|Oral history interview with Willis E. Buettner by Gordon Doule. He discusses his experiences in the US Navy as a commander of an LCM (Landing Craft, Mechanized) in North Africa, Invasion of Sicily, Salerno and D-day where he was awarded the Silver Star.
Oral History conducted by Gordon Doule on April 27, 1994
B: My name is Willis Buettner, I am 73 years old. I was born in Carrollville, Wisconsin, which is now the City of Oak Creek, in 1920. My wife's name is Agnes and she's originally from Seton, England. We were married in January of 1969. I came to Oshkosh in 1969 as a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. I have one daughter whose name is Nanette and she lives in Florida, and my wife, Agnes, has one daughter who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
I went to high school in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then went to Milwaukee State Teacher's College and got a bachelor's degree to teach in music. My father's name is Ernst and my mother's name is Amanda. I've lived in Oshkosh since 1969.
The branch of service I was in was the United States Navy. It was a little bit short of four years, then I was in the Navy Reserves for another eleven years. I enlisted in December 7, 1942, is when I was sworn in; I had enlisted before that but was sworn in on December 7, 1942.
My thing I remember most about my home town was the excellent grade school education that we received. Nothing went by, we had to use correct English all of the time, and everything was, homework and everything had to be done and it was an excellent background for future education, secondary, and then the University. There was really no difference from the time I left my hometown 'til I returned after my service in the war. Teachers were the same, based on the exception of a few people who had moved on, the town was still the same small town it was when I left.
My service - after I was sworn into the Navy, they sent me to New York City to attend Columbia University for Midshipmen's School. I graduated 140th out of a class of 1400. I was commissioned as an ensign on March of 1943 and assigned to Little Creek, Virginia for amphibious training. June 4 we sailed from New York aboard the SS George Matthews for transport to North Africa with three LCNs, which are 50' landing craft, and we had 15-member crews divided among three landing craft. In July of '43 we invaded Sicily, at Gela. We had to stay in houses on the beach, and one thing I remember was that the local people would wait for us to empty our mess kits into a garbage can, and later on they would get their bowls into it and take the garbage we had discarded and take it home and eat it.
We returned to the land Algeria, to prepare for the invasion of Salerno, Italy, which was called Operation Avalanche. We left in October, we left [Bizerta, Tunisia] for the invasion. We had about seven days of German plane strafing, and one memorable experience was that the crew of mine, on the LCF, had to beach the craft for one night. We woke up the next morning and there were German tanks that had been destroyed within 50 yards of the beach. That was as far as the Germans could advance, from then on they were repelled and we felt reasonably safe. During this invasion we stayed aboard the ships we were unloading. When we would complete unloading the ship I would take my three craft, and go to another ship, so we spent time on ships of all nationalities,and we stayed until our [ ] Naples port was captured. December to June of 1945, we spent part of it, of course, going to England aboard an LST and they put our three LCMs aboard the LST. The LST had an engineering officer who said he had always wanted to see Gibraltar, so we took a part out on one of the engines, and disabled it and cabled Gibraltar for permission to come for repairs.
D: They did those things too, huh?
B: So we spent two weeks in Gibraltar, which I would have not gotten to see otherwise, and it was most interesting to see their fortifications, and we went to the Spanish border, and I remember putting one foot in Spain, and then one in Gibraltar, back and forth...
D: Gibraltar was a French possession...?
B: No, it was British. There were all British soldiers and British Navy there. Then we went to England and stayed at Dartmouth...
D: Where did you land on the island?
B: We landed in Plymouth, and we stayed at Plymouth Harbor for just a few weeks and then they sent all of us to Dartmouth College, which was the same as our Navy college, in England. We really didn't do anything in the way of maneuvers or anything until it was time to go to France. Our LCNs were told by British LCTs, because of the rough weather, they didn't want us to go there alone, we stayed in the LCT and as we got closer to the beach we went to our own LCNs and we arrived at Utah Beach and I landed with me three...
D: This is now...
B: This is June 6.
