Robert Keith Buffington was born on 31 Aug. 1919 to Richard M Buffington and Verdie E Buffington in Columbus Junction, Louisa County, Iowa and was raised in the Spring Run Neighborhood of Louisa County. Keith (as he was known) had two older brothers, Reid A. and Deane R. one younger brother, Charles C., and one older sister, Beulah M. After finishing his education Keith went to work for his Father, working the family farm.
On 16 Oct. 1940 Keith registered for the draft and entered service with the Army in Feb., 1941 as a Lieutenant, as indicated in his Army Serial Number O-1011463. Lt. Buffington was assigned to the 69th Armored Regiment and began training and schooling to prepare him for combat leadership. During a leave from the Army Lt. Buffington married Melba Dayle Hutchinson (age 21) in St. Paul, Minnesota on 3 April 1942.
In April of 1942 the 743rd Tank Battalion was created as a separate Tank Battalion and began to fill their rosters by taking soldiers from various regiments and assigning them to different armored battalions. The 743rd was specifically to train for Operation Overlord (known at D-Day) and to lead the allied forces in the assault on Omaha Beach, to liberate France, and to beat back the insurgency of Germany in Europe. Lt. Buffington was one of the first officers to begin training with the 743rd at Fort Lewis, Washington. While training for the 743rd had begun, the official word of the creation of the 743rd Tank Battalion as a separate Light Tank Battalion was delayed. Then on 16 May 1942 the Official Word was received and the 743rd was finally an official unit. The Battalion was activated with Major (later Lt. Col.) John S. Upton Jr. as Commanding Officer.
On 16 Aug 1942 the 743rd was officially changed from a Light Tank to a Medium Tank Battalion with one Company (Dog Company) as a Light Tank Unit.
Basic training lasted 13 weeks and then the troops were scattered and sent for schooling with most classes being held at Ft. Lewis, however, troops were also ordered to Ft. Knox, KY, the Armored Training Center, Ft. Benning, GA, and eleven (11) Officers and 151 enlisted men were sent to various Armored Force Schools. For the next little while the action slowed for the newly formed 743rd.
In January of 1943 the 743rd was moved from rainy Ft. Lewis to Camp Young, CA part of the army’s desert training center. The troops were housed in tents which, in the beginning, most troops thought would be okay. They quickly found out that the old wooden barracks at Ft. Lewis were far more hospitable than tents in the desert. They were either extremely hot during the day, freezing cold at night, or completely blown away. By mid-March the desert had hardened the troops so it wasn’t much trouble when they received word that they were moving again - equipment and all. On 15 March 1943 the 743rd began their cross desert march to Camp Laguna, AZ. Dealing with hot temps, gas shortages, mechanical problems, soft sand, and anything else the barren desert could throw at them the 743rd arrived at their destination on 17 March 1943 where they found more barren desert. Camp Laguna became a “town” unto itself. The battalion purchased their own movie projector, created their own post exchange and stocked it with beer - plenty of beer.
In early November of 1942 the 743rd learned it had not been forgotten and left to dry up in the desert sun and was ordered to Camp Shanks, NY to prepare for departure to the European Theater of Operation for special training before Operation Overlord. The troops reached the staging area on 8 Nov 1943, disembarked on 24 Nov 1943, arrived in Mourack, Scotland on 24 Nov 1943, and boarded a train for Camp Chiseldon, Wiltshire, in England.
On 16 Jan 1944, Charlie and Baker Companies with sections from Headquarters and Service Companies, left Chisel don for Great Yarmouth to participate in special training with the floatable "DD" (dual drive) tanks. These Floatable tanks were modified Shermans to include flotation devices and a propeller system which would allow the LCTs (Landing Craft Tank) to drop their front loading gates early thus preventing them from having to completely “beach” the LCT before the tanks could depart. The idea was that the “DD” tanks would then “swim” from the LCT to the beach.
5 June 1944 was selected as D-Day - the secret designation for the beginning of Operation Overlord. The early morning of 5 June 1944 was dark, blustery, raining, and with heavy seas. Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to postpone Operation Overlord by a day. The staging troops withdrew to wait another day. The following day 6 June 1944 found the weather a bit calmer, the rain less harsh, and the seas a bit less heavy - General Eisenhower gave the “Go Ahead” for Operation Overlord. The battle was on.
