The Steeple at Vierville

[Memorial Day approaches, soon followed by the sixtieth anniversary of the D—Day invasion of Normandy. Military historian John B. Dwyer, author of  last week's article on John Kerry's Swift boat service in Vietnam, presents an inspiring story of military intelligence and heroism in Normandy — editor]

It stood less than a mile inland from the Normandy coast in the little village of Vierville—sur—mer.  Navy Scout & Raider officer Phil Bucklew saw it sometime in January 1944, during his first cross—Channel reconnaissance mission.  'I remembered little of the area but noted what appeared to be a church steeple in the background during the lighted star shell action.'  Bucklew would see that steeple again.

Allied planners for the upcoming Normandy invasion, Operation Overlord, needed all the intelligence they could get on the landing beaches.  Besides aerial reconnaissance, they employed various intelligence gathering methods, including scout units, to gather necessary information. 

A handful of U.S. Navy Scout & Raider personnel came to England in December 1943, veterans of landings at North Africa, Sicily and Salerno, where they had marked beaches and guided in assault waves from 36' Scout boats and kayaks.

Their leader, Lieutenant (j.g.) Phil Bucklew, a big ex—football player from Columbus, Ohio, had earned the Navy Cross and Silver Star for actions at Sicily and Salerno.  Along with fellow S&R officer, Grant Andreasen, he would now be assigned the mission of reconnoitering Normandy beaches. Arriving in London and reporting to headquarters, Bucklew was surprised to meet Robert 'Buck' Halperin and Joe Wood.  He hadn't seen them since late 1942 at Little Creek, Virginia, when they had all volunteered for the new special Navy unit and then undergone rigorous training together with the other volunteers. Halperin and Wood were already assigned to Admiral Alan G. Kirk's Task Force 122 staff, which was responsible for Overlord naval planning and preparations.

Bucklew and Andreasen traveled to the south of England where they practiced for their perilous assignment at Slapton Sands. When Adm. Kirk learned exactly what their mission involved, he thought it would be a good idea for them to study the Top Secret Overlord plans.  'Andy and I knew better,' wrote Bucklew in his memoir, 'but with smug egos we scanned the plans, target areas, etc.  The British learned of this, decided we were 'over briefed' and proclaimed that we couldn't be used in areas where we might be captured.'
Adm. Kirk came to their rescue, telling the Brits that the two would be sent to Escape & Evasion School before being sent across the Channel, effectively mollifying their objections.

For the next several weeks, the two naval scouts became part of a student body that included British airmen, Polish submariners, OSS personnel and a certain LT Phillips (a.k..a  Prince Phillip).  Instructors were people with first—hand experience:  airmen who made it back after bailing out over enemy territory and those who had escaped confinement or evaded German capture after Dieppe and Dunquerque.  Only French was spoken during meals, with Bucklew later noting that 'a major concern seemed to be the table manners of Americans.'

The scouts were then sent to the Isle of Wight, which served as the base for allied cross—Channel operations. They were shown the 36' boats the British were using, equipped with special radar gear,  a fathometer and hollowed—out sounding leads for scooping sand samples.  After several practice runs in these boats, they were ready to go. 
By the dark of the moon Bucklew and Andreasen were towed most of the way across the Channel by British PT boats, then released 'to make our beach approaches on our own power and stealth.'  It was after midnight now and everything was going according to schedule.  A friendly fog rolled in, cloaking the clandestine visitors, who made their soundings at 20 yard intervals 150 yards offshore, taking sand samples as they did so.  Then came a star shell fired by Germans on the beach, followed by a few bursts of machine gun fire. Unharmed, Bucklew and Andreasen withdrew into the fog bank.  Rendezvousing with their PT boat wasn't so easy. The scouts first had to maneuver through a convoy of six German coastal trawlers. Then back to base safely.  It was by the light of that star shell that Bucklew saw Vierville steeple. 

The sand samples the pair had recovered were analyzed by specialists to determine whether or not tanks and other heavy vehicles could traverse that beach sector safely. 

Bucklew and Andreasen made another cross—Channel trip, this time going into the surf line in a kayak paddled by a British commando  From there they swam stealthily shoreward, lying in the water, watching and timing sentry patrols, before going ashore to collect more sand samples and other useful intelligence.

On D—day the 6th of June, Bucklew and his veteran 4—man Scout boat crew were embarked aboard the lead LST (Landing Ship, Tank) in one of the assault convoys.  About 15 miles from the Normandy coast their boat was launched in choppy seas while the ship was still underway.  As they motored shoreward they observed intense gunfire, the eerie light of starshells and deadly paths of tracers off their starboard bow. With several hours to go until the scheduled landings, Bucklew began to wonder if he was still on course between Dog White and Dog Green beach sectors at Omaha Beach. It was vital to have accurate bearings because his scout boat would be shepherding an entire flotilla of Tank Landing Craft to their beach objectives. 

It was then that he saw a familiar sight. 'I've never been more relieved than by our arrival at the beach and the sighting of the Vierville church steeple fixed in my mind as beach center. Even the shore battery fire that greeted us was a relief, assuring us that we were leading the troops to the right area.' 

Bucklew still wanted to be sure he was at the right beach and made several passes along the shore line for positive identification as Germans tried to blow the Scout boat out of the water. He and his crew were especially harassed by enemy fire from the second floor of a beach fortification.  Rockets shot at it had no effect.  Then one of Bucklew's crewmen, a sharpshooter from Tennessee, took over.  'With Ray King manning the twin .50 caliber machine guns we made another pass. Ray kept laying in fire and neutralized the position. Cowboy King got his man.' 

As the Scout boat crew watched, the DD 'floating tanks' began making their way shoreward.  Launched too far out, many of them swamped in the surf line, their crews forced to evacuate, exposing themselves to death by fire or drowning.

Infantry going ashore sought any cover they could find, including mined beach obstacles the Naval Combat Demolition Units were trying to demolish.  Other infantry were forced to wade ashore.  Bucklew and crew did what they could. 'We eased in close with our boat and pulled many of them aboard, but the tide was receding and many of them were lost to machine gun fire in their exposed positions.'

What Bucklew doesn't specify in his memoir is that it was through his own efforts that those infantrymen were saved.  Exposing himself to enemy fire, he lay down in the boat's bow and using his great strength, hauled them aboard.  Ray King, meanwhile, was manning his machine gun and providing all possible fire support.

Unbekownst to Bucklew, that reassuring landmark, the Vierville steeple, had been demolished by destroyer fire after it became apparent that it was being used by Germans as an artillery spotting position. 

The next assignment for the scouts was traffic control at Easy Green beach sector.  Bucklew and his crew had just arrived when they learned that an infantry landing craft had hit a mine at the sector they'd just left, so they returned, rendered assistance and evacuated crewmembers, enlisting the help of two other boats along the way.

Hours later the exhausted scouts were finally relieved by another boat crew.  'We sighted our old friendly ship, the LST—314, and came alongside for a meal and some rest.'  But it wasn't so restful. The ship was subjected to an air attack, one of the bombs swamping their Scout boat tied alongside. After being cut loose, it sank with all their gear, not to mention their poker winnings.

Many U.S. Navy personnel earned Navy Crosses for exceptional heroism on D—Day.  LT (j.g.) Phil Bucklew was one of them.  Today, his name is found on a building at the big amphibious base in Coronado, CA, the Center For Naval Special Warfare, home of the Navy SEALs, for whom the legendary figure was a source of early leadership and inspiration.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian and Vietnam veteran, who served in the Fourth Infantry Division