before duty called him back to Thailand to close American bases left over from the Viet Nam conflict. Duty followed on Okinawa, where Buz commanded the 313th Air Division and the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing, the unit in which he first had seen combat in Korea.
Back in the States as a major general, Buz became commander of the 24th North American Air Defense Command and 24th Aerospace Defense Command at Malmstrom. AFB, MT. After a year, he went back to Europe as air deputy, NATO Allied Forces Northern Europe, still flying fighters. His final assignment, as commander of the Third Air Force at RAF Mildenhall, England, was a fitting end to what he called a "dream career."
During his career he received many awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, three Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and ten Air Medals.
Buz flew a total of 8000 hours about 6000 in military aircraft with combat time totaling about 580 hours. During his career he flew 20 different military aircraft, the majority of them tactical fighters and trainers, and had spent more than 13 years overseas. When asked how he survived more than 30 years of military flying, Buz replied, "I was blessed with reliable airplanes, outstanding wingmen, and rotten (enemy) gunners."
Another reason for Buz’s long and successful career was his wife, Lila. In spite of his early preference for tall Texas girls, he met a not so tall young lady from Alabama, Lila Waldrop, and married her on 12 Jun 1954. Somehow she turned him into a "happy warrior with a contented smile" and made a family man out of a fighter. They were together for almost 50 years and raised two boys and two girls in a close knit family.
Buz retired in 1982 and went back to Weslaco, TX, to ease his father's workload at the Walter Baxter Seed Company. Six months later, after his father died, Buz became the head of a successful seed business. He sold the company in 1995 because he wanted the freedom and time to play golf, hunt, fly fish, travel, and fly.
Buz, old buddy, you did us proud!
- His Family and Classmates