This week’s Veterans Spotlight guest is about as old school as you can get. I was greeted with a warm smile and a vice grip-like handshake in the early afternoon by 96-year-old Jim Buchanan. “I’m getting ready to have a Scotch…you want one? Got some whisky in the cupboard, too.” After politely declining both offers I sat down for what turned out to be a delightful, intriguing and highly memorable interview.
Private Jim Buchanan proudly served his country in the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division from 1942 to 1945. No questions needed to be asked at the outset as Private Buchanan took the wheel. “I follow your column and like it...you got a kindred spirit for veterans…you tell stories…I’ve got a lot of ’em…never talked about my service at all but hell, I’m almost to the end of the line,” he chuckled.
Private Buchanan was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training, then sent to the European Theater. “I was in a couple of invasions, but the Battle of The Bulge (December 1944 to January 1945) was the worst,” he said. “So goddamn cold…a different kind of cold…just bitter.…When we went out on patrol we used to wear white bed sheets for camouflage.”
Adolf Hitler had launched a last-ditch effort at the Allies, drawing on more than 200,000 German troops and more than 1,000 tanks to combat four inexperienced American divisions in the Ardennes region of France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
“The Germans, they were real SOBs…murdered civilians…women, children…our own soldiers. It sickened me when we heard the stories,” Private Buchanan said, his voice dripping with disgust.
Another problem for the Allies came when English-speaking German soldiers (dropped behind the lines) disguised themselves as Americans. “We caught on pretty quick and the high command came up with a bunch of questions we could ask to trip them up. Stuff like what was Babe Ruth’s number?…things like that,” he recalled. “I’ll tell ya one thing, we had a hell of a lot more guts and determination than those SOBs, that’s for sure. We lost a lot of men, though. Young kids. We had tents used for medical hospitals…some guys froze to death.”
I mentioned the two Purple Heart medals he had on his wall. Private Buchanan brushed aside my question about them. “Ah, we were under heavy fire…I pulled one of our guys out right before he was going to get run over by a German Panzer (tank). We ended up blowing the goddamn thing sky high. The other? I dragged my captain that had taken [a bullet] in the gut…dragged him through a field near the Ardennes forest under heavy tank fire. Something like that,” he remembered.
Of all the stories Private Buchanan shared (I kept most of them off the record per his wishes, as several involved his personal heroism), the most horrific was about when he and his fellow troops arrived at a small town in Liege, Belgium. They approached cautiously, on guard against German snipers or a surprise attack. The Resistance had captured a group of German soldiers; one had raped an 11-year-old girl. “When our captain found out, he went right into where they were holding the soldier and shot the SOB.…Nobody said a damn thing, because we all wanted to do it,” he recalled.
When asked about the holidays overseas he responded similar to many of the World War II veterans to whom I’ve posed the question: “You don’t have holidays when you’re involved in heavy combat day and night. You only have hope that you’ll be able to get through it.”
Private Buchanan continued, “I learned a lot in the Army…saw more than I should have. Got out, came home and went to work…that’s what you did.”
I spent more time with Private Buchanan than I have with any other of my Veterans Spotlight feature subjects. To be in the presence of and sit with a man who served his country with the utmost bravery and is as humble as he is, that’s an experience I will never forget.
Still active (he keeps two-pound weights next to his easy chair), he has a wonderful sense of humor and enjoys a good, old-time movie on TCM. He still drives and does his own shopping. A remarkable man.
Private Jim Buchanan, a true hero in our society, thank you for your service to our great country.
Contact Wayne Soares at email@example.com