How Simon Bolivar Buckner fought to keep the services from fighting— each other.
MONDAY, JUNE 18, 1945, dawned hot and steamy on Okinawa. For 79 days, the American Tenth Army and Japan’s 32nd Army had been struggling for the island in a slow, bloody battle of attrition. Now the invading Americans, victory in their sights, were readying a final push at Okinawa’s southern tip, where Tenth Army commander Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. climbed to an 8th Marine Regiment observation post. The regiment had reached the endgame in a brutal clash in the valley below. Buckner, who had admired the unit’s vigor as it trained for the assault, wanted to watch the Marines eliminate enemy holdouts.
Buckner’s white hair and love of outdoor activity, particularly hiking rugged landscapes, inspired his troops to call the large-framed, amiable West Pointer the Old Man of the Mountain. Believing men at war needed to see their generals, the 58-year-old Buckner made a point of roving even the most remote corners of embattled Okinawa, often unannounced but usually wearing a helmet decorated with three stars and riding in a jeep with a flag to match. The display sometimes drew enemy fire, but Buckner thought the morale boost worth the risk. That Monday morning, he and his staff drove to the foot of the hill where the 8th Marines had their observation post. At the summit Buckner had just switched to a plain helmet when a Japanese barrage sent all hands diving for shelter behind the coral boulders that dotted the hilltop.
As quickly as it had struck, the enemy fire lifted. The rest of the men on the crest scrambled to their feet unhurt, but Buckner lay still. A sliver of coral had ripped into him, and he was bleeding badly from his chest. Marines wrestled the wounded officer onto a poncho and started for an aid station. The general asked if anyone else was hurt, then fell silent while his rescuers muscled him downhill.
But Buckner had run out of time. As a young Marine held his hand and comforted him, he became the highest-ranking American commander to die from enemy fire during the war. Someone broke the silence by reciting the 23rd Psalm. The general’s command went to Marine Major General Roy Geiger, who three days later declared Okinawa secure and began mop-up operations against its few remaining defenders. Not quite seven weeks later, Japan surrendered.
Many combat commanders go on to write memoirs, but death let others define Buckner’s legacy. He made an easy target for Douglas MacArthur, Joseph Stilwell, and other ax-grinding contemporaries, as well as debunkery-minded historians. Skeptics maligned Buckner for his methodical style and for what they derided as too cozy a relationship with the Marines and the navy, and challenged his decision against making a second landing on the southern end of Okinawa, a refusal some said prolonged a battle that cost 62,000 American casualties.
In the afterlife of history, Buckner’s record did not help him. From 1941 until he took over the Tenth Army, he commanded ground troops in Alaska, where he tended to default to standard army doctrine: make sure to have more men and materiel than the foe, and deploy them to make steady, mechanistic progress. That was the approach Buckner took overseeing the 1942–43 recapture of the Aleutian Islands and, two years later, the assault on Okinawa, his first true combat command.
However, criticism of his performance on Okinawa obscures the main asset Buckner brought to the war’s last great island battle: The Kentuckian was possibly the only senior officer able to get along with his brothers in the other services in a Pacific Theater where American forces had fallen to squabbling, squalling, and sabotaging one another. With the Marines dependent on the army for logistics and the army and the Marines sharing both equipment and terrain and reliant on the navy for transport, lack of cooperation could kill men. On the run-up to the Okinawa invasion Buckner’s hard-working diplomacy helped still discord and, when singularity of military purpose was paramount, knit a unified force.
Buckner was born in 1886, the only son of legendary Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner. The senior Buckner, who after the war served as governor of Kentucky, was 62 when his namesake arrived, but lived to see his boy share his alma mater, West Point, as a cadet boxer, football player, wrestler, and graduate ranked firmly in the middle of the Class of 1908.
The younger Buckner acquired a reputation as an educator. He spent World War I training aviators. Afterward, back at West Point, he and two other equally uncompromising majors oversaw plebe training and discipline. Subsequent stints at the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College landed Buckner on the faculties of each in turn. At the Staff College, Buckner met Major Roy Geiger, U.S. Marine Corps, who shared Buckner’s love of aviation and who became a lifelong friend. Besides having in common a blunt manner, the two even looked alike—tall and ruddy, with piercing blue eyes.
In 1932, Buckner returned to West Point, this time as a professor. He became commandant of cadets, a role to which he brought a decidedly Spartan vivacity. Declaring “cadets should work and smell like men,” he banned aftershave. Convinced conditioning paid off on many levels, he drove himself on hiking and hunting forays and pushed physical training for subordinates. One parent grumbled, “Buckner forgets that cadets are born, not quarried.”
