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Record 34/959

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Oral history interview with Willis Buettner by Brad Larson for the Oshkosh World War II project. Mr. Buettner discusses his experiences in the Navy. He was awarded the Silver Star for actions while commanding an LCM (Landing Craft, Mechanized) on D-Day, June 6, 1944. A transcript is on a computer file in the archives. Willis Buettner Interview October 16, 2001 Conducted by Brad Larson {Initials BL represent the interviewer, Brad Larson; initials WB represent the interviewee, Willis Buettner.} BL: October 16, 2001 and I'm sitting with Willis Buettner in my office. Well Will, are you ready? WB: Oh, sure. BL: Okay. You know, one of the things I like to talk with veterans about is before Pearl Harbor. When there was a war in Europe. Did you follow the war very much prior to Pearl Harbor? WB: Ah, only whatever was in the papers because lack of TV and, at that time anyway. Other than the major battles that would go on you know, I really didn't follow it that much. Because I didn't think we would get into the war as such. You know. BL: Why? WB: Well ah, I thought that England and France and other countries could control, and Russia particularly could defeat the Germans and why should we cross the Atlantic Ocean to help them? Which later on of course was evident we had to do that. Because at Dunkirk, my wife, second wife [ ] was from England. And she said if everything that they had that could be used for war was lost at Dunkirk. And so she said that if the Germans had had some landing craft, they could have taken England without any problem. They were just that, just that vulnerable. But you know, we didn't know that part of it at the, until many years later. BL: What about what was happening in the Far East? Did you keep track of that? WB: Any particular country or... BL: No. Japan and China. WB: Yeah. No ah, remember at that time the war started in Europe I think in 1938 and I was eighteen years old. And I was more concerned about college and student teaching and those things than I was really about the war. So, as I stated in my sheet, even the day of Pearl Harbor, we were playing baseball. And oh, 'Pearl Harbor's been hit.' 'Okay, who's batting next?' So ah, and we were from such a small town, that the factory town, that ah, we thought, 'oh, well.' It would be something for New York to worry about or San Francisco or Los Angeles and ah, never thinking that someday I'd be doing what I did. BL: Well, when did the reality hit you? WB: Oh, well then during the course of the year, from '41, December '41 to December '42 things began to happen and ah, at first the pressure for anybody of military age was kinda pressured into enlisting, or joining or being drafted. I ah, my whole, my religious background said I should not be in the war killing people. So I did ask ah, I did get all the papers to get what, oh what's this, exemption for ah, religious purposes. BL: Conscientious... WB: That's it. Conscientious Objector. And when I looked at all of the things that I would have had to sign, I couldn't quite agree with everything. I would have been signing something without actually that strong against the war. But I did want to be delayed; I wanted to delay it as long as possible, if possible by having my mother as a dependant, which she was. Because my father had died in 1937 and so at that time, I was the only one home that was a bread winner. My older brother was gone and my older sister was gone. So I ah, in...the federal government said, "If you contribute $50.00 of your base pay, we will match it. So your mother will get $100.00 a month." Then I think I did that until about August of '42. And then the pressure got... the girlfriend I was with said, "You know, you're not helping the war effort much by not ah, eligible. You know, well why don't you go in and be patriotic?" And then all, it eventually got to me and I knew that according to the dra..., the status, that I was 4... it wasn't like 4-F but whatever it was, it was for a dependant. It was soon going to be taken away. And so ah, I thought well, I don't wanna be in a fox-hole. I never been on the ocean but I think I would rather be in the Navy where I have good housing and good ah, food and all of that. And so I went and joined, I went to be taken in to, to enlist in the Navy and you had to pass a physical. And so I'd hold out my arm and the doctor would take the ah, pulse. And because I was so anxious to get in, my heart kept going faster and faster. And he said, "Well, it started out all right but you're above the limit that we can take you." So I went back home, went to my ah, went to my family doctor and said, "You have said, and conditions show that I don't have a heart problem but I get excited when I want to enlist and they take my pressure. Is there some thing you can give me that'll calm down the heart so I can pass the physical?" Sure the Army'd probably take me but the Navy had different standards, maybe. So ah, I took the pill, I was sitting out in the waiting room and finally they called my name, and I put out my hand and he took it and he said, "Hmm. Pretty good. Oh, but it's beginning to speed up." Oh, no. So he said, "Well, it's close enough but I still can't let you in with the, the rapid heart rate." And besides, I wanted to get in the Navy air force and that would have been even worse. The physical condition was even more stringent for that. So he said, "Go lie down on the couch there." I'd had this mild sedative. I started to doze. And here I'm on the couch and all of a sudden he came over and I could feel him grab my hand. And he said, "Oops, you just made it!" You know, I didn't, I was awake but ah, so that's how I got in the Navy. And I'm glad I didn't get in the air force with the ah, 'cause he said, "I won't okay you for the Navy air force." But he okayed me for the Navy. With the rapid heart beat, something might happen while you're flying and he said it wouldn't be worth it. And when I saw all the casualties of people landing planes on the deck and not hitting the deck and all of the other things, I'm glad I didn't get in the Navy, air force. But an, so that's how I got in the Navy. I was sworn in on December 7, 1942, and then the sheet will say what I did from then on until I got out. BL: Bet your girl friend was glad, huh? WB: Ah, well I suppose, but I never saw her after that. BL: Oh, didn't you? WB: No. It wasn't a romantic, I mean a, she, we weren't engaged or anything like that, no. But I ended up with the girl that I knew in High School. I was a senior and she was a freshman in the high school band. But then I went to the university in Milwaukee and so she was still in high school for three more years. And so, eventually we went back, got back together and got married and had our daughter and that was it. BL: And now when you did go to midshipman's training, you were put in the amphibious force. Did you have any choice? WB: No. BL: How did that work? WB: Ah, you could lift something but ah, in this book, about 85% of the 890 ensigns all went to the amphibious force. A lot of us went to Little Creek and I think there was another one in Texas and one on the West Coast. And Little Creek, Virginia got the brunt of us. And that's where we got our training and picked up our craft that eventually we were going to be in charge of and so... BL: Do you remember what you thought of when you saw those little landing craft? The first time. WB: Yeah. No, not really. You know, it was one of those things that you were exposed to them beforehand and then when we finally went out for the actual training we practiced landing and retracting from the beach and we'd land again and retract again and that sort of thing. BL: Was it hard to learn? WB: No. No ah, I think I had enough natural ability that I didn't have to do a lot of thinking. On other ships, particularly the one I talk about, the LSM479, that captain, I was the executive officer, he was the captain - he could not handle the ship. He wanted to handle it like a car. And every so often, I'd say 90% of the docking, I did. He couldn't even navigate the ship to pick up the mail that somebody was going to throw a la...you know, a ball and a string to the ship so that we could reel it in and pick up the mail. He just had no concept of what to do. And the crew always knew when I was on, in charge, and when he was. And he was, he always found an excuse to get off the con. "Oh Buett, I gotta go to the head." Or, "I got, I'm thirsty. Why don't you take over?" And one time in particular, we were going in for some minor repairs and there was eighteen inches on the starboard side and eighteen inches on the port side. He couldn't even get close to it. So then again, he was thirsty so he went down. And the only way I could get into that place, if you had both motors going forward, you were going too fast. If you had only one motor, you were not going to be going straight. So I backed down on one motor to keep the craft from going too fast, and the other one was going forward to provide the steerage. And so we got in and it was beautiful. It worked out very well. BL: Sounds like it's quite a skill though. WB: Yeah. Well, and of course working with that LCM, that was two motors. Two engines. And you could navigate that just on a smaller basis compared to a big ship. BL: Well, was your job, on these landings now, did you actually pilot the craft or did you have a seaman and you were in charge of those three crafts? WB: Right, right. No, I actually, as you said. I was just in charge. But there would be times when I would get into the ah, controls and it was you know, like a square box and you'd get in and you had all your controls there. And so, there were times when the crew was tired. Sometimes I would say, "You people, we can operate this LCM with three people just going ashore." Two on the bow and one in the, doing the controls. On the power area. And so that's when I would do it. I'd beach the thing and then I would keep the motor running. In the Mediterranean, there's no tides. So you didn't have to worry about that. But in Normandy, you had to keep watching the tide, otherwise you'd be land, high and dry. Which helped at times, because one time one of the ropes or lanyards got entangled in the screw. And so then, we just beached it at high tide. When the tide went out, we could go underneath the boat and cut off the rope and free everything and when the tide came back in we could go out. By that time there was no more fighting so that we weren't sitting ducks or anything like that. BL: Describe for me what it would be like to land troops, say for example in Sicily. Describe for me what it was like. The procedures and steps and then ... WB: Oh, okay. We had the three LCM's on the cargo ship. And all the way from New York to Oran and they stayed aboard the same ship while we waited until we made the invasion of Sicily. And whatever ship we started with, we had to unload that ship first. So in the beginning I didn't really have many troops. Because the troops were on a troop transport where this was a cargo ship that we were on. And so we were taking in jeeps and trucks and tanks. And of course whatever men were involved with those because somebody had to drive em off. So they were army personnel. So we didn't have the deck full of army personnel because of the vehicles that we were taking ashore. So that's primarily what we did in ah, Sicily. Was to take mechanical equipment. BL: So a crane would these... WB: Right. Yeah. The ship's crane. And as I mentioned in there, a lot of these ships were not American. Very few. I think I unloaded a lot more foreign vessels than I did American vessels. And even at that, a lot of the American vessels were made in America but they were under another island or another country's control. And they are the ones that provided the people who ran the ships. The captain, from the captain on down so we really very seldom worked directly with American ships. The troop transports and ah, they had their own craft so our duty primarily was with jeeps, trucks and tanks. And get them ashore and then come back for, except for D-Day in Normandy. Even in Salerno, it was basically the same thing. Although once in awhile they'd say well, an LCI couldn't get in close enough, that was Landing Craft Infantry, couldn't get close enough so we'd have to go there, pick up the troops and take em ashore and then come back and do something else. BL: Let's talk about Normandy because that was different, wasn't it? You went in first. WB: Yes ah, we left Dartmouth under our own power and not just my three