Aboard the LCTs 1st Lt. Buffington, commanding one of the tanks of Able Company that would land on Omaha Beach, and the troops of the 743rd witnessed ships strung out for miles. Fast, knife-prowed destroyers sped at full steam up and down the lanes of ships. Cruisers pushed along as heavy-weight protection for the giant convoy. In the stream of ships bearing toward. France were Landing Crafts Infantry, Landing Crafts Vehicle, Landing Crafts Tank, Landing Ships Tank, transports and all the rest that go to make up a modern overwater assault wave, including battleships and fighter planes. As instructed, the captains of the LCT dropped their loading ramps well out from Omaha Beach, the “DD” tanks of the 743rd roared down the ramps and into the water, and headed for the shore line. Along with heavy fire from German forces on the beaches, the 743rd had to deal with seas the “DD” tanks couldn’t maneuver in. Several of the “DD” tanks were swamped and sunk. Seeing this Company Commander, Ned Elder gave the order that the LCT skippers were to disregarded the orders to “drop” the “DD” tanks and take them all the way to the shore line. Operation Overlord continued with heavy fire and heavy casualties on both sides for 16+ hours.
At some point during the heavy fighting 1st Lt. Buffington was wounded and on 10 June was finally evacuated to a hospital for treatment of his wounds. On 13 June 1st Lt. Buffington wrote a letter to his parents advising them of the wounds received on D-Day and expressing regret that he had been taken away from his outfit and sent to the hospital in England. He wanted to be with his "boys" and was anxious to get back to them. He also wrote a letter to his wife, Melba, describing his wounds as “bullet holes” and telling her he couldn’t wait to reunite with his “boys”.
Because of his wounds during Operation Overlord, Lt. Buffington missed the action as the 743rd moved through the Hedgerows and farm country of Northern France, past the Isigny-Carentan road to the Vir-e-et-Taut Canal, the taking of Montmartin, around La Compte where heavy resistance pinned the attack to a halt, through the barnyards and fields to the canal by way of La Ray, to The Carentan-lsigny life-line and the Vire-et-Taut Canal. Finally from 17 June to 7 July, the Battalion remained in bivouac areas, out of action.
On 19 June the 743rd became a complete unit in France as the rear elements sailed from England, crossed the Channel, and debarked at Omaha Beach at the same point where Americans had fought so bitterly just 13 days before. While the newcomers were finding the “Lay of the Land” the Germans welcomed the new recruits with random mortar and artillery shells and at nightfall “Bedcheck Charlie” was on hand, the uncertain, throbbing drone of his German engine putting extremely unpleasant thoughts into the minds of earthbound creatures below his prowling wings.
The 743rd pushed on toward the Vire. River, crossed the Vire-et-Taut and rolled on toward St. Jean de Daye on their way to St. Lo. What was left of the town of St. Lo fell to the 29th Division on 19 July. From 17 July to 24 July the line west of St. Lo was held stable. All units were alerted for an attack to begin at dawn on the 21st, but this was cancelled at the last minute. A heavy rain had fallen during the night. Visibility was bad for the planned air strike. The weather broke on the 23rd, and on the 24th the favorable conditions held. In the rallying area in fields north of Hebecrevon, the Battalion had spread its tanks. All was set.
Right on the minute, the first wave of American bombers came over. The men on the ground looked up into the bright glare. It was an enthralling spectacle. Hundreds upon hundreds of planes were coming in neat formations, their engines setting up a great drumming. Overhead thundered fighter bombers, medium bombers, heavy bombers. A new sound was added to the steady drone- the deep blast of bombs falling into
the enemy lines. The earth began to shake under the impact of these explosions. Great windrows of smoke began to float upward from the lines where the bombs were tumbling down.
The morale among the troops in the ground amid the recently cleared hedgerows was soaring as high as the planes up above. This was the attack that was to break the enemy's back. This was the attack that might even end the war . . . . This confident feeling was punctuated by the bombs crashing in unprecedented numbers upon the hated enemy. It looked good. It sounded good.
"Prepare to move out!" came the signal, and tank engines added their roar to the full noise of battle. Some tanks moved forward. Infantry began to deploy: The wheels of the attack began to turn. Overhead the bombers still were coming. Then the worst happened. The bombs began dropping short behind the phase lines. They were falling into friendly positions. The mighty explosions began killing Americans. Sudden horror spread through the ranks, and with the horror went fear and panic. The bombs kept dropping short, and as far as the eye could see from the ground, new flights of planes were winging in, ready to drop destruction in the wrong place. Air liaison officers on the ground frantically tried to contact their planes. But it was too late to correct the tragic error. They did manage to stop the last flights from dropping their bombs. All was turmoil and confusion on the ground. Stretcher bearers and medics were there, but -there weren't enough of them. Doctors did what they could. Ambulances backed into fields and went jouncing off to make trip after trip.
The remarkable rejuvenation or "come back" abilities of the American forces in France was once again evidenced when, on the next day, 25 July, the breakthrough attack was ready to start off as before.
At 11 o'clock in the morning, the Battalion moved out of its assembly area and moved up to the Line of Departure. Anxious eyes looked upward. Again precisely on time the silvery shapes of the first planes were sighted. The pathfinders flew true to their target over Hebecrevon. Their bomb bays opened and down hurtled their loads. A moment later the earth was shaking, the air was disturbed as if by a sudden stormy gust, and there came the successive, pile-driving thumps of bombs exploding almost a mile away; Men on the ground breathed just a hit easier. The first planes had hit their mark. Okay. Maybe this time ...