Inherent in Brigadier General Buckner’s rigor was deep concern for the men he led, to the point that he personally tested boots, sleeping bags, and other gear before approving it for his soldiers’ use. No deep thinker, Buckner was hail-fellow-well-met and an eloquent speaker who seemed much the man of action. These attributes lent him an aura of dynamic leadership and led army chief of staff General George C. Marshall to view him as a “very vigorous type”—precisely the sort Marshall planned to assign higher command should the United States go to war.
In the summer of 1940, Marshall named Buckner to head the Alaska Defense Command, with orders to shore up that remote and vulnerable outpost. The First World War and its aftermath had convinced Buckner that in vast and isolated regions, like Alaska, air power would be a major defensive pillar. During his first 18 months there he built 13 airfields, including two strips on the Aleutian islands of Adak and Umnak. He also enlarged his command to more than 30,000 soldiers. Even so, in June 1942 Buckner could not keep the Japanese from occupying two other Aleutian islands: Attu and Kiska.
Development of a plan to take back the Aleutians collided with a muddled command structure. As elsewhere in the Pacific, the army, navy, and air forces overlapped. Ground forces commander Buckner reported to Lieutenant General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, in California. Buckner’s navy counterpart, Rear Admiral Robert Theobald, reported to Hawaii-based Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of Pacific Ocean Areas. Buckner had his headquarters in Fort Richardson, near Anchorage. Theobald’s was on Kodiak Island, 300 miles southwest, so the two had little face-to-face contact. The maps each man used often gave the same places different names. Theobald favored defense, while Buckner wanted to go on the offense.
Theobald and Buckner soon were at loggerheads, particularly over where to stage the operation to cleanse Attu and Kiska of Japanese and who would control that assault’s air support. Well aware that Alaskan defenses were inadequate, Buckner peppered the War Department and Western Defense Command with letters requesting more and better equipment to keep the invaders from reinforcing their toehold.“There are two ways of dealing with a rattlesnake. One is to sit still and wait for the snake to strike,” Buckner wrote to DeWitt.“The other is to bash in the snake’s head and put it out of commission. That is what I favor.” The more cautious Theobald advocated taking “every favorable opportunity to inflict strong attrition on the enemy,” although strictly with continuous bombardment.
When naval task force commander Rear Admiral William Smith admitted that shelling would have limited value unless combined with landings on Kiska and Attu, Buckner got the nod to attack. Another man might have simply put on his helmet and gone to war, but in his glee Buckner childishly composed and circulated among his own and Theobald’s staffs a round of mocking barracks doggerel, ostensibly in the admiral’s voice:
In far Alaska’s ice spray, I stand beside my binnacle And scan the waters through the fog for fear some rocky pinnacle Projecting from unfathomed depths may break my hull asunder and Place my name upon the list of those who made a blunder. Volcanic peaks beneath the waves are likely any morning To smash my ships to tiny bits without the slightest warning I dread the toll from reef and shoal that rip off keel and rudder And send our bones to Davey Jones—the prospect makes me shudder. The Bering Sea is not for me, nor my fleet headquarters In moral dread I look ahead in wild Aleutian waters Where hidden reefs and williwaws and terrifying critters Unnerve me quite with woeful fright and give me fits and jitters.
Buckner claimed he meant the verse “without personal malice and with a view toward introducing a touch of levity.” Theobald, not amused, called the lines “gratuitously insulting.”
When Marshall learned of the spat, he contacted DeWitt about relieving his man in Alaska—preferably without career harm, since Marshall believed that, momentary puerility aside, Buckner had done an overall splendid job. But Marshall stayed his hand for lack of a suitable replacement and out of hope that Nimitz would transfer Theobald.
Shaken by his brush with grave disciplinary action, Buckner pulled in his horns and made nice with the admiral. They endured each other until January 1943, when Theobald left for the Boston Navy Yard. His replacement, Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, immediately hit it off with Buckner. The lack of friction between Kincaid and Buckner suggested that the earlier animus had been personal, not institutional—a reading borne out during the Battle of Attu, where the navy man relieved an army division commander without protest from Buckner or DeWitt. But institutional animus was never far away.
Interservice rivalry is a fact of military life, with all services constantly vying for better press and bigger shares of the defense budget. During World War I, the army resented the credit newspapers gave the Marines for the Allied victory at Belleau Wood, where the army had far more soldiers fighting. Knowing the men of Parris Island were always a blink away from being absorbed into the army and navy, Marine leaders relished and buffed their corps’ reputation. Army grousing about the Marine Corps intensified during World War II, when, in a canny public relations tactic, the secretary of the navy granted reporters full access to Marine units and let correspondents file their copy using official channels, which led to the Marines getting what the army felt was disproportionate coverage. Nor were Marines above thumbing their noses at the army. Tensions broke out less often in Europe, which was almost exclusively an army show, but in the Pacific Theater all services operated in the same—often crowded—space. The resulting friction fostered a rising gorge of internecine ill feeling.