craft but this whole flotilla with one officer for every three craft. And we were on our way to what would have been Utah Beach or Omaha Beach and at that time, we didn't even know where we were going. Ah, but then that storm came and we had to go into Portsmouth harbor. Otherwise the storm would have probably done more damage to the craft than anything else. And that's when Eisenhower said, "We will not land today, we will postpone the landing one more day." And so then ah, so they had LCT's there; that's Landing Craft Tank, which were about 110 feet long, something like that. And they put a line from their stern to our bow. And they towed us until we got close to the beachhead from ah, in Normandy. Maybe we were three or four miles out by that time... BL: And you knew by that time where you were heading. WB: Yes but I didn't know anything about Omaha beach. All I knew is that we were going to Utah Beach. And that was it. And the people, the army personnel that we were to take ashore who were also on the LCT's, and then they came alongside the LCT's and they came aboard and each one of them had 50 pounds of explosives to blow up the... the Germans had used like railroad tracks in like a pyramid three way. And then on the top was a mine. If the boat hit it on high tide, it would blow up and on low tide it was exposed. And so the timing was it was just starting to be, the tide was just starting to come in. So they certainly didn't want us to get there when the tide was coming out. So these fifty army personnel were desi... were going to do that. They had the 50 pounds of dynamite and whatever else they needed. And of course that couldn't get wet. We could take em in so they could get wet up to their hips or so but anything beyond that the dynamite probably would have gotten too wet to be useable. Anyway, that was our order, to get em in as close as possible so that they would not be able to get their equipment and everything they had with them wet. BL: And you knew you were the first ones? WB: We knew we were H minus 30. Yes. Yeah. We had been briefed on that part before. Ah, but ah, you know, why I was picked, I can't tell you. But the rest of the other eleven people who were in charge, who also had three LCM's, came in in the afternoon on D-Day. But we had all been part of Salerno and Sicily. But for some reason the flotilla commander picked me in the first wave. And as long as I made it I don't care. But, you know, I often wondered, did he have a grudge against me? I don't why he would have. But anyway, that's, that was a little nerve-wracking after I saw well I'm the only one with real experience. How come the rest of my group? "Oh, well, they're coming in later." And that was the only explanation I got. So, as long as I made it that was okay. BL: Was it dark heading in there? WB: No, it was very cloudy because of that previous storm. And ah, but I think that if you remember some of those pictures. I probably should have ... it was quite hazy, but no, we could see, we could barely see the land and we could see the other, my other craft and that. BL: Did you know how heavily fortified and defended it would be? WB: No. Had no idea. BL: Was that a surprise to you? WB: Yeah. We're fortunate, I'm glad it was Utah instead of Omaha. Because ah, that would have been much worse. Somebody once said that we actually were a few miles off of where we were supposed to have landed. But that wasn't our fault because were just taking orders. They said, "Well okay, you go whatever degree..." We had a compass for whatever the heading was supposed to be and so we just went in there and that was it. BL: So what was it like heading toward that coast with those men? Was there very much talking going on in the boat? WB: None. None that I know of. BL: Everybody was quiet? WB: Oh yeah. Well you know. I would imagine if they weren't scared, something's wrong. You know, when you know people are shelling and ah, I had one of my craft, a shell hit the mast and kept on going. Fortunately it didn't explode there or that boat would not have made it at all. But that's the only one except for the other one that got hit. You know the ramp has a, has this cable that comes back and ah, so the ramp can be lowered without having somebody actually right up in front in the bow. And the shell hit the starboard quarter and broke the cable. And so then the ramp fell down. So here you got this big ramp stuck right directly in the sand. And it was well over the heads of any of the army personnel. So they had no way of getting in. And also, I wonder how they felt when they saw that five of their army personnel had been killed. BL: By the shell? WB: Yeah. And some others had been hurt. Ah but, you know. We didn't do anything with the five that were killed. The army came aboard and took care of that later on. The ones that were injured, that couldn't go ashore, we took back. We took to the hospital ship after we took the able-bodied ones ashore. Because they had that job to do. Blow up some of the land defenses along the shore. And so the injured ones, they weren't that serious that we know of, you know. I was not a medic so I don't know what, whether it was just shrapnel or something and ah, so we took them later to a hospital ship. And then there were others, LVP's, Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel. They ah, they were only 36 feet long. They could only take a Jeep. And maybe a smaller truck but not one of the big trucks or a tank. Because they were primarily for personnel. And some of them were hit. And I wasn't going to let them be sitting ducks so as long as we could keep moving, I went and gave the orders and it was a democratic vote. I said to the crew, "Is it alright if we go and pick up these men because their boat has been disabled. Let's have a vote." And of course they all said, "Let's go." And when I got my Silver Star, I said, "Well, what about the men in my crew? They agreed to do it." "Well, I'm sorry but you were the one in charge. You could have said yes or no. If you said yes, you get the medal. The five men in the crew don't get anything for it." That bothered me because they had agreed to it and they were just as much in danger as I was. In fact some of them even more so because they were... I was near the stern of the ship, of the landing craft and they were in different