Vernon Clayton Buchanan by Drake Daly
“If my death helps end the war one minute sooner, it is worthwhile.”
The words of Second Lieutenant and Indiana University alumnus Vernon Clayton Buchanan inspire a patriotic spirit in all those who might encounter his final letter. Graduating near the top of his class from Arsenal Tech high school in 1942 and entering Indiana University with two scholarships, Vernon abandoned his academic prospects for the call of duty that many men would hear around the time. The high performing academic would be just another grunt at boot camp, yet he rose quickly to Second Lieutenant, trusted with handling a B-25 bomber in the South Pacific theater. He would start over for a purpose larger than himself, a purpose that he was more than prepared to give his life for. By all recorded accounts, Vernon’s dedication to his country in conjunction with his collectedness serve as a lesson in teleology for now and times to come.
Entering Indiana University in the autumn of 1942, Vernon participated in the French club, participated in recreational sports, and became a member of ROTC. His excellent performance achieved him a Bronze medal, as he was “the best-drilled in his R.O.T.C company for 1942.” It was not long thereafter until he would begin more formal training in the Army. He enlisted in the Army Air Force Reserves on February 9, 1943, and began his training at Baer Field near Ft. Wayne, Indiana. One has to wonder if Vernon knew his time in college would be cut short; perhaps he was just taking it one day at a time. In April, Vernon was to take his academic talents to the world of military science at the Army Air Force Classification Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Assigned the role of a pilot, he began pre-flight training at Maxwell, Alabama. The prompt completion of this training landed him first south then west: from the Lodwick School of Aeronautics in Lakeland, Florida to the Navigation Training Center in Monroe, Louisiana. The training took 18 weeks, ending with his promotion to Second Lieutenant on January 15, 1944. Shortly thereafter, Vernon wrote home to George Heighway, the alumni secretary for Indiana University. Detailing his recent achievements, he expressed his enthusiasm for completing even more training at his new post in Roswell, New Mexico. “After completing a twelve-week course here, I will be graduated a dual-rated man: navigator-bombardier on 21 April. That will qualify me for a position on the new super bomber B-29. But so far, I haven’t been on anything larger than a C-60. So it’ll be a thrill to get me one of those ‘big ladies.’”
Vernon expressed a clear enthusiasm for translating his academic success to the realm of aeronautics. Although he did not gain possession of one of those “big ladies” he was able to command a B-25: a smaller yet powerful bomber built for evasive strafing and low-altitude bombing. Completing roughly two months of training in South Carolina, he and his team left the states in August, 1944, taking the B-25 all the way to Australia. It was not long before a short flight north would land him in New Guinea where he would complete even more combat training. After his training, he sent another letter to George Heighway from “Somewhere in the Philippines” on November 8, 1944. In the letter, he expresses his admiration for the Filipino people, recent training, and pride in being part of the 500th bombardment squadron, colloquially known as the Rough Raiders. As he described it, his squadron is credited with the most ships sunk and enemy aircraft destroyed. However, an impressive record as a low-altitude bomber does not come without incredible risk. His first combat mission would also be his last. Sometime before this mission, Vernon wrote a letter that would be sent back stateside in the event of his death.
On a chilly February morning, 1945, the postman handed Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan that very letter. His parents thought its arrival had been a mistake. Somehow, their son was still alive “somewhere in the South Pacific.” They immediately wrote back to Indiana University to ask if the horrid news was true: had their son really died? George Heighway – the alumni secretary that had previously corresponded back and forth with Vernon via letter – solemnly informed Vernon’s parents of the stark reality of war. Lt. Vernon Clayton Buchanan went missing in action after the air raid over Luzon, the small island in the Philippines used as a Japanese flak base. In all likelihood, Vernon and his team of Rough Raiders crashed into the Pacific after sustaining heavy damage to their B-29 bomber.
Dear Mother and Dad. This is a letter that I hope need never be delivered, for that would mean that I am considered missing or killed in action.
I need not tell you how I feel about you. I realize now that I could have done much more for you and proved myself a good son. As it is, I hope that you don’t feel that these years you have spent in raising me have been wasted.
I want to thank you for your love, your cares, the life and opportunities you have given me. I am sorry that now I will no longer be able to justify your belief in me.
Please don’t think that you have lost everything in losing your son. Remember, I volunteered for this and knew what it might lead to. I have spent some of my happiest moments in the A.A.F. I feel that I have done something to be proud of, something perhaps that will aid America to remain ‘the home of the free, and the land of the brave.’
If my death helps end this war one minute sooner, I consider it worth while.
Millions all over the world are fighting for what they believe in and for those they love; and thousands are dying. It is not in vain!”Excerpts of Vernon Buchanan’s letter delivered to parents upon his death.
The short letter did not contain any curses of fate, lamentations, or woeful expressions. Throughout its entirety, Vernon expressed his love and respect for his family. He briefly apologized for any sorrow his loss might have caused and assured that his death would not be in vain. He addressed the allocation of his assets in a responsible and selfless manner. Moreover, he wished his girlfriend, Virginia, the courage to move on and be happy in life. Towards the end of the letter, he playfully yet pointedly said a final goodbye to each one of his sisters, offering advice as well as encouragement. He ends with the quote from Whittier: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all.”
Vernon wasted no time in his short chance at life. He grabbed it by the horns and embraced its victories along with its vicissitudes. He had the courage to drop everything and give America his very best effort. His poignant letter serves as evidence for his prudence in the face of destruction, as well as his stoic self-assurance that life would go on fine without him. We can only hope Vernon’s life will provide an example of a purposeful life for all those who might happen upon his story.
Watkins, Robert A. (2013). Insignia and Aircraft Markings of the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. Volume V, Pacific Theater of Operations. Atglen,PA: Shiffer Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7643-4346-9.
[“If my death helps end the war one minute sooner, it is worth it”]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=InU-Ar-VAD4127
[Lieutenant Vernon Clayton Buchanan]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=InU-Ar-VAD4127
[Letter To George Heighway]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=InU-Ar-VAD4127
Vernon Clayton Buchanan, Indiana University War Service Register records, Collection C502, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.
Tallman 1973, pp. 216, 228.