As the army landed on Attu and Kiska in the spring and summer of 1943, Buckner encountered Major General Holland Smith, who had come north to observe the operation in his capacity as lead amphibious trainer for the Marine Corps. An Alabama-born lawyer turned career Devil Dog, Smith trusted neither the army nor the navy. Nicknamed Howlin’ Mad in 1916 by his subordinates, he was an early and fierce advocate for the amphibious role that the Marine Corps carved out. In the Aleutians the Marine general generally praised the army’s 7th Infantry Division. In private, however, Smith complained that the landings dragged, and claimed Marines could have completed them twice as quickly.
Smith went on to lead V Amphibious Corps, overseeing joint operations in the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, and on Iwo Jima. Adamant about Marine superiority, he continued to harp about the army being slow and undisciplined. He never called army units he led “my soldiers” but referred to Marines as “us” and soldiers as “them,” as if GIs were another foe.
Holland Smith had harbored special animosity for the army’s 27th Infantry Division and its commander, Major General Ralph Smith, ever since Howlin’ Mad had led the November 1943 recapture of Makin Island. Holland Smith’s familiar theme was that at Makin, a laggard army effort had kept the escort carrier Liscome Bay around a fatally long time; it was torpedoed, costing 654 sailors their lives. Holland Smith never let up with his complaints. Ralph Smith never responded to them. On June 24, 1944, the Smith-Smith pot boiled over when, on Saipan, Holland Smith in his role as corps commander relieved Ralph Smith of his command (See “Smith vs. Smith,” May/June 2011). The Marine justified his punitive action by claiming that the army man had issued orders to a battalion that was under corps control, that Ralph Smith had contravened Holland Smith’s orders, and that Ralph Smith had been late in launching an attack, holding up Marine units on his flanks. As before, Ralph Smith kept his own counsel, awaiting the army’s decision on his fate. But intramural sniping on the topic filtered down to the individual level, with soldiers and Marines becoming suspicious of and even belligerent toward one another.
The festering conflict quickly reached Alaska, where Buckner, now a lieutenant general, was holding down a better-fortified territory; during 1943, after ejecting the Japanese, he had added airfields on Kiska, Attu, and Shimya. Vexed by the persistent and hurtful Smith matter, Lieutenant General Robert Richardson, the Army Ground Forces commander in the Central Pacific, decided to form an army commission. The board would resolve the questions of whether Holland Smith had had grounds for relieving Ralph Smith and whether Ralph Smith deserved another command. Richardson, for reasons now lost, chose Buckner to head the five-general panel.
The board meetings began on July 7, 1944, at Fort Shafter, Hawaii. For three weeks members reviewed documents and heard testimony—amid criticism that no Marine or navy commanders were testifying, only army commanders. Board member Brigadier General Roy Blount, visiting Saipan to gather information, came away convinced Holland Smith was a “stupid egomaniac! A perfect ass if ever one lived!” In a bid to influence the board, Richardson invited the five to a dinner, supposedly to celebrate the chairman’s 57th birthday. Richardson used the occasion to rail about Marine and navy shortcomings, obviously hoping his fellow army officers would take a hint.
Instead, the commission’s two-inch-thick assessment was a study in evenhandedness. Relying less on personal witness than on memos, orders, and other documents, the report avoided controversy. Members concluded that Holland Smith did have the authority to relieve Ralph Smith, but found that the facts did not substantiate the three charges on which Holland Smith based his decision. (Ralph Smith was given a new command, of the 98th Division, near the end of the war.)
The board recommended unanimously that Holland Smith never again command army troops in combat, but otherwise went so easy on the caustic Marine that Blount pondered filing a minority report. In the end he decided against stirring the pot, as did Marshall and King. If anything, it seemed that interservice ire in the Pacific flowed from Holland Smith alone.
But rancor persisted, an evil augury considering that the coming attack on Okinawa would interlace four army divisions and three Marine divisions in the theater’s largest operation yet—in effect, a stage rehearsal for the invasion of Japan, and no time for pettiness or backbiting.
Despite fallout from the Smith versus Smith affair, the Okinawa operation’s naval commanders, Richmond Kelly Turner and Raymond Spruance, still wanted Holland Smith in charge on the ground. That was highly unlikely; most troops on Okinawa would be soldiers, and many army officers had gone vehemently public about not wanting Smith ever leading GIs again. But the army’s most experienced combat commanders were booked elsewhere in the Pacific and in Europe. Surveying his options, Marshall decided that Buckner, who had gone back to watching the war pass him by from Alaska, was the logical choice: senior enough, seemingly aggressive enough, and— other than that malarkey with Theobald—on good terms with the navy and Marines.
After an August 1944 interview with Nimitz in which Buckner pledged himself to interservice cooperation, the new Tenth Army was his. Accompanied by much of his staff from Alaska—men he was comfortable with but, like their boss, short on combat experience—Buckner reported to Hawaii on September 4. He meant to prove his mettle and to forge a genuinely joint force of army and Marine elements by including the Marines in planning the operation, by balancing army and Marine representation on his staff, and by making sure his army and Marine deputy chiefs of staff worked in lockstep. He also had corps commanders he trusted: army Major General John Hodge, a Smith commission member, and his old friend, Marine Major General Roy Geiger. Hodge and Geiger, who had served together on Bougainville and Guam, held one another in high esteem and often conferred on training and other matters.
Brigadier General Oliver Smith, Buckner’s Marine deputy chief of staff, quickly came to appreciate the professionalism Buckner and staff displayed, although their dearth of combat experience gave him pause. Fearing that in his push for staff parity Buckner had been overly inclusive of the Marines— nearly 60 out of 120-some men—Smith persuaded his boss to reduce the Marine staff complement to 34.
Early on, Buckner toured the Tenth Army’s divisions as they trained, to see how his staff could help. The 2nd Marine Division’s regimen, particularly an internal Japanese language school, impressed him. Wary Marine commanders soon warmed to the gregarious army general, especially after he accepted combat-tested commanders’ advice on training.
Not everyone applauded Buckner’s commitment to a completely joint force on Okinawa. General Douglas MacArthur, named supreme commander of U.S. Army Forces Pacific in April 1945, viewed Buckner’s amity with the navy as “selling out” the army. Two months into the fight, army general Joseph Stilwell—who had long angled to lead an army onto mainland Japan—labeled Buckner a turncoat for trying to harmonize with the naval services. Stilwell, whose nickname of Vinegar Joe was no accident, dismissed Buckner as a Pollyanna. In his diary Stilwell wrote that, as far as the Tenth Army’s leader was concerned, “Nimitz is perfect. His staff is perfectly balanced. Cooperation is magnificent. The marine divisions are wonderful. In fact everything is just dinky. His own staff is perfect—he picked them himself. It is all rather nauseating.”
Stilwell even scorned Buckner’s choice of replacement should he be incapacitated as “playing” the navy. Protocol held that if Buckner could not lead, command on Okinawa would pass to garrison commander Major General Fred Wallace—the operation’s senior army officer after Buckner. Buckner instead named Roy Geiger, less out of friendship than because the Marine had a splendid record of interservice leadership, specifically of army divisions on Bougainville and Guam. In addition, Geiger had served or was friends with every army division commander fighting on Okinawa.
As certain as he was that Geiger would not play favorites or condone excessive interservice rivalry, Buckner also knew that picking Geiger would rankle army types, notably Richardson, who often carped that Marines had no business leading anything larger than a division. In his diary, Buckner wrote that Richardson’s reaction “will be entertaining since he mortally fears and distrusts Marines.” Unfazed, Buckner sent Richardson a memo designating Geiger, which Richardson was to endorse and forward to Nimitz. Richardson balked. Rather than fight his boss while fighting the Japanese, Buckner dropped the subject; once the battle began, Tenth Army would be out from under Richardson’s administrative control. However, Buckner made sure Oliver Smith let Geiger know he had tapped him.
That informal alert would prove prescient. When shrapnel kicked up by a 15cm Japanese howitzer claimed Buckner, Geiger assumed command, becoming the lone Marine to lead a field army in the war, albeit only briefly. MacArthur named Stilwell, in Honolulu, as permanent commander of the Tenth Army. However, by June 21, Japanese resistance on Okinawa had collapsed. With the Americans on the threshold of the Japanese headquarters and Stilwell en route to take over, Geiger declared the island secure and raised the flag, thus reserving the victory laurel for his late friend and comrade.
There is much in Simon Bolivar Buckner the combat commander to debate. That conversation, however, often neglects the fact that in modern warfare no service ever fights in a vacuum and that a commander who wants to win must set aside ego and partisanship and work at collaborating with companion services, as Buckner did to laudatory result. “The Battle of Okinawa represented joint service cooperation at its finest,” a Marine history of the operation says. “This was General Buckner’s greatest achievement, and General Geiger continued the sense of teamwork after Buckner’s death. Okinawa remains a model of interservice cooperation to succeeding generations of military professionals.”
Another gauge of Buckner’s success is that throughout the struggle for Okinawa, he had Nimitz’s unstinting support. In a June 17, 1945, press release, the admiral enthusiastically endorsed the Tenth Army commander. A day later, a copy of that statement reached Buckner’s command post, though after he had left for the battlefield to watch a favorite unit—a Marine Corps regiment—in action. The press release was there when Buckner’s soldiers and his Marines arrived from the front lines, bearing their fallen leader.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.