parts. We had to pull along something and they had to tie up to it while the men came aboard and untie and all that so they were working there. But they, the officer in charge said, "You're the only one that'll get the medal." I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't ... BL: Thinking back on that morning Will, what is the one thing you remember more about that landing than anything else? WB: Hmm. I think probably, and this is just a gut feeling, I probably didn't feel as scared of this landing, having been through Salerno and Sicily. And the fact that there were no mountains or anything. See, in Salerno you had the mountains of Italy and the planes would come between the mountain ridges and then they could strafe you and then head back under, into another mountain pass and that sort of thing. And they'd strafe the ship and you had no way of knowing when they were gonna come. And the land offensive was, the scariest part there was when we were told to land our craft and wait in case they were thinking that maybe we were gonna have to withdraw. BL: At Salerno. WB: Yeah. At Salerno. And so that's why that was a much more scary one. And so when I looked out at Normandy and just saw well, there's no mountains, ah two planes went over and I think if you saw that D-Day one, that D-Day movie, those were the two that we saw. And I was closer to being hurt with the artillery from the destroyers and the cruisers than I was from land because their 50 mm. shells were falling on us. And so we quickly got under a deck and waited until the two planes went. And So I wasn't that scared or apprehensive going in at that particular, at Normandy. And with it only lasting from say six o'clock to, by one o'clock you didn't see or hear another shell. The only two planes we saw were those two and so we didn't have, I didn't have nearly the apprehension about it which I did after having experienced that sort of thing in Salerno. BL: Well, you saw a lot of action and participated in a lot of assaults. Which was your worst? WB: Oh, in Salerno. Because of the five day period for one thing. Ah, and when the plane is coming and strafing the ship that you're on, sure if you're on deck you can run for cover but they were coming in pretty fast. Although fortunately as I mentioned in my paper, we could count the places where the bullets had hit. Because they'd start at the bow and of course the plane would come up so really we didn't have a lot of ah, bullets at that time coming it those of us say, in the midship or on the stern. By that time the plane had already started to go up. But the scariest part there, in addition to that was the, the standing by waiting to evacuate in case the German offensive was successful. And I think that would have been the worst part of it. Because you're taking people on and having to go away while somebody's behind you, shooting at you. You know, you're not going in and facing them although we had 50 caliber machine guns on the LS... LCM's. We never fired a shot. I think it was more psychological. At least we had some fire power in case we needed it. BL: Other veterans have told me that there's some experiences in combat that you can never be trained for. In other words, you experience things in combat that you can never be trained for. WB: Well, if they could, they would know exactly what's going to happen but there's no way of knowing what the enemy's going to be doing. And as I stated in my paper, if the paratroopers hadn't been dropped behind the beach fortifications, maybe many of us still would not be here. But they came from their landing spot toward the beach and got in through the back door of the bunkers. And when we went in, you could see all this black stuff because they had used flame throwers to roast the Germans so at least they were no longer effective in ah, shelling us or big ships or whatever they were shelling. And if you recall seeing that other scrapbook, you could see the many little bits of concrete that had been broken off. To me, they didn't do that because those walls were very, very thick. Very thick. BL: How did you feel about your enemy? WB: Well, I'm of German descent. My parents came from Bavaria. And ah, no I'm sorry, the grandparents came from Bavaria. My mother and father were born in the United States. And so other than the German name, B-U-E, that had absolutely no effect on that. At the time, I often wondered, what was their objective? Did they just want to rule the world? France? And they already controlled Italy. And the ah, going into Russia of course was their big mistake. Thank goodness. BL: Did you know about the concentration camps? WB: No. If I did, it didn't register because right now I have no ah, . I thought that was just another word for a prisoner of war camp. Which it obviously wasn't because most of these were Jewish people and other civilians that were in the concentration camps. I think the prisoners were in prisoner of war camps and were not considered part of the concentration camps. BL: When did you find out what was happening with these concentration camps? Do you remember? WB: After the war. Because when we went, when I went in the Pacific I heard [ ] except for when Germany, I think it was in May or June when Germany surrendered. And we were already in the Pacific sailing so that was just another day to us. We were no longer involved with it... No, I knew nothing about the concentration camps or anything like that. I do remember seeing some of the prisoner of war camps from a distance but that was all. And as I stated in my paper, when we went from England to the United States in Boston, we had quite a large number of German prisoners of war. And that's where I really got to know how the officers and enlisted men, who were not at all like our officers and enlisted men. Sure we didn't have the ah, enlisted men salute us. I don't know how it was when you were in but ah, in the morning when we had muster, everybody'd salute but that was it for the day. And a lot of the enlisted men I talked to as much if not more than some of the officers. Ah, you know going to the Pacific, you're under way a long time. And so we'd be standing on deck, beautiful weather and talking with Michaels and [ ] and some of the other crew members, talking to them. We weren't that far in age. I was maybe 23 or so and