Hopes went up as the second flight came over and the tons of destruction descended where they were ~supposed to on the enemy's lines. But then ...
"I was looking up, watching our medium bombers," communications sergeant John Ovind says of that time. "I was standing near one of our 'dozers- just in case. I thought a 'dozer would he a good thing to get under if anything went wrong. When the bombers were directly over our heads, I saw that their bomb bays were open and I thought 'Oh-oh! Here she comes!' Then the bombs came out. They looked like a handful of peanuts-dots coming straight down at you .... "
That whole high noon was immediately filled with a sound more terrible than anything veterans from D-Day could remember. It was a rattling sound- not a swish or a scream the way bombs usually go, but a clacking like dry peas shaken in a wooden basket. This rattling increased with a terrible rush. Then the bombs began hitting. And there wasn't any more rattling in the air. Just the indescribable hang and roar of explosive, like hundreds of volcanos blowing up in those fields at the end of the world. Three entire flights of bombers dropped their missiles mistakenly on that area. For many a man, that chaos in the fields near Hehecrevon was the end of the world. Generals and privates alike scrambled for whatever meager protection they could find. And generals and privates alike died. It was one of the bombs that killed General Leslie McNair, chief of the ground forces.
Earlier, when the awful realization came to the men that the the nightmare of the day before was to he repeated again, there was unrestrained panic amid the episodes of heroism. Some men simply dropped everything- rifles, personal gear- and ran blindly. Again there resulted almost complete confusion.
But the orders were: "Attack!"
Field officers, sergeants, staff officers, corporals, generals- all worked to reform the lines, to get a jump-off under way. Somehow the new line was pulled together. In mid-afternoon, the ground forces of the 30th Division moved out over the bombchewed phase lines. They moved over their own dead. "My men stumbled ahead- as if walking in their sleep," one infantry officer reported. " Their hands and feet lacked coordination. They had the look of punchdrunk fighters- and that's just what they were at that time." For most of these men, this dazed condition after the drubbing by bombs continued until they were actually engaged with the enemy. Then they got mad-that cold anger that comes to you at the front- a hate that is directed toward the Jerry who got them into all this mess," said the infantry leader. "They got mad- and then they were all right."
Lt. Buffington returned to his battalion on 27 July 1944 and took command of a Charlie Company Tank and continued the Battle for St. Lo that had begun without him. The attack continued to Hehecrevon, moving ahead slowly without stopping when darkness closed down. The town was attacked at 10 o'clock in the evening-there was still twilight in the sky. It was taken after dark.
The monstrous blow near St. Lo cracked the highly organized defense of the enemy. On 27 July, the 2nd Armored Division rolled down to cut the east-west highway from St. Lo to Coutances. But the generals also wanted Tessy, a very important road junction town, sizeable enough for a railway station, with the full name of Tessy-sur-Vire. It was directly on the Vire River, at its west hank, and controlled a number of roads the Germans needed to maintain. supply routes or possible routes of escape.
The drive toward Tessy began on July 28th. "You can't paint the fighting around Tessy any worse than it was," a tank officer declares. This was said not only because that officer lost some of his best men just north. of Tessy in fields about Le Mesnil Opac and Troisgots, hut because the Germans were fighting to hold at all costs.
At some point during the battle for Tessy, on 29 July, Charlie Company, attached to the 117th Infantry, found itself in a defensive position as it encountered intense fire from enemy tanks and anti-tank guns. 1st Lt. Buffington left the turret on foot on a reconnaissance mission and was killed when a barrage of enemy artillery fire hit his position.
1st Lt. Buffington left behind his wife, Melba, his parents, and his siblings. 1st Lt. Buffington’s widow, Melba, re-married on 3 Dec 1955 to Lewis Mannatt. Melba passed away on 7 Oct 1997.
As reported in the Iowa Republican, “1st Lt. Buffington was one of the first men from Louisa County Iowa to become a soldier in this war”
1st Lt. Robert K Buffington is buried or memorialized at Plot G Row 28 Grave 10, Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France. This is an American Battle Monuments Commission location.
World War II Victory Medal
American Campaign Medal
Army Presidential Unit Citation
Army Good Conduct Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign
*“Move Out Verity” THE COMBAT STORY OF THE 743RD TANK BATTALION
* National Archives
* Iowa State Department of Public Health Division of Vital Statics
* Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune
* Iowa Republican (publication)
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Related to this, in the near future there will be a smart phone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the Fallen's name and read his/her story. We welcome volunteers to help write these stories.
For more information on the 743rd Tank Battalion please visit: https://digicom.bpl.lib.me.us/ww_reg_his/66/