D: This is June 6? This was D-Day. I kind of lost you there for a minute, you were still going to England... on the Mediterranean.
B: Well, after we spent our time in Dartmouth, then we took our craft to Portsmouth and that's where we were hooked up to the LCTs. And then the LCTs they towed us across the Channel and we started out one day, and then of course, the weather was so bad, you know the history of it, the weather was so bad that we went back into port for another day.
D: They almost scrubbed the mission...
B: Yeah, right.
D: And then you left from Portsmouth...for the invasion...
B: Right...to go to Utah Beach. Our LCMs had Demolition Army Personnel who were to be landed [HR minus 30] so that they could blow up the fortification so when the regular Army troops could advance without having to be concerned about mines on the beach and so on.
D: So in other words, you were there before the troops got there, made their big landings. You must come under an awful lot of enemy fire, then, when you were doing your job?
B: Yes, one of my craft was hit and it was hit in front of the LCM and broke the cable that keeps the ramp up. So the ramp went down into the water and it became an anchor. So they were under, they were immobile, so I took my other two craft and went ashore, unloaded our personnel, and I came back to the third craft, the one that had been hit. There were five dead soldiers in the tank deck, and the rest of the soldiers very quickly came aboard my craft and we took them ashore, and as we pulled off the beach, there were other LCDPs (which are landing craft for personnel) that had been hit, so we rescued those people, and we took injured soldiers, also, and we went out to the hospital ship and they took the injured soldiers aboard, and the other people we took to transport. And as a result of that they awarded me the Silver Star, which I received over there.
The closest I ever came, that I thought to being wounded was from friendly fire. The one German plane that was strafing the beach - the Utah Beach and the destroyers and the bigger ships out in the channel were firing on it, but many, particularly 50 mm. shells, were not reaching the shore and they were landing on us and so we had to seek cover from the ship that we were unloading. And I've often thought that you shouldn't be killed or injured by your own friendly fire! But that's as close as I know that I came to be injured, at least, by our own personnel. We stayed at the beach unloading until Cherbourg was captured. The one difference between this invasion and the other invasion was that we had a mother ship this time, so we always had our own place to sleep and we had our own meals always aboard the same ship, though we had to do things differently, obviously, in the other invasion. Then, after the Cherbourg was captured they took us back to Dartmouth, England, and we had R & R for 30 days. We all wanted to get home, we weren't that tired but they said you need 30 days before we send you back to the States. So in October we got back to the States, and then they assigned me to Galveston, Texas where I was to pick up a new ship, a landing ship, an LSN, 479, where I was to be the Executive Officer. We took charge of the ship in November of 1944 at Galveston, Texas. After the shakedown crew, we sailed through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California, then to Hawaii, then to Guam where we unloaded a cargo of long poles that were to be used for dock construction. Then we sailed to Leyte in the Philippine Islands, and the one interesting and unusual experience we had in the Philippines, was when we were in Morotai loading equipment, there was a Japanese hospital ship that had been captured. And it was brought to the dock at Morotai. And an ensign in the United States Navy noticed that a hospital ship was going south, from Japan, fully loaded and it was drawing about 18' of water and normally a hospital ship going south wound be empty, to pick up wounded to take back to Japan. So the Navy ship boarded the hospital ship and discovered that there were over 1000 Army personnel fully, in complete combat gear, all below deck, and when they brought the ship ashore, to the port, we saw the Army personnel being marched off the Japanese hospital ship. We wanted to go aboard but the stench was so great that we couldn't get past the hatch way. And so we went back to the shore. It was just...an experience that I'll never forget.
D: Was it body odor?
B: Oh...See, they couldn't be out on deck during the sailing because then they would have seen that they were fully equipped. And because they were going south, they were supposed to be empty. But this sharp ensign discovered the reason for their drawing so much water when they were going south. But they had probably been on the ship at least two weeks coming from Japan...
D: ...Getting pretty ripe...
B: Morotai is very close to the equator, and so it was just...I don't know how they...of course, they were living in it. They could stand it, but I couldn't.
D: They didn't even offer any resistance...
B: No, no.