they were maybe 18 or 19. BL: You know, when you think about it, that's a big responsibility for a 23 year old. You had a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. Did you ever think about that? WB: I don't think... I think the fact that I had responsibility as a civilian in education 'cause I did organize a grade school band and I worked with parents and that sort of thing. Not very long but I did have some years, couple years experience in that. Ah, so ah, no I don't think that I ever felt anything either way. I thought, well if this is my job, I'll do it with the best, as best as I possibly can. And ah, in feedback from the crew and that ah, I don't know of anybody that felt that I was discriminating against them or anything. I only had one black in the entire crew that I had and he was a cook on the LSM. And he was such a character. He was so funny and he was lazy, I'm tellin ya. Not that he was bla...I don't care who it would've been but oh, he'd bring in the food you know and then we'd hafta, I forget his name now but we'd hafta, "Okay, you can come and take the food away now." And he'd take it away. That's all he did. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That was his job. But it was funny. BL: Well, you know, I'm going to check this tape here and see how much time we have before I put another one in. There must have been some fun things or funny things that you remember. Was there anything like that? WB: Mmm. Well, I know that when we were in the Pacific, we saw these flying fish. And so we'd get our Garand rifle out because each officer had one. And I don't think any one of us ever hit one. We could see the bullet hit in the water. But we never saw any of the [ ]. Because they flew pretty fast and they're not out of the water that much. But ah, we never had a USO group entertain anybody. They always went to the big carriers and battleships where there were thousands of people. And we were just a handful compared to what they were entertaining. BL: Did that bother you that they....? WB: No. No. One of the other amusing things was when we were in the Orient, the enlisted, some of the enlisted men and they said, "I wanna go ashore. I wanna see if they're..." They used to call them a cunt in the service, "is the same slanty, is the same direction slant as their eyes are." So they'd go ashore and when they'd come back I'd say, "Well, what did you find out?" "Nah, they're straight up and down. They're not slanty." That was one of the humorous things and I only got drunk once. We were in the South Pacific, in Leyte, in one of those islands and it was a beautiful warm day and we were under a canvas and we didn't move for several hours. We just kept drinking beer and that and maybe something else. I don't remember. But by the, then we went out, out of the sun, the hot heat of the sun. The boat going to the LSM479, and by the time I was ready to walk up the gangplank, they didn't call it a gangplank, the ladder ah, I was feeling no pain. And a couple of them recognized what was happening because some of the people obviously had to stay aboard the ship; we didn't all have liberty at the same time. But that's the only, that's the only time. I laid down for a couple of hours and it was time to eat and that was it. But ah, oh... BL: How about some music of the war years? Do you remember having any favorite songs that you ah, recall the war years that bring back good memories for you? Or perhaps not, maybe bad memories. WB: Well, we had no, we had no ah, music on the P.A. system. So if we heard any music, it was just home. When I was home on leave. And that was just that one month from England, going to Texas to pick up the LSM. And if I could re..., I know I heard some but I can't remember the titles. I'd have to go back and look at them, listen to them and see if they brought back any memories. BL: Going to the Pacific and now you have to fight a whole new war, you have to fight the Japanese island by island. What did you think about that; do you remember? WB: In some cases, because we had heard of some of the ah, islands that the Japanese had ah, captured and what they had done to the soldiers, not necessarily the Americans but the Australians and other allies that were also there. It was a bit frightening except for the fact that I always felt that we were not going to be on the island for fox holes or walking. We'd be taking people there and equipment but I myself would not be going ashore. So I didn't, wasn't that alarmed about doing it. But ah, by the time we got there, most if not all of the Japanese offensive had ended. BL: When did you get there? WB: Ah, '44 was D-Day. It was in '45. Ah, and not until, see when I went to pick up the LSM, we had a shake-down cruise and then they came back to Galveston and did a few more adjustments and you know, took awhile before we actually left Texas. Then we went through the Panama Canal. Then we went up the coast to Long Beach, California, and they added two more guns to the LSM. And then we went to Hawaii and were there for two weeks. Sure and all this while, sure we were in a convoy but no torpedo's going to hit a landing craft that only draws six feet of water. You know the torpedoes, the waves and everything would knock them off course. So we never felt that we were in any real danger from the Japs from that standpoint. Then we went to Guam and they had to unload these poles that we had in the ah, in the tank deck of the LSM. And then we went to Leyte and the Philippines. And by that time, the Philippines were pretty well cleared. Ah, and then we'd go to some of the islands and take the equipment to Luzon, unload it and then go back and pick up some more things and we never once saw a Jap or anything like that. Except for Moratai. I think you might remember, that's where the destroyer brought in a Japanese hospital ship. That had a, the officer of the deck noticed that they were only drawing, they were drawing fourteen feet of water coming from Japan. And if they're empty, they should only be drawing about eight feet of water. And so he organized, a navy captain organized the boarding party and that's when we were there and they were unloading, I don't know how many of, I just said a few hundred Japanese fully armed troops. And I went, one other officer and an enlisted man were with me; we wanted