The heartbreak pours out of every sentence and paragraph of the short letter.

Buck Buchanan had only a few moments to write a goodbye to his wife Bernice and young daughter Ann. As a core member of the U.S. Army’s burgeoning intelligence corp at the start of World War II, he was being secretly whisked away to a waiting ship for passage to Europe.

The trip was so top-secret that he didn’t even have time to say goodbye in person. His message would have to be delivered after his departure.

“I don’t know where we are going, but wherever it is, I’ll be thinking of you and the baby constantly. I don’t want you to worry about me, because I’ll be back. And when I do get back to you, all of this will seem like a bad dream,” he wrote.

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As World War II was unfolding in Europe, Buck Buchanan was at the core of the Allied victory. After graduating from high school at the Indiana Masonic Home in Franklin, his military path took him to the most crucial moments of the war, and his leadership helped him cross paths with Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall.

Buck Buchanan’s experience during the war is fascinating enough. But his perspective is only one half of the story. Hundreds of letters were exchanged between Buchanan and his wife during the war. His son, Heydon Buchanan, has uncovered all of them.

Each exchange adds another piece to not only an epic war story, but a great love story as well — both of which Heydon Buchanan hopes to tell.

“I grew up on the lore of World War II. My father just extemporaneously would start talking about it. It played such a big part in his life,” he said. “I’d see the photos, but I didn’t know about the letters, these hundreds and hundreds of letters that they shared.”

Heydon Buchanan had grown up listening to his father’s stories and hearing his anecdotes of the war. But not until he discovered the cache of letters after both his father and mother had died did he realize the impact the conflict had on their family.

“For those three years when they didn’t see each other, that was what they had to live for. There were no videos, no phones, no communication,” he said. “You had letters and photographs, and even then, you had to hope they got through.”

The scenes painted by the letters, and the treasure trove of wartime documents his father saved, seem more out of a historic Hollywood blockbuster than real life.

Buchanan was instrumental in creating the U.S. intelligence system, and was specially trained in photo reconnaissance, spotting weaknesses and helping devise strategic bombings and attacks for the Army.

He survived a night floating in diesel fuel in the Mediterranean Sea after German U-boats torpedoed the SS. Strathallan, which he was traveling on. After recovering, he planned the Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky.

Buchanan was the aide of Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, the famed British leader who led Allied ground forces in Northern Africa. One of Buck Buchanan’s friendships during the war was to Ernie Pyle, the Indiana native and famous war correspondent.

He was awarded the Legion of Merit, given by the U.S. military for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” In addition, he became a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — an honor given by the British monarchy for outstanding service to the community.

“He was out of the ordinary,” Heydon Buchanan said.

Buck Buchanan was born and raised in Indianapolis, but after both of his parents died, he moved into the Indiana Masonic Home. He graduated from high school at the home, before going on to attend Indiana University, working his way through school during the Great Depression.

During his time at Indiana, he also took ROTC, which earned him a reserve commission when he graduated in 1934.

Buck Buchanan met his future wife, Franklin native Bernice Foy, when he was attending college, and the two married in 1938. They had a daughter, Ann, and were excited to grow their new family.

That all halted in 1941, when Buck Buchanan was called to active Army duty with war engulfing Europe and U.S. involvement becoming more of a reality. His ROTC training led to his first post as an infantry platoon leader.

He was transferred to Louisiana, where he and 500,000 other soldiers took part in the “Great Louisiana Maneuvers,” an intensive training exercise designed to prepare troops for war.

At the time, the U.S. had little to no intelligence system, leaving military leaders without vital information they’d need in a time of war. Buck Buchanan was one of 10 officers chosen to develop a comprehensive system of intelligence for the newly formed V Army Corps Combat Intelligence School.

He would later become one of the experts in aerial photography intelligence, which put him at the forefront of military campaigns such as Operation Torch, the invasion of Northern Africa at Casablanca, and Operation Husky to take Sicily. His work helped pave the way for Allied victories in hellish fighting across mainland Italy, including the fight at Monte Cassino,

“He became an insider. It was just by accident, just by this specialty he had,” Heydon Buchanan said.

But the letters also illustrate Buck Buchanan’s curious and exploratory nature. He describes trips throughout the Northern Ireland countryside while preparing for the invasion in Northern Africa, and to visit Egypt and Malta in between battles.

“So, remind me as soon as I get home, and I’ll proceed to charm you with romantic stories of travel and adventure,” he wrote in a letter dated May 27, 1943.

The more that Heydon Buchanan read through the letters, the more he wanted to use them as the basis of a book. He had already written a book detailing his experience as his mother’s caregiver as she suffered from progressive dementia.

He thought he could use his parents’ experience to reveal something special about families during World War II.

“They wrote so much to keep the family alive. For my father, it was an escape from the war,” Heydon Buchanan said. “They were both very verbal and expressive, so I think their letters are exceptional.”

The book weaves together the first-person letters and references of Buck and Bernice Buchanan with broader historical research. Heydon Buchanan takes readers into the campaigns and efforts of the war, as well as impact felt back in Indiana.

Bernice Buchanan’s letters describe rationing gasoline and food, and passes along high school sectional results, Indiana University basketball and Notre Dame football scores.

“It’s a valuable addition to have the homefront. She’s giving details of life here,” Heydon Buchanan said. “Normal types of things. She tried to keep things normal, in the face of the chaos that wartime brings.”

By the end of the war, Buck Buchanan had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. He would stay in the service, teaching at the Army’s Command and General Staff College — the top training ground for career officers. He studied Russian at the Army Language School, preparing for the new Cold War political landscape.

At the close of the Korean War, he was in charge of processing all 160,000 Communist prisoners of war to either send them back to North Korea or China, or let them stay in South Korea.

After Korea, Buck Buchanan’s spirit seemed to change.

“During World War II, everything was black-and-white. Korea becomes more of a gray area,” Heydon Buchanan said.

The project has taken eight years, but Heydon Buchanan is finished. He’s in the process of finding out publishing options. He hopes by the end of the year to have a website up about the book.

Seeing it finished has been a relief tinged with sadness at ending this journey through his parents’ early life.

“It was life affirming to me. I saw them at their best,” Heydon Buchanan said. “It was two people very much in love, saying that nothing was going to get them down.”

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.