D: That's amazing. 'Cause Japanese didn't want to get captured.
B: Well, maybe they thought the boarding party would just look around on deck and then go back, but they wanted to go below decks and that's when they found the Army personnel.
D: You didn't really have a lot of fire power either...? Did you, at that time?
B: I was on the shore. On our craft...
D: When the hospital ship was captured, it was captured by a...
B: A destroyer.
D: Oh, by a destroyer, then they couldn't have offered any resistance.
B: Yeah, it was captured by a destroyer.
D: That's interesting.
B: We were assigned, in the Philippine Islands to take our army personnel from these various islands up to Luzon in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, Japan surrendered and we then were taking the same personnel up to Tokyo Bay in order to occupy Japan. And we made two trips in which we encountered two typhoons, which are extremely difficult to maneuver these landing craft 'cause they're nothing but on top of the water.
D: Not streamlined are they!
B: No way, and so the typhoons lasted at least at least week from the standpoint of where we started until we got through to the other end of it. But there were no ships that were sunk or were damaged in the typhoon
D: You proved your bilge pumps, though, didn't you?
B: And we also could see those people who didn't get seasick, which maybe half the crew was seasick and the rest of us managed to run the ship and keep it going. After that second trip to Japan I was, and by this time, I was a captain of the ship, we were assigned as a Liberty Boat, or a Liberty Craft to take people from aircraft carriers and destroyers and battleships to Yokosuka on Liberty. And an interesting event that happened here was, in the Navy the captain is in complete charge of the ship. And an admiral on one of the carriers wanted me to risk my ship to take his sailors ashore, on Liberty, but it was a very rough and windy day, and this carrier had the bow that slopes up quite a bit and I knew that, from experiences from before that if we went to an aircraft carrier the wind then would move my craft so that it would damage my ship alongside the carrier's bow. The admiral came aboard my ship and said, 'Have you reconsidered?' I said 'No, nobody will repair our damage here and I'm responsible for the ship,' and so they had to wait one more day until it got calm before they went ashore on Liberty. December 11 of 1945 I was relieved of my command, I had enough points to get out of the Navy. We sailed to Seattle and then to Great Lakes where I was discharged and stayed in the Reserves for the next eleven years in various... Stuebenville, Ohio, and then Wauwatosa. When I got to Oshkosh there was no room for my full lieutenant's rank, so then I figured I'd get out of the Reserves.
D: You wouldn't have had to go very much farther, either, to get a retirement.
B: No, but at that time I wasn't thinking too much of retirement.
D: You were still a young man.
B: Right. Talk about interesting, there were two officers in our entire European and Africa experience - B.C. Coleman from Columbia, South Carolina, and Bob Rodette. We were very close friends.
D: Where was Bob from?
B: Some place in New York. I can't quite remember the city, but I remember B.C. Coleman from Columbia, South Carolina, 'cause one time we went there to see if we could find him but he had left that particular area. He was a lawyer and when we went in the 1970s or so and there was no record of where he had gone.
B: Right. He was so sharp in Bridge that he could get to the end of a hand and the last two or three cards you have, he would say, you have this, and you have this - it was just amazing.
D: Did a little Bridge playing on board ships?
B: That's about all we ever did. I never gambled, I never played poker, or they would play Casino or some other card game - they'd use ten dollar bills, of course, instead of chips. But I was too conservative to take a chance on losing that kind of money, and P.C. Coleman was almost invariably the winner because he seemed to sense what the other parties had and he came out the winner many more times than the loser. Since then I've never kept track of them.
D: Have you kept in touch with anybody up to now?
D: Never gone to any of the reunions?
B: See, because our amphibious, it was such a loosely knit group except for the LSN 479, but that was only five officers and fifty-two enlisted men. So it was too small and we weren't together for that long a period of time. Some of the crew members - I enjoyed conversing or visiting with the crew members as much as I did with the officers...I had one super salesman, Harry Miles, who I often said he could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo in an igloo because he was just the smoothest talker.
D: What was his name again?
B: Harry Miles.
D: You don't know where he came from?
D: That's really interesting, because some people might hear the tape sometime - oh, I know that person...
B: I have it all written, I have serial numbers and all of that, 'cause I kept all of my Navy orders and that, but it doesn't list the home towns. But we had another interesting experience with, we called them hillbillies, from Tennessee - the nicest guy, but he was not very well educated, and not too bright, and so when we wanted to show a colored movie, we would say, well, we don't have the Technicolor bulb for our projector. So Jesse Oaks was his name, we said Jesse, go to this ship, and ask for a Technicolor bulb because we want to show a colored movie. And he would, very seriously he would go to that ship and come back and say, they don't have one either. So we sent him to another ship. Finally, one of the crew members said, twice, that's enough, you don't need a special bulb for a colored movie. The color is on the film not in the bulb. Either he was that naive or he trusted the word of an officer, after all, it was an officer that was trying to tell him to get the Technicolor...
D: Shame on you guys...left-handed monkey wrench...form stretchers...
B: Yeah, right, but I think everybody had something like that...
D: Oh, sure... you had to have some humor, my goodness. You know, with battles, and fighting that went on, you had to have some humor or you wouldn't have been able to exist.
B: Right. We had to...We didn't do that to many, because our personnel didn't change that much. So if we did it with Jesse we couldn't do it with anybody else on the crew, because they soon knew that o.k., that was not a valid thing, to get a Technicolor bulb.
D: Well, in those days, that was the very beginning of color film... I've got a lot of film from WWII and it's all black and white, no colored film. OK, well, now, how do you think that your experiences in the Navy during wartime changed your life?
B: I think it gave me the experience of wanting to see how other cultures live and what they do. So when I got married to Agnes, she wanted to go back to England, so our first trip was back to England and then we went to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and since then we've traveled every year, at least once or twice, to 87 different countries on all seven continents. So then, the travel experiences in North Africa, we went all the way to the Egyptian border, and of course Sicily, in Italy, and then of course France, nine months in England. One other experience that I didn't mention - when we left Africa to go to England on this LST, we accidentally kept a Jeep on one of our craft, instead of unloading it at Salerno...
D: Accidentally or was it by design?
B: Well, it was by design, but when we got to England, Oh! we got a Jeep in here, we must have forgotten to unload it at Salerno. We then had a Jeep to run around England. And so we went to a lot of these towns near there, [ ] and other places along the British coast near Dartmouth, so we had a ball. We had no training, we didn't have to train for an invasion [ ] but we had our own transportation there.
D: Tell me a little bit about your courting, of your wife, if you will. How did you meet her...
B: Roger Dennis, who was chair of the music department, and Betty McNichols got together one day, do you think maybe Willis would like to meet Agnes [ ]?
D: You met her here?
B: In Oshkosh. So they had a dinner, we played a little bridge and she had her own car and I had my car and eventually we'd call and talk on the phone, and go out and I'm extraordinarily happy that I met her.
D: I can tell that.
B: She's an excellent traveler. [ ] She broke three ribs on the Antarctica trip. But she was a good trooper, went to shore every day, and had to sit on shore [ ] pain [ ] walk around [ ] a lot. She didn't want to miss anything. [ ] an excellent traveler.
D: When were you married?
B: In January of 1969. See, I got to Oshkosh in 1959. My first wife left me under very similar circumstances to Agnes, her husband left her and my wife left me. And then I had five years without a wife, and we were married in '69.
D: Then you and Agnes had a community of interest that was wonderful.
B: She's an excellent needlework person at needlework and that, [ ] things that she has done.
D: O.K., I'm going to wind this down unless you can think of something else that would be interesting. These tapes are going to go into the Public Library and the Public Museum, so that I hope that maybe one hundred years from now somebody will listen to our voices and they'll get the straight story as we told it today, and today is the 27th of April in 1994. And the interview was conducted by Gordon E. Doule and it's Willis Buettner that was the interviewee. I'm sure, I am confident that you will find this very interesting. Thank you very much, Willis.
|Oral History Interview with Willis E. Buettner
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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