to go aboard the hospital ship to look around and see what it was like. And the odor was just too much for me to understand and the other two they didn't very far in and they turned around. So I never got to see what a Japanese hospital ship looked like. But ah, BL: I'm gonna switch tapes here for a minute. WB: Alright. BL: Will Buettner, tape two, December 16, 2001. Did you know about, I'm sorry, is that what I said? October 16th, gosh, sorry about that. Did you know about Kamikazes? WB: Yes. Yeah. But, again, we felt very secure from that standpoint. Are they gonna risk or waste a Japanese fighter plane and a pilot on a 210 foot landing ship? You know. Why not hit a carrier, or battleship, or cruiser or even a destroyer or LST. And I don't know if you are aware, there was a ship even larger than that called an LSD (as in dock). Landing Ship Dock. And they could take an LST, LCT, LSM, LCM, all of the landing craft in there, they would lower the ah, they would load the tanks onto the decks with water and it would sink far enough so the ship that needed repair could go in the LSD and get the repairs and in order for them to be in dry-dock. And then they'd pump out the water that they had used to lower the ship and then they could work under on the, you know, the propellers and anything that needed some ah, some work. And then when they were ready to sail, when the LST or LCT was repaired, they would again sink the LSD low enough so that the water would come in the bow and then they'd back out of the, after the repairs were done. I don't know how many of those were made. I only saw two so I don't know if there were only two or if there were more. And this was only in the Pacific. I never saw them in the Atlantic. So if they were there, I doubt it. BL: Did you, thinking now you're getting ready to invade Japan. The homeland of Japan. How did you feel about that? WB: Very scared. I was more scared there because of what you were talking about, the Kamikaze and the fact that the Ger... the Japanese felt that they were dying for the emperor. If they did some, you know, it wasn't a question of "should we do it or shouldn't we? We're doing it for the emperor." And so ah, I was really very, very apprehensive about having to make an invasion of Japan. Fortunately, I'd have been on the LSM and I think I would have been up on the 'con' with all those men around me and I'd look around so that I wouldn't be exposed. And ah, because I just, and maybe with the LSM we wouldn't, well, we probably would have been there at least on D-Day. You know because the smaller craft would go in first and then we could go in. Of course in Japan you had the tide. There it's almost like England where it might be 20, 22 feet tide and if you got on the beach and didn't unload quickly enough, you might be stranded for 12 hours before the tide would come back in and you could float out, you know. So I was, I was very, very, very happy when Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb. I think maybe one would have been enough but according to the research that I've read, the Japanese still weren't quite convinced after the first bomb on Hiroshima. That ah, then five days later they dropped it on Nagasaki and then the Japanese quit immediately. BL: Did you know what it was? WB: The atomic bomb? No, I had no idea. BL: How was it explained? Do you remember? How did they explain it? WB Just a huge explosion like a regular bomb except that it was a lot bigger and ah, you know, until we saw movies of it and pictures of it ah, our communications you know at that time were very, very limited. I don't even know how many of the crew and myself even knew what an atom was from that standpoint. How could an atom in an atomic bomb create that much destruction? You know it was mind-boggling to watch, to just see the 12 inch shells or the 16 inch shells and that sort of thing you could actually see them, like in making an invasion, you could see those 16 inch shells just lobbing over us. BL: Really? WB: Oh yeah. You could follow them. You know, it was not, they didn't come out like a bullet, like a rifle shot. So, no, I really felt that the ah, the invasion of Japan might have been my downfall. Really, I really felt that way. 'Cause I had gone through North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Normandy and I thought, you know, eventually your time is gonna be up regardless of how lucky you've been in the past. So I ... BL: So you were pretty happy when they dropped the bomb? WB: Oh, definitely. And of course the first one I think was dropped on August 14th, or the second one whatever when the Japs, the formal surrender wasn't until ah, September. But my birthday was August 14th and I think that's the date the Japanese said they would surrender and the formal surrender, signing was in September 7th or 9th or something like that. By that time, we were there. You know, but not for the signing but we, we were taking troops, we were making trips to Japan for, with ah... Primarily at that time, yeah I did have vehicles because it was the LSM. We had a lot of vehicles and maybe about a hundred army personnel or something like that. 'Cause we had along the starboard side and the port side there were ah, places there for troops to sleep. And stay, and of course they'd eat at our mess ah, hall and that sort of thing. BL: When did you get back home? WB: Well ah, from the first part of, from the ah, August and September we made two trips back to the Philippines to pick up personnel and take em to Japan. On one of the trips, if we went south, we ran into a typhoon for five days and after we picked up the equipment - 'cause we were going empty - to the Philippines to pick up more supplies and trucks and that, and tanks. And then on the return trip, one of the two - I forget which one it was, the hur... the typhoon was behind us. So here you're goin up the wave and all of sudden you're goin backwards and then you go up another wave. And then you go, you don't make much headway either way but nevertheless for five days you're... And some of the crew were just sick the entire five days. 