Cubs players, fans honor Buckner

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Bob arriving
Bob Buckner, Elkader, was honored at a recent Chicago Cubs game for his service during WWII.

By Pat McTaggart
Freelance Writer

Editor’s note: Elkader resident and World War II veteran Robert Buckner is a life-long Cubs fan. Last week, his team honored him for something that happened decades before any of them was born. His story follows.
In November 1943, future Central Community School District Superintendent Robert Buckner enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of 17 after graduating from Marion High School. About 15 months after his enlistment, he found himself embroiled in the costliest battle in Marine Corps history—battle for Iwo Jima.

Buckner landed on the southern part of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, with Captain Higgins’ E Company/ 2nd Battalion of Colonel Chester B. Graham’s 26th Marine Regiment.  The regiment was part of Major General Keller E. Rockey’s 5th Coming ashore, the first wave of Marines had to contend with little more than the thick volcanic sand that made movement difficult. That soon changed as pre-sighted Japanese artillery started pounding the invasion beaches and superbly camouflaged machine gun and rifle pits started spewing out a deadly fire.
“The first day was terrible,” Buckner recalled many years later. “Almost 1,000 men from the 4th and 5th Marine divisions were killed that day. We knew that it would be a long campaign.”

It certainly would be a long campaign. The battle lasted from February 19 to March 26.  During that period, the Marines on Iwo suffered a total of 26,040 casualties, including 6,821 killed. That amounted to 35 percent of the Marines involved in the battle and was the equivalent of one and one-half divisions. The Japanese had 21,000 fatalities, just about the total number of defenders on the island. It was the only battle in which the Marines had more casualties than their enemy had.

Buckner was in a front-line rifle company, but says that he never saw a Japanese soldier up close. By the sixth day of the battle, all seven of his officers and most of his non-commissioned officers had been eight killed or wounded.
“The Japanese hit us hard on the second day,” he said. “We lost more than 50 percent of our company that day. One of the men wounded in the first days of the battle in the company was Harold Frick. I didn’t really know him then, but I knew the name because it was part of my job to know the name of everyone in the company. When I came to Elkader, I noticed the name and looked him up to see if he was the same Frick, and it turned out that he was.”
“On the fourth day my battalion commander, Lt. Col. Sayers, was badly wounded by an artillery shell,” he continued. “I was about 50 feet away from him. I made it to a foxhole and he didn’t. My company commander, Captain Higgins, was also badly wounded during the battle.”  
“The Japanese were dug in underground and for the first time (during the war) would not come out and fight,” he recalled. “They would pop up behind our lines and then disappear. Our riflemen would attack a position and blow it up, but the Japanese would only move to another underground location.”
After 33 days at the front, Buckner’s unit was relieved. They had started the battle with 265 men. Only 16, including Buckner, finished the battle without becoming a casualty.

“I only received a minor wound from shrapnel, but several times, sniper bullets went through my clothing,” he said.
Bob was discharged from the Marines in 1946 and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Dumbolton, that same year. He then pursued a career in education, using the GI Bill. He taught and coached at Central City for eight years and then served as Superintendent of Schools at Alburnett. In 1964 he accepted the position of Superintendent at Central, where he served until retiring in 1991.
On July 21, some 73 years after the battle of Iwo Jima, Mr. Buckner, as former Central students still call him, received military recognition at the Cubs-Cardinals baseball game in Chicago. His son, John, arranged the honor by first contacting the Cubs organization, who referred him to the USO. He was asked to fill out a nomination form, which was accepted, and was notified that his father would be honored at the July 21st game.
The Cubs’ organization released the statement for military recognition that was read to the crowd before the start of the first game of the doubleheader against St. Louis. It read:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please stand as we recognize from the United States Marines and a veteran of World War II, Corporal Robert Buckner. During his nearly three-year military career beginning at the age of 17, Corporal Buckner served in the Volcano Islands and in 1945, at the age of 19, was deployed to Iwo Jima. While in the Battle of Iwo Jima he was a captain’s runner with E Company/ 2nd Battalion of the 26th Marines. Primary duties included directing stretcher bearers and the delivery of messages and maps, along with food and ammunition.”
“Of the 982 men of the original 2nd battalion of the 26th Marines, he was one of 84 who survived. After the Battle of Iwo Jima he was assigned to the occupation of Japan.”

“The Chicago Cubs join Major League Baseball in thanking Corporal Robert Buckner, along with all our servicemen and women, for the courage and sacrifice in protecting our freedom and defending the United States of America.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Buckner didn’t hear the announcement. “I was down by the field,” he said. “It was near the dugout and everyone was talking, and it was pretty noisy. However, I did talk briefly to the Cubs Manager Joe Maddon, who signed a ball with my name on it.”
 “I have been a Cubs fan for 85 years,” he continued. “I looked up and saw about 40,000 people standing and clapping for me and it seemed unreal. Afterwards, a lot of people came up and shook my hand. It’s something that I will never forget.”

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