“Lost at Sea” – a report from the Marshall County Historical Museum (as printed in The South Reporter on November 21, 2013)
Lieutenant Jim Bright Buchanan of Holly Springs, Miss. flew into Pearl Harbor without any guns. A radio operator on a B-17 aircraft, his squadron left San Francisco for the Philippines on Dec. 6, 1941, with a scheduled stop at Hickam Field in Honolulu. There, the plane would be armed for battle before picking up a battalion march in the Philippines.
That was the plan. The surprise attack by the Japanese meant the squadron couldn’t land at their scheduled stop. Instead, they were diverted to Wheeler Field in the central part of Honolulu. The attack on the Harbor was in full swing, but they were safe.
Born in 1915, Buchanan left work as a bonds salesmen in Memphis, Tenn. to enlist in the Army Air Corps in March of 1941, at the age of 26. After the incident at Pearl Harbor, he soon qualified as a bombardier.
Mrs. Frances Buchanan, Lieutenant Buchanan’s widow, recalls during a recent interview that it was an exceptionally patriotic time. “I don’t think there has ever been a more patriotic time,” she said.
On Dec. 26, 1941, nearly three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Lieutenant’s squadron was on a reconnaissance mission over the Pacific with a faulty compass. Their mission was expected to be a short one at roughly eight or ten hours, and that’s what they packed for. But with the navigational handicap, they ran out of fuel. Forced to ditch the plane, the nine men escaped onto two life rafts.
They should have been equipped with water and emergency rations, and they were, for a moment. The life rafts had been installed upside down in the plane by mistake. When they ejected, the supplies dropped into the ocean. What they had with them is, assumed by Mrs. Buchanan, to be what they had on them.
For four days, Jim Buchanan and his squad drifted hundreds of miles without food, or water. They tried to hail planes with a flare gun. The sun bore down on them. By grace, an albatross landed on one of the rafts, providing sustenance. The bird’s blood was the only liquid they had to fight dehydration.
An article published on Dec. 31, 1941, gives a first-person account by Lieutenant Earl J. Cooper, the pilot of the ditched aircraft. It was written by the United Press.
As quoted from Lieutenant Cooper, “The second night out a school of sharks played around us. They didn’t leave until daylight,” he said. “…a Navy bomber came over, but we were between him and the sun and he did not see our signals.”
At dusk on Dec. 30, the flares were sighted by pilot Ensign P. M. Fisler and Aviation Machinist’s Mate Leonard H. Wagoner, who were on patrol in a Navy bomber. Violent winds and ocean swells 40 feet high made any rescue attempt a life threatening one. The men radioed for permission, but the final decision to rescue came down to a vote by the crew of the aircraft.
“They could have said ‘no’,” said Mrs. Buchanan. It wasn’t until ten years ago that she learned the men had voted. The information came from a man whose uncle had been a pilot on the Naval plane. The thought was an emotional one, even now.
Voting to try the rescue, the crew dumped a majority of their service loads. Fisler drove the Naval plane down between the waves. He landed in a trough next to the life rafts. All nine men scrambled aboard the aircraft, and Fisler pulled his plane from the sea with throttles wide open. Though sunburned and gaunt, the men were in good health.
On New Years Eve, news of the rescue reached the Buchanan family, including the Lieutenant’s father, Holly Springs’ Mayor George M. Buchanan. Lieutenant Jim Buchanan would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming the mayor of Holly Springs for ten years.
Buchanan continued to fly reconnaissance missions until 1943, when he took a desk job on the mainland as an air inspector. Among the artifacts he brought home, a large combat knife and his personal compass. He was promoted to Major before being discharged after the war in 1945. The following year, he and Frances were married.
A WWII veteran and a local hero, The Marshall County Historical Museum is proud to have Major Buchanan’s officer uniform in its permanent collection. The uniform is currently on display, and can be viewed on the ground floor in the War Room of the museum. Supporting articles are also present.
Further information regarding Buchanan’s terms as Mayor can be found at the museum with inquiry.
Special thanks to Mrs. Frances Buchanan for her generosity in granting this columnist a detailed account of Major Buchanan’s life, and service.
Be on the lookout for another “report from the Museum” in The South Reporter and read more about the Marshall County Historical Museum’s holdings and their history.
Remember to mark your calendar for December 7 & 8, 2013 for the 25th Annual Christmas Tour of Homes – the Museum’s sole fund-raising event to benefit future exhibit and educational programs. The Museum is open from 10 – 4 Monday through Friday and Saturday by special arrangement; call 662.252.3669. For information about the Christmas Tour, go to our Facebook page at: