One of the first Americans to become involved in the effort to solve the problem of preparing for an amphibious operation did so by happenstance. The American involvement in World War II was only a few weeks old when Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion, signed up as a navy recruiter. One of his first recruits as a navy physical instructor was Phil H. Bucklew, a tall, rugged, former college and professional football player. Although he could not have foreseen it then, Bucklew’s decision to join the navy was the beginning of a career that was to see him on active duty in three American wars and give him a crucial role in the development of naval special warfare.
It was not long before Bucklew tired of leading reluctant sailors in calisthenics. When he heard of plans to set up a team of what were then referred to as amphibious commandos, he quickly volunteered. In May 1942, he became one of the first ten of the Scouts and Raiders.
The navy considers the Scouts and Raiders to be the direct—and earliest—forerunners of today’s SEALs. But despite the original intention, the Scouts and Raiders did not become broad-based commandos like the SEALs. In most of their operations, they were limited to direct support of the amphibious force, guiding marine and army units ashore. Later a few of them served with guerrilla units behind enemy lines in China, and many were blended in with the Underwater Demolition Teams involved in the campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific. Bucklew himself remains a somewhat controversial figure because, although he later commanded SEAL and other naval special operations forces in the Pacific, his career was an unorthodox one.
Bucklew had barely settled in as one of the early Scouts and Raiders when he heard two rumors. One was that preparations were under way for a landing, later in 1942, of American troops in North Africa. The other rumor was that he and his colleagues in the first class of Scouts and Raiders were destined to be assigned as instructors rather than going overseas to practice their new trade. He managed to convince his superiors that, if he was to be an instructor, he had better go to North Africa to see what a real-life landing was like.
Altogether, the Americans put some one hundred thousand troops ashore in Operation Torch in November 1942. While one landing force approached through the Mediterranean and struck at the central North African coast near Algiers, another moved through the Atlantic toward the coast of what was then known as French Morocco. There, forces loyal to the French government set up in Vichy after the German conquest of France fought to defend their African colony. It was here that sailors who had been hurriedly trained for the task attempted to pave the way for the first American invading force of the war.
While soldiers on the troop transports prepared to land, seventeen sailors boarded a small, wooden-hulled boat and headed up the Wadi Sebou, a stream that coursed through Port Lyautey (now Kenitra, Morocco). Their task was to cut the cables anchoring a boom and antishipping net stretched across the river directly under the machine guns and cannons in a fort overlooking the river. With the way cleared, American warships would be able to fight their way up the river and protect soldiers moving in to seize the city’s military airfield.
Things began to go wrong even before the small Higgins boat entered the harbor. A sudden rain squall cut what little visibility the sailors had in the dark night. And then a ground swell picked the boat up and sent it careening up the river, almost out of control. A red flare arced into the sky, and searchlights from the fort quickly made the small boat a target for the fort’s 75mm guns. With the chance for a surprise approach to cut the cable gone, the Americans turned and headed for the sea, only to be battered by the waves as they left the river entrance.
The next night, the cable-cutting crew loaded their small boat with explosives and set out toward the Wadi Sebou once more. This time, they slipped into the river without detection and made their way to their target, a one-and-a-half-inch cable, supported by a chain of small boats, holding the net across the river. Moving stealthily, members of the demolition team escaped detection and clamped explosives to the cable, neatly shearing it. The small boats, dragging their anchors, drifted off to the side of the river, taking the net with them. But a smaller cable stretched above the net apparently served as an alarm. As soon as it was cut, machine guns from the fort above sought out the American craft.
Their work done, the sailors headed for the mouth of the river, zigzagging frantically to avoid the fire from the fort. At the mouth of the river, they again encountered monstrous waves that nearly ended their successful mission in disaster. But they managed to fight their way through the seas to the transport. The craft itself had taken thirteen hits, but not a man was wounded by the French gunfire.
Bucklew was not involved in that first naval demolition effort. Instead, he was aboard the USS Leedstown off the coast of Algiers. Bucklew later recalled his baptism of fire as German planes began a bombing run on the Leedstown: “They didn’t come very close to us, but we had all hands topside, those not manning guns, and watched the bombs fall, but didn’t really have any near misses.” But while the Americans stared in fascination at the first enemy planes they had seen, a German submarine silently surfaced and sent a torpedo into the ship, sinking her.
Bucklew managed to survive this ignominious introduction to war and returned to the States to find the Scouts and Raiders training operation set up in a former casino near Fort Pierce, Florida, about sixty miles north of West Palm Beach. By early spring, he was back in Algiers and then went on to Malta, where he worked with the British in preparing for the imminent Allied invasion of Sicily.
In the spring of 1942, the British had formed a secret unit called the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties, or COPP, in preparation for the amphibious landings that lay ahead. The COPP swimmers used two-man kayaks. Special hoods encased the men’s bodies, but still the little boats leaked badly in heavy seas. To avoid detection, the swimmers made their scouting trips under cover of darkness.
In preparation for the landings in Sicily, four small British subs, about 150 feet long, surfaced at different points along the coast. Then the scouts clambered out onto the deck, stepped cautiously into their tiny canoes, and quietly paddled toward shore. Their job was to check the gradient of the beach, see if there had been any changes since the most recent charts had been drafted, and look for shoals and other underwater obstructions, then paddle back out to the sub.
Bucklew and the other Americans involved suffered no losses in these scouting operations. But the British losses were devastating. Five men were lost at sea, four were captured, and two, unable to find their way back to the submarine, paddled eighty miles to the island of Malta.
Daunting as the task of crawling up on an enemy beach may have been, the job of leading the actual invasion ashore was far more formidable. Bucklew was assigned to guide the soldiers of Gen. George Patton’s Seventh Army as they came ashore on the southern coast of Sicily, an unprecedented operation involving more than six U.S. divisions.
About one o’clock in the morning, with a quarter moon providing a glimmer of light across the water, Bucklew and his team of scouts climbed into a small motorboat and headed for shore. First they had to identify the proper beach, a difficult task because the flat landscape provided few visual clues. Then they made a fast pass from one end of the beach to the other, attempting to pick out landmarks at the borders of the beach. At one end, a soldier was put ashore. Then Bucklew sped to the other end and dropped another man to mark the spot. Each was equipped with a flashlight to signal his location.
Bucklew then backed off and watched for the two signals so he could center himself as the guide for the assaulting forces. As he did so, the Germans flashed on their searchlights and began pinging away at him with an 88mm gun. Fortunately the glare of the lights on the water tended to blind the gunners, making Bucklew less vulnerable than he felt.
As the landing craft surged toward the beach, Bucklew used the signals from his two flank men to guide the boats to the proper spot. But he noticed an alarming thing: enemy machine-gun fire was coming from the same spot as the signal from one of his guides.
“I was getting the flank signal with machine-gun fire coming right over it, and it [the signal] was steady. I found my sergeant on the beach the next morning and said, ‘What in the hell were you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, the pillbox was occupied. I felt the safest thing to do was to get my back right up against it.’ They were firing over his head. And he was sitting there safe with a shielded light. He was right under their fire.” For his bravery, the sergeant was awarded the Silver Star.
Bucklew later recalled the Sicily landing as relatively easy. Once the soldiers were ashore, however, the operation almost collapsed in the face of a vigorous German counterattack. The Americans and the British, in a companion landing operation, may well have been saved from disaster by the fact that the sites of the landings came as a surprise to the defenders.
Two months after the conquest of Sicily, the Allied forces were ready for a landing on the mainland of Italy, the beginning of the long, bloody, frustrating struggle up the Italian boot. Again Bucklew was designated to guide the invading force. This time he chose a two-man kayak instead of a powerboat, hoping to make himself less visible. He and Ray King, his boatswain’s mate, disembarked from a landing craft about three miles offshore and paddled in.
Behind them, a row of British destroyers began the bombardment of the German positions. But the British ships lacked radar and modern fire-control instruments. So instead of aiming upward and sending their shells arcing high into the sky and back down onto the target, they aimed low and skipped the shells across the water like flat stones, right over the tiny kayak. “A shell coming at you in that salvo looks like a big ball of fire, and it looks like it’s going to hit you right on the nose. It either goes over or it doesn’t.…” Bucklew recalled.
The fire from the naval guns was expected, if not exactly welcomed, by the two men in their flimsy craft. What they had not counted on was the sudden explosion of fire from another British ship carrying fifty rocket launchers.
“They went over our heads—the rockets have a tremendous roar—and they went overhead with a swish, swish, swish, and we didn’t know what it was,” Bucklew says.
Unlike Tarawa, where the problem was getting ashore, the problem for the army troops at Salerno was staying ashore once they had established a beachhead. The Germans had put their 88mm guns on tracks and hidden them in caves. The guns popped out, fired, and then slipped back into the caves, safe from the navy guns. The German defense was so vigorous that the army commander suggested a withdrawal. But the navy commander feared that an attempt to extract the soldiers from the beach would be even worse than leaving them there. It would be too much to hope for a repeat of the successful withdrawal at Gallipoli. Instead, he recommended a continued naval bombardment, which went on for three days of such intense fire that it burned out the guns on one cruiser. Finally the Americans secured their foothold on the Italian mainland and began their painful march to the north.