'Cause that, that, you're not cutting through the water like the.... I don't know if you remember forty feet of the Portland cruiser broke off in one of those typhoons. Because they cut through the water and they had this whole weight of the water on the bow and it sat in...up to forty feet. Fortunately with the watertight doors all around, the Portland didn't sink but they did lose thirty or forty feet of their bow. Where we would ride up above it. And then we'd go to the top, the crest of the wave and then we'd go down into the trough. And then up and so on. 'Cause we never cut through the ah, the wave. And so we always stayed afloat. In fact, one of the LSM's had one engine that failed as we were going down and it made it all the way to the Philippines even though it only had one engine in that, in that storm. BL: One of the things you mentioned to me when we talked last week is your job as an officer was as a censor. You censored the mail. Tell me about that. WB: Well, it was much more censorship in the European theater. Because of, we were so close to the action and all of that. When we were in the Pacific theater, there wasn't much that they could say relative to what they had seen or what we had done. What we were doing. So ah, sure there was a lot of "I love you" and this sort of thing and that sort of thing. I think probably if I cut out, 'cause we hadda cut out the thing. We couldn't just cover it. We were supposed to cut it out. One of em said after Salerno we were gonna go up to England and so then I hadda, I cut that part of it out. But there wasn't that much censorship because they knew that we were gonna read the letter. And so, why bother to try to say something, have it cut out anyway. But, you know it was interesting. If there was a code with any of them, I don't know. You know, they might have said, "Give my regards to Josephine." And maybe that meant England or something else but then that would be between those two anyway so if they got ahold of the letter which was the only reason we did the censorship. I don't recall ever censoring anything in the Pacific. BL: Did you get mail very often from home? Either in the Pacific or in the European theater? Did it come regularly? WB: First of all, the word 'regularly' would be very difficult for them to do with us moving so much. I think if you were based in Oran or some place, you could get your mail maybe every two weeks. But they would have to follow us and I think more of us wrote home than received things from them because ah, of the moving, you know. BL: I have a question about war production, Will. Did, did you and your shipmates, were you conscious of America's war production? What was going on back home? WB: Only from the standpoint of seeing a newsreel or something like that. And the fact that so many women were working as welders and I forget what that song was about the women doing shipbuilding or doing this and that. So yes, we were aware of that. BL: Do you remember what you thought about that? WB: I always felt that the product that we received was very well done. I never had any complaints. And ah, I would imagine they were turning out like LCM's, maybe thirty or forty a day. I don't , I'm just guessing. And ah, because there were an awful lot of LCM's and LCDP's. And of course the bigger ships were not produced nearly as often as the smaller ones. BL: Did you ever think that the allies might lose the war or did you always have a sense that we would win? WB: Well I always felt that there would be no doubt that we would win. BL: Why? WB: First of all, because ah, the pride in America and the ingenuity and the assembly line making of, producing ships and trucks and tanks and... If you saw like when we were in New York loading some of these ah, cargo ships, when you saw literally acres of trucks and everything else, you knew that you were gonna have, the men were gonna have sufficient supplies. And so we assumed if we had trucks and tanks, they would have the ammunition that would go with it. You know. So no, I never ah, never felt at all that we would ah, that we would not win the war. And when the Japs did not do anything other than Pearl Harbor and everything west of that, then I you know, what was there to fear them and San Francisco or Los Angeles or Seattle or any place like that. So no, I had full confidence, really, really. 'Cause we all, I always had good men as part of the crew. I only had one officer that I would say ah, did not use his mental ah, capacity as an officer as he should have. We were in Tokyo Bay and we were going someplace toward a ah, to pick up something and I wanted to leave the 'con' so I told the other officer that was really on the 'con'. I was just there as the captain, rather than on duty. So I said to him, "Head zero-one-one. I'm going down to get something to eat." And we were going to go wherever the place was, so I'm down in the mess hall, and ah, the officer's quarters, and eating. And all of a sudden the ship stopped, hit something and jarred me. I mean you know I was sitting there, so I quickly ran up on deck and here the officer had taken me so literally, that even though he could see the pier and the bank of the ah, body of water we were in, he didn't change course. He stayed on zero-eleven until he hit the bank. I said, I said, "What in the world were you thinking?" "Well, you said..." "I said keep on course zero-one-one." I said, "But that doesn't mean that you have to hit the bank or the ah, it's up to you as an officer to think, 'okay, I'm going to avoid that. I'm going to go a little more to starboard or port or whatever.'" That was the last time he did any controlling of the ship. So that was the only, the only party ... any one of the enlisted men would have, you know seen that there was no point in continuing on that course because we were gonna hit land. Ah, oh, so that's the only officer that I didn't have much faith in. Not much at all. And of course I knew nothing about the engineering. Sure I knew we had Fairbanks motors or General Motors as part of our power plant but I could, if something woulda happened I had absolutely no idea and so the engineering officer, you relied 100% on there. And of course, he never stood any watches on deck because his watch was down in the engine room. BL: Well, that's one thing about the Navy. I can speak from experience. Now in the Navy, it takes an awful lot of trained men to run a ship. A lot of different men in a lot of different areas. WB: Yes. Yeah. And a lot of the things, I probably, well I shouldn't say probably. I didn't know