This Veterans Day, I want to share some of the incredible story of Phil Bucklew. The Xavier University grad, now recognized as the father of Naval Special Warfare, was so humble that many have never heard his name.
In 2015, Xavier’s men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach Matt Jennings was reading a history book while traveling with the team. Bucklew’s name kept popping up. A quick online search gave him more information, and one small detail that immediately caught his eye – Bucklew was born in Columbus and went to Xavier.
Growing up in Columbus, Bucklew wanted to play football for Ohio State, but his path led to Xavier. After graduation he coached at Xavier, then played semi-pro and pro football. In 1939 he put together a team for Columbus and coached that for three years. Bucklew estimated there were around 17,000 people in the crowd watching his team play on that early December day in 1941 when news of Pearl Harbor was announced over the stadium’s loudspeakers. After the game, Bucklew remembered, “We were down in the bar and someone said, ‘Let’s all join the service.’ I expressed a preference for the Navy.”
During his Naval career, he scouted the beaches in Sicily and Normandy in advance of those invasions, collecting sand samples and evading German patrols. He was in one of the lead boats on D-Day, responsible for landing troops on Omaha Beach. He then walked across China on a reconnaissance mission, and for his service, he was awarded two Navy Crosses and a Silver Star.
When it was time to leave the Navy and head home, Bucklew heard there was a job waiting for him as the head football coach at Xavier. Bucklew reunited with Helen, the woman he had met on leave in Columbus after Normandy and would soon marry, and they returned to Xavier.
But in 1948, the Navy called, and he was asked to return to active service as a reserve officer. After eight years as commanding officer of Beach Jumper Unit II in Little Creek, Virginia, Bucklew was sent to Japan where he was surprised to be assigned to the CIA. Back in the U.S. by 1958 he was with Amphibious Group One, then in 1963 he was sent to Vietnam. Bucklew’s SEAL teams played a major role in Vietnam, and in early 1968, Bucklew’s specialized units were involved in the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
He spent the final two years of his military service in the Pentagon working to establish a career pattern and program for special operators.
Bucklew retired in 1969 and died in 1992. His legacy lives on today in the Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center within the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado. It houses much of the Naval Special Warfare training. As mentioned above, today Bucklew is known as the Father of Naval Special Warfare, a nod to his efforts for consolidating the Navy’s special operations units, including the SEALs, under one umbrella and developing their training and problem-solving tactics.
He is not well known. He never expected to be. But Phil Bucklew did what he was supposed to do when he was supposed to do it, the way he was supposed to do it. Not for himself, but for his country.
The more Jennings researched and learned all the incredible details of Bucklew’s career, the more determined he was that it was time Bucklew was recognized for his incredible Navy career. On June 6, 2024 – the 80th anniversary of D-Day – the plan is to officially dedicate the Xavier Student Veterans Center to Bucklew.
You can read a detailed account of Phil Bucklew’s life and career – including pictures and a recording of him describing the invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach – here.
What an inspiration, doing what needed to be done without any expectation of glory. This weekend, take a moment to honor those who served and are serving, and pledge to remember the legacy of those like Phil Bucklew, whose courage and sacrifice helped shape our country.
Written by Michelle O’Brien, Manager of Marketing & Communications
Source: Baum, Adam. The unbelievable true story of Ohio’s Phil Bucklew, and his decades of Navy service. Cincinnati Enquirer.