Capt. Winslow Buxton turned 100 years young on February 14. Living in Bellevue, Wash., he remains affable, pert and active. He was born in New London, Conn., and attended the Coast Guard Academy from 1934 to 1938. Before the war he served as deck officer aboard Coast Guard Cutter Mojave and executive officer of Coast Guard Cutter Tallapoosa, working on search and rescue cases out of Key West, Fl. In honor of his birthday, Coast Guard historian Dr. Dave Rosen sat down with Buxton as the veteran recounted his WWII adventures.
1942: Lt Buxton as executive officer of Coast Guard Cutter Comanche
The 1942 Greenland mission of the 165-foot cutter consisted of guarding the cryolite mine at Ivigtut, setting up the Beach Head Station, icebreaking, looking for any enemy personnel and helping chart the coast.
May: Comanche crossed the Arctic Circle just as the winter ice melted, escorting the cargo ship SS Bridgeport. It transited the 90-miles long Sondre Strom Fjord en route to the Bluie West Eight airbase at its inland end, about 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The delivery of aviation gasoline to the airbase enabled the trans-Atlantic flights to begin. Buxton was accepted into the Sons of the Polar Seas.
June: Comanche served as the visual aide and radio beacon at the fjord entrance to the main airbase, Narsarsuak, for the first U.S. Air Force trans-Atlantic flight of B-17s while the air control system was still being installed. The ship logged the arrival of 26 B-17s on that first day, from 2:40 am to 10:30 pm.
July: Comanche served as plane guard at BW-1 at Tungliarfik Fjord, performing rescue duty for arriving and departing craft in case of ditching or crashing. On July 15 the famous Lost Squadron landed on the Ice Cap after attempting to fly from Greenland to Iceland.
The Lost Squadron
Two B-17E Flying Fortress bombers and six P-38F Lightning fighters bellied in on top of the Greenland ice cap July 15, 1942. The airplanes were being ferried across the Atlantic in 1942 bound for Reykjavik, Iceland. The planes encountered bad weather. Bogus radio transmissions, traced to an illegal German radio station in northeast Greenland sending false weather information only added to the squadron’s woes. Running low on gas, they decided to crash land on the ice cap.
To assist rescue, the entire squadron stayed together. The first plane failed in an attempt to land with the wheels down, and the remaining flight went in with wheels up, sliding a considerable distance before coming to a stop. On the fourth day after the crash landing the crews managed to make their SOS heard.
Search and rescue planes located the crash site and dropped special clothing and food necessary for survival on the ice cap. The pilots and crew had to hike seventeen miles to the coast, where they were picked up by the Cutter Northland on July 14, which had been on patrol looking for German radio and weather stations.
The Importance of the Norden Bombsight
Left behind in one of the B-17s was the top secret Norden bombsight. The Norden was a tachometric bombsight used by the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy during World War II. It aided the crew of bomber aircraft in dropping bombs accurately. Key to the operation of the Norden were two features: a mechanical computer that calculated the bomb’s trajectory based on current flight conditions, and a linkage to the bomber’s autopilot that let it react quickly and accurately to changes in the wind or other effects. Together, these features allowed for unprecedented accuracy in day bombing from high altitudes. In test runs the Norden demonstrated a circular error probability of 75 feet, an astonishing performance for the era.
This accuracy allowed direct attacks on ships, factories, and other point targets. Both the Navy and the Air Force saw this as a means to achieve war aims through high-altitude bombing, without resorting to area bombing, as proposed by European forces. To achieve these aims, the Norden was granted the utmost secrecy well into the war, and was part of a then-unprecedented production effort on the same scale as the Manhattan Project which launched the development of the atomic bomb. It was critically important that the Norden not fall into the hands of the enemy.
The Recovery of the Norden Bombsight
Operations in Greenland were kept secret. Ship crew members were neither permitted to take cameras on operations, nor keep a diary during their ship’s travels. During these early operations two Army Air Corps officers joined then-lieutenant Buxton aboard the Comanche, Capt. Alan Innis-Taylor and Maj. Norman Vaughn. (Both of these two officers were also with the Byrd Antarctic expeditions in 1928-30 and 1933-35.)
After receiving an encrypted message, the ship returned to the base at Narssarssuak, Greenland. Several dog teams, motor sleds and extra lumber were immediately loaded onto the ship. Capt. Von Paulsen, the Base Operations Officer, also sailed as the ship set course for the east coast of Greenland. Instead of taking the usual sea route around Cape Farewell, a shortcut was made via the Inside Passage with sheer cliffs rising several thousand feet and cross currents making steering difficult.
After passing Angmagsslik on the east coast the ship’s navigator noticed the coast line began to differ from the navigation charts. Where the charts indicated glacier ice flowing down to the sea, the ship was on an open body of water, which appeared to be a bay. With the ship’s lifeboat preceding the ship, the depth was sounded and the unknown bay was shown to provide an excellent anchorage. The bay was charted and later named after the Comanche.
Lt. Buxton’s Wild Ride
The Comanche anchored in the bay and the dog teams and motor sleds were unloaded. Taylor, Vaughn and Buxton began their trek up the ice cap to the crash site of the B-17 on motor sleds.
On reaching the site at 2,500-feet elevation, the Norden bombsight was found and removed from the wrecked B-17. Buxton returned on skis lashed to the dogsled with the bombsight. The trip was a wild 17 mile downhill run from the glacier on the hill to the coast. The Lieutenant jumped over crevasses and rode the moguls. This was his first time on skis.
Buxton vividly remembers this ride 70 years later as one of the highlights of his Coast Guard career.
1943: Lt. Buxton as executive officer on the Joseph T. Dickman
The Coast Guard-manned attack transport Joseph T. Dickman participated in the Italian campaign. In July it assisted the amphibious landings in Sicily and in September at Salerno. In Sicily the ship was bombed by enemy planes as it disembarked troops and picked up wounded. Buxton recalls the holes in the bridge and the explosion of a nearby merchant ship.
At Salerno, the enemy artillery was dug in on the shore. Troops were landed at night to minimize casualties amidst the shell fire. The Dickman faced mines and enemy E-Boats. (These were a very fast patrol craft with a wooden hull designed to avoid magnetic mines.) After a destroyer sank nearby, the Dickman helped rescue the crew.
1944-45: Lt. Cmdr. Buxton as the commanding officer of the Pride
The Coast Guard-manned destroyer-escort USS Pride escorted convoys across the Atlantic. Early in 1945 the Pride joined a hunter-killer group and was one of three Coast Guard destroyer escorts that sank the U-866 in the North Atlantic on March 18. Buxton received a letter of commendation as well as a bronze star on his combat ribbon. He finished the war handling anti-submarine training in Panama.
After V-J Day, Buxton served as executive officer of Coast Guard Cutter Mocoma – at a time there was no commanding officer. Later he commanded the Yakutat in Portland, Me; the Klamath in Puget Sound; and the Ingham in Norfolk. In 1964 Buxton became captain of the port of Seattle. He retired from the Coast Guard in 1966 and worked as marine superintendant at the port until 1978.