Late Madison flyer ‘Bud’ Truax is honored with forthcoming book

Eighty years after the U.S. Army Air Force lieutenant was killed in a WWII training exercise, a forthcoming book will introduce a new generation to the Madison native for which the Dane County Regional Airport's Truax Field was named.
A portrait of U.S. airman Bud Truax hangs inside the Dane County Regional Airport in his honor.
Courtesy of Dane County Regional Airport.
Truax Field was originally named for Madison flyer Bud Truax.

There was a time when just about everyone in Madison knew the name Truax. I heard it all the time growing up — Truax Field was the airport. It dated to World War II when the operation of the airfield was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Today, of course, the airport is known as the Dane County Regional Airport. Truax Field is located there and is home to the 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

Yet throughout that history, many people — myself among them — didn’t know the significance of the Truax name.

Twenty years ago, researching a newspaper column, I learned the story behind it.

Thomas L. “Bud” Truax was a Madison native, a graduate of Wisconsin High School and of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. On Nov. 2, 1941 — 80 years ago last week — Truax, a lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air Force, died when the P-40 aircraft he was flying crashed into a mountain in bad weather near San Francisco. He’d been part of a multi-plane, cross-country training exercise that was plagued with problems — mechanical and weather-related — from the outset.

Last April, I received a note from a Seattle-based author, Peter Stekel, who has written extensively about stateside military air crashes. He’d seen my column from two decades ago about Truax, and wrote: “I am writing a book about the flight of P-40s that crashed in California in October and November 1941 where Lt. Thomas LeRoy Truax was killed.”

Stekel went on to inquire whether a painting of Truax I referenced as hanging at the Madison airport was still there. (It is.)

Closer view of a portrait of U.S. airman Madison native Bud Truax, in color, back in the day with an airplane behind him

Bud Truax, courtesy of Dane County Regional Airport.

The painting seems to have been the culmination of a series of honors accorded Truax in Madison after his death. His funeral on Nov. 7 drew either 400 (Wisconsin State Journal) or 700 (The Capital Times) mourners to Christ Presbyterian church on Nov. 7.

“If to give one’s life in a great cause,” the Rev. Edwin O. Kennedy said at the service, “and to serve something greater than oneself is to find the meaning of life, then certainly he found the meaning of life.”

In October 1942 the Army Air Force technical school at the Madison airport was named for Truax, and soon the airfield itself. A concrete marker with a bronze plaque honoring Truax was unveiled at the airport in April 1945.

Last week, on the 80th anniversary of Truax’s death, I reached back out to Stekel, curious how he was progressing on his book about Truax and the troubled P-40s in fall 1941.

First, however, we chatted about “Final Flight,” Stekel’s extraordinary 2010 book about a doomed 1942 military training flight — the story that ignited his interest in the subject.

Stekel grew up in California and said areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range were “my playground.” Consequently, when the mummified remains of a World War II era military pilot were found in a melting glacier in the High Sierra in 2005, Stekel got a magazine assignment to write about it.

He did more than that. The best reporting often comes from obsession. Stekel climbed to where the airman’s remains were found. The airman — his name was Leo Mustonen — was one of a four-man crew on a military flight that crashed in 1942.

“I had the GPS coordinates for where he was found,” Stekel says. “I wanted to sit on that spot and contemplate things.”

Stekel instead found the remains of a second crewman, Ernest Munn.

“I walked right up to him,” Stekel says. “His remains were about 100 feet from where [Mustonen] was found.”

He still gets emotional talking about it. “The family invited me out to the funeral in Ohio,” he says.

Stekel wrote that story in “Final Flight” and in 2017 published “Beneath Haunted Waters,” yet another tale of World War II training exercises gone wrong in the High Sierra.

“My point in writing these books,” Stekel says, “is to honor these guys who were killed in the United States before they even got ready for combat.”

It was while researching the first two books that Stekel says he “heard of this squadron of P-40s that came to grief” in the California mountains in fall 1941. He’s calling the book — which he is still researching —“Trial by Error.” Truax was not the only fatality among the squadron’s pilots.

In his research, Stekel uncovered a 1935 Wisconsin High School yearbook with a class photo of Truax and a one-sentence description: “the mirror of courtesy.”

As I finished speaking with Stekel, I told him that earlier that day I had walked to Forest Hill cemetery and located Truax’s headstone. It was Nov. 1, a day before the 80th anniversary.

Stekel was quiet for a moment.

“These things are very important,” he said. “They connect us to the past in a way we oftentimes don’t think is possible.”

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