Buckner was born on 18 July 1886 in Munfordville, Kentucky. The following year, his father, Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, would become Governor of Kentucky, and, later would try, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the senate. Buckner Jr. attended Virginia Military Institute and then West Point military academy before being commissioned in the infantry. He served in the Philippines, and then, during WWI, in the Washington D. C. offices of the air service. Thereafter, he was employed as an instructor at West Point and other establishments, developing a reputation as an exacting drillmaster.
In 1940, Buckner was promoted brigadier general (major general in 1941) and placed in command of the Alaska Defense Command, a position he held until 1944. He is said to have worked diligently with very limited resources to build air bases and train the only combat infantry unit in the area, but clashed repeatedly with the commander for the northern Pacific. He saw some action when the Japanese attacked a part of the Aleutian Islands, and proposed an advance on the enemy from Alaska - though the idea was not adopted.
Having been promoted again to lieutenant general, Buckner was sent to Hawaii to organise the 10th Army (comprising army and marine corps units), and charged with invading the strategic Ryukyu Islands. The Battle of Okinawa, between April and June 1945, was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, partly because of the ferocity of the fighting and the intensity of Japanese kamikaze attacks, but also because of the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armoured vehicles employed. Indeed, it is considered the single bloodiest conflict in the history of the US Navy. Subsequently, the US was reluctant to invade the Japanese mainland, and it decided on the use of atomic bombs.
Buckner left behind a logbook with handwritten diary entries of the Okinawa campaign. The military historian Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, now an associate professor at the Newport Naval War College, put Buckner’s diary together with a journal kept by his successor Stilwell and edited them for publication in 2004 by Texas A&M University Press as Seven Stars: The Okinawa Battle Diaries of Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. and Joseph Stilwell. He suggests three reasons for giving importance to the two diaries: ‘as history, these journals offer a new window into the last days of World War II’; they are a record of high-level leadership in conflict; and they provide a unique opportunity to witness the conduct of joint operations (i.e. marine and army corps). Some pages can be read at Googlebooks and at Amazon.
12 March 1944
’After lunch we went out with Adm. Turner in his barge and boarded our command ship the Eldorado. . . . We sailed shortly before six, a long looked-forward to occasion.
After sailing, Turner took me aside and dwelt on the difficulties and uncertainties of our mission which he characterized as a “son of a bitch” and asked what I thought about it. I expressed confidence and started to argue him out of his misgivings. I found then that he wasn’t worried at all, but was trying to find out if I was.
After supper, Turner talked to Post and myself about the shore party setup of the Marines whom he has less confidence in along these lines than he has in Army units. He said that the Marine shore party work at Iwo Jima was poor, particularly that of the V Corps and the 4th Div.’
6 April 1944
‘The Japanese cabinet fell today.
The northern flank continued to advance without opposition and the southern force [began] to [encounter] a strong Jap position.
During the morning Adm. Spruance came aboard and with Adm. Turner and myself conferred on the next phase of the campaign. We all were in agreement. Adm. Spruance’s flagship had recently been hit by a suicide plane whose bombs went completely through the ship, broke a propeller shaft and exploded on the other side of the vessel. He is now on the New Mexico.
From 3:30 p.m. on we were under constant air attack largely by suicide planes. Six or seven ships were hit, mostly destroyers in our picket screens. Also an ammunition ship which was abandoned.
Very few planes got to the transport area. I saw only four hit the water near our ship.
An ammunition dump blew up on Kadena airfield and a gasoline barge burned on shore - possibly from falling anti-aircraft shells that shot down a friendly plane and caused 41 casualties in shore parties.’
4 May 1944
‘Last night heavy air attacks struck Yomitan field and the fleet. Eight men were killed in a Hospital. Our CP and the field were shelled again. In the south the Japs tried to envelop both our flanks in barges and penetrate the center at the same time during the night that the air attacks came (about midnight). Each attacking force was a Bn. Naval gunfire sank the eastern Bn, the center was stopped but the western group got ashore opposite the 1st Mardiv. About 200 in one group were killed but part of another group got inland with about 80 Jap infiltrators that are still at large.
After breakfast I had a staff meeting and gave out decision regarding the capture of neighboring islands for radar stations to control planes. Adm. Turner is impatient about this, so the 2nd Mardiv will have to be used if speed is important.
Spent the day at Ie Shima. Thomas (Iscom) recovering from pneumonia. Interviewed his staff to see how I could help their project. They predict readiness of field for fighter group; May 12. Adm. Spruance sent staff officers to find out date. Our land based planes shot down 45 Jap planes today. I sent congratulatory message to Mulcahy - my third.’