Lt. Lynn “Buck” Compton: Above and Beyond
A number of U.S. presidents – George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy – were war veterans. Their military training has molded them to stay tough despite the pressure of maintaining the nation’s stability as the leader of the American people. They represent what war veterans are capable of. The skills, work ethics, and discipline that war veterans have learned as soldiers would inevitably translate to success in the real world. This article gives us a glimpse of the war experience and public service career of Lt. Lynn "Buck" Compton, a highly esteemed officer in the 101st Airborne during World War II. As part of the elite paratroopers, Compton fought in the most famous battles of the war. Afterwards, he became a prosecutor, and helped convict Sirhan Sirhan for the murder of Robert Kennedy.
Call him "Buck"
If you are familiar with the epic mini-series "Band of Brothers", an HBO screenplay based on the novel written by acclaimed military historian Stephen Ambrose, then the name Lt. Lynn "Buck" Compton will surely ring a bell. Compton, played by actor Neal McDonough, was a highly esteemed officer in Easy Company, part of the famed "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne. The unit was awarded with the Presidential Unit Citation for holding the main line of resistance during Hitler’s last counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge.
HBO’s epic Band of Brothers mini-series, which featured Neal McDonough as Lt. Compton
After his career in the Army ended, Compton devoted his life to public service. He fought for justice not only in the battlefield, but in the courtroom as well.
The Legacy of the Paratroopers
The use of airborne infantry was still at the experimental stages during World War II. Unlike regular infantry units, paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines, running the risk of being immediately surrounded and killed by the enemy. Training such soldiers was seen to be more challenging, since sudden penetration into enemy territory involved a great deal of physical and mental preparation.
An issue of LIFE magazine featured the paratroopers, stating that you had to be the best to become a part of this elite group. Most army units thought they were the best, but for its accomplishments and contributions to the war, the airborne infantry truly stood out.
From Star Player to Soldier
Buck Compton was born in Los Angeles on December 31, 1921. He was a gifted athlete. He had played for the UCLA baseball team, where he was as an All-American catcher, and then for the UCLA football team that competed in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1943. A month after the Rose Bowl, Compton attended the Officers Candidates School and underwent jump school at Fort Benning for 3 months. In December 1943, as a second lieutenant, he was assigned to Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne. Along with other troops from the Allied forces, Easy Company began preparing for the invasion of Europe. (49-50)
Private David Webster, an English major from Harvard, described Compton as "a friendly and genial man who was everyone’s favorite." (114)
Compton was well-liked. He enjoyed mingling with his men and the non-commissioned officers. He spent time in getting to know them, making friends, gambling and sharing stories about sports and college life. When relieved from duty, he walked among the enlisted men not as an officer, but as a fellow soldier.
June 6, 1944: the date set for the Allied Invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Airborne divisions dropped into Normandy, France to capture key towns in that area. Many paratroopers missed their drop zones, or never even made it, because of the barrage of anti-aircraft fire.
Easy Company’s first assignment was to destroy four German batteries pointing at Utah Beach. With only one squad under the leadership of Lt. Richard Winters, Easy Company disabled four 105mm guns, manned by a platoon of 50 Germans.
In this mission, Compton fought well and hard, winning the Silver Star for gallantry in action. Superior tactics led to their victory despite overwhelming opposition. Compton, along with his squad, assaulted German positions with sheer courage. He was hurling grenades that day with baseball-pitch accuracy. His athleticism turned out to be valuable in combat. He was eventually promoted to 1st lieutenant.
Operation: Market Garden
In September 1944, American and British Allies launched Operation: Market Garden – an attempt to enter Berlin, capital of Nazi Germany, through Holland, and end the war before Christmas that year.
In this operation, lack of coordination between British and Americans and intense German firepower thwarted the Allied attack. Lt. Compton was wounded in action. Five men tried to help him up, but he instructed them to leave him for the Germans. His closest friends, Joe Toye, Don Malarkey, and Bill Guarnere wouldn’t abandon him. They knocked down a farmhouse door where they laid Compton, and dragged it as they retreated. The Allies had no choice but to find another way to Berlin.
The Battle of the Bulge
After recovering in England, Lt. Compton was back in action with Easy Company at Belgium, where Hitler launched his last major counteroffensive. Hitler sent several tank divisions to carry out this bold move of turning the tide of the war by taking the Allies by surprise.
The 101st Airborne held the main line of resistance at Bastogne, defending the area despite a shortage of ammunition, food and winter clothing. The Americans kept fighting, suffering numerous casualties. Easy Company received a replacement commanding officer named Lt. Dike, who turned out to be inexperienced. Lt. Compton, with the other officers and N.