how to operate but I knew the principle behind them. And somebody else had to take care of repairs and maintenance or whatever it was. Because I was just there to guide the ship and run the ship. That I knew. I knew how to handle the motors and all of that but BL: Sounds like it. WB: Yeah. Yeah. Because if something had happened to one of the motors, I couldn't have fixed it. I had no idea what to do. If a gun jammed, I wouldn't know what to do. I just knew that they had 50 millimeter or 20 millimeter or whatever. But ah, it was the "leadership" that ah, the captain was there for. And ah, when you have a lot of, a lot of my crew at the time were just high school graduates. You know. And some of them, I remember once one boy was a hillbilly. He was the nicest, most gentle person but he just didn't have much upstairs. He just, you could tell him anything and he would believe it. And the crew played a dirty trick on him. They sent him to two or three ships to get a bulb for a color movie. He had no idea that the movie, what it was. And so the other ships, we had done this before. With other people, with other crew members. But he was the one, most sincere. Finally he came back and he says, "I'm sorry but none of those ships have a bulb that we can use for a Technicolor movie. I'm sorry but I did whatever you told me and I went to these three or four places." And of course they kept saying, "Now you go to this or that destroyer or you go to this, whatever." But finally, I took him aside and I said, I showed him the thing, I said, "Here's where the color is. They were just teasing you and ... we've done that with most new recruits when we get them." And so he didn't think he was all alone. Once in awhile we'd do that but most of them, when we started that they'd say, "Aw, come on. The color's in the film. It's not in the bulb." And so, but he was just ah, the nicest guy. Always called you sir. Always, even though with the older crew members, they didn't bother any more after that. They would call me mister but they wouldn't necessarily say 'sir' every time you'd see them. There was no saluting or anything like that. But ah, that was funny. BL: Well, Will, it's been a great interview. Is there anything else that you would like to say? WB: Ah, um, I think from the standpoint of, it was a good experience for several reasons. One was the fact of travel. Ah, hardly any of the crew members and myself had hardly, had not even been out of Wisconsin or the state in which they came from. Like this hillbilly from Appalachia. So that we did, when we got to ah, North Africa, we had access to jeeps and so we went through Tunisia and Libya to get to the Egyptian border. We didn't quite get to El Alamein. We did that as a civilian later on. But ah, you know in an experience like that, you would never, could hardly afford for one thing. The transportation to get there. And then Sicily ah, then of course Italy, and we did get into Naples after it was captured. But that was just by the dock, I mean we really didn't get to see Pompeii or any of those places around Naples. And ah, but of course the nine months in England was very good, you know. I'd taken that Jeep. We put a Jeep on one of the LCM's and taken it to England and so ah, we'd take turns. Four or five get in the Jeep and we'd go to Torkey {Torbay?}, Plymouth and London. We went a lot to London. As soon as you'd hear the air raid sirens, you'd duck into a store and go down into the basement or the underground or something like that. So ah, experiences like that you just couldn't get as a civilian from the standpoint of cost. Transportation and all of that. And how many of the people would have gotten to the Hawaiian Islands? We spent two weeks there. Just a few days in Guam, just to unload the stuff, but then we were in the Philippines for awhile and going along into Japan. When we were there, the only rule we had to follow in the beginning was never walk from, you never ah, [ ] the naval base, to Tokyo itself alone. Because you might be killed or beaten or whatever. So be sure there's at least four or five of you that go on liberty at the same time. Toward the end there it was a little bit better. You could get off the ship and maybe go two or three blocks alone. But you didn't venture very far. We would walk down the street as a group and the civilian Japanese would spit and never really hitting us but they'd either spit in front of us or on the side of us or behind us and because of what we had done to them. They never thought about what they had done at Pearl Harbor or other places. But because of the atomic bomb, why, it affected them so that... But experiences like that nobody could have imagined or could have done as a civilian. And to me, along with my wife, it put us in the travelling mood and as soon as we could afford it, that's when we went to all seven continents and 89 countries and three times in Jap... I mean three times in China. I think we've seen more of China than probably 1% of the Chinese have. You know. The same way with the Soviet Union. The places now along with Afghanistan, we were along the border. We never drove into Afghanistan but we did go along the border. Uzbekistan there. Albata {Alma-Ata?}; some of the bordering countries. It was a very, very nice tour. We saw the cultures of those people. They were in their native dress and they outnumbered the Russians by three to one. But the Russians had the guns and the political power. So Uzbekistan couldn't do anything; Tadzhikistan, oh there are four or five countries right along in that area that were extremely interesting but I think because of the war, having seen other cultures, it just made us more interested in seeing those things. Not just going to going to Moscow. Moscow was fine, but you want to do something besides just Moscow. But we did get in parts of the Kremlin and I'm trying to think of that church in ah, in Moscow. You know you always see these domes and all of that. Anyway we got in that one. But generally we would go with tours with ah, with those countries. BL: Okay, Will. Thank you very much.
Oral History Interview with Willis Buettner -WORLD WAR II -Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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Willis Buetner & Officers

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