Bucklew, Phil Hinkle, Capt., USN (Ret.)
A legendary figure within Navy circles, Captain Bucklew devoted his entire Navy career to scouting, raiding, and intelligence. One of the Navy's first "frogmen" and a charter member of its Scouts and Raiders of World War II, he scouted the beaches at Normandy, Salerno, and Sicily weeks before Allied invasions. Then, in China, he slipped by Japanese occupation troops to conduct a 400-mile overland scouting trip of the coastline near Hong Kong. In 1964, Captain Bucklew led a study team to investigate the communist infiltration problems in South Vietnam. Prior to his Navy career, Captain Bucklew was a collegiate and professional football star.
In this excerpt from his oral history, Captain Bucklew serves up a vivid, actionful account of D-Day at Normandy, the sights, the explosive sounds, the confusion, the perils — and the validating relief of spotting the steeple he first had noted on his recon mission.
(Note: Due to edits, corrections, and/or amendments to the original transcription draft, there are some inconsistencies between the recording and the text.)
John T. Mason Jr.: Give me your overall, your general impressions of that D-day at Normandy.
Captain Bucklew: Again, I was riding on a lead ship, an LST that had launched my boat which was souped up for speed.
John T. Mason Jr.: Capable of what kind, of speed?
Captain Bucklew: Fifteen knots, which was good for a landing craft then. It was gasoline powered — I had stripped most of the metal armament off it. In moving in we had a longer run for Normandy than we had had for any previous operation, I would say it was 12 to 15 miles, probably 15 since I was launched early and while the ship was still under way I could beat the ship in to its anchorage so we had a longer run. I was nervous about this. I knew what was coming and our responsibility to guide them right, but with or without confidence, you always think of the room for error and you are very conscious of what's coming behind you. With Admiral Conolly’s lesson and the concern for the troops behind you, I never forgot. I must have been 10 miles offshore when all hell cut loose! On my right hand, it must have been 10 miles down the beach, there were explosions, various types, flares going. I knew I was to be at the heart of the beach but I thought "what in the world — have I missed it? — could I have missed something? I couldn’t have missed it by 10 miles when I have only gone 15!" I knew of the Ranger operation on the cliffs but I didn’t know the timing was that much in advance of us. They had their problems. You know the Rangers had had to do a cliff-scaling job to come in and they had a flank movement supporting our assault force.
John T. Mason Jr.: It was kind, of diversionary too wasn’t it?
Captain Bucklew: Yes, purely. But, they took an awful beating, they had about 40% casualties. The flares in the black of night and the confusion worried the daylights out of me as to whether I was on the beam headed for RED beach — or could this fighting possibly from my target beach?
John T. Mason Jr.: You were actually the spearhead to the main operation, were you not?
Captain Bucklew: As I say, I was never more relieved than to see that Vierville Church steeple that I had seen during the recon, and it was pinpointed as part of the intelligence chart. When I saw that steeple, I was probably the most relieved person in the world even though that was just the beginning of the fight.
Then, the next most impressive thing was Admiral Deyo's fire support; they started hammering the salvos in. As I later saw when I went ashore — I have never seen anything before nor since to equal the devastation that a naval salvo from a battleship can do. Some of it was pretty horrible and unpleasant and cause for part of the problem we had later with the French countryside, with the civilians. The furrows those salvos made would run a good 7 or 8 feet deep and 10 feet wide, and the cattle were all killed from concussion — not from hit, just the concussion of those shells going over them. But the salvos themselves would come out there three at a time, big balls of fire, roaring, almost deafening as they passed over us.
Then as we came in on the beach, of course you are pretty damn busy then and don't get much time to think, but I am very allergic to noise somehow, still am, just like in hearing a dog’s sharp barking — I jump! Our machine gunning was deafening. I had wadded cotton in my ears but I hate those guns close-up. We were busy. These tanks came in and got in trouble, the UDTs came wallowing in their old LCMs — nothing glamorous about the way they came in — and they got in trouble right away. They went right into the beach obstacles and detonated some of the teller mines, took casualties but went to work. It was a scurrying proposition. We found where obstacles and mines were exploded and a gap cleared with troops landed. The next craft would follow, like LCUs troop loaded. We spent much time with one ship because their troops panicked. They hit the water when mines exploded — of course they had packs and the like — it wasn’t a matter of drowning but they didn’t know; the troops would be hanging on, they would grab these obstacles with a teller mine over their head and they would just cling. We would try to ease the boat in to get them off. I had a scare there. I was on my belly on the bow of my boat, pulling people up and getting them off the obstacles. I took some flack — it was the closest I ever came to really being hurt, I took a fragment cut on my bald head! I had taken my helmet off because I was hanging over the side. Learned a good lesson there. I just skinned my head. Just like a scratch.
John T. Mason Jr.: Did it break the scalp?
Captain Bucklew: Just put a red line down there, that’s all it amounted to, but I didn’t do that again. In pulling people out we were quite busy and I guess we kept that up most of the day.
John T. Mason Jr.: It must have been pretty exhausting and yet I suppose you were so keyed up you didn’t feel exhaustion?
Captain Bucklew: I bumped into one of my old LST friends I had been with on previous operations and went aboard there, got a meal from the boys, then went back at it again. But in the meanwhile I lost my shoes. The seas were pretty rough really for the small craft and the type of thing we were doing and it’s the only time I ever did it, I decided I would wear a low shoe and avoid the awkward wet weight of combat boots. I lost my boots somehow — the doctor there said, "Here, take this guy’s shoes, he doesn’t need them." So I took a dead man’s boots and wore them then and later all through China. I didn't get back to the flagship that day. The next day I went back, came on board, Admiral Hall wanted to talk with me, a how are things on the beach sort of talk. I think that’s the only time the navy ever offered me a bottle of brandy and, foolishly, I didn't take it. We got a few hours sleep, went back out then and it developed into odd man jobs, wherever you were hailed by someone needing help.
About this Volume
Based on nine interviews conducted by Dr. John T. Mason Jr. from March through June 1980, the volume contains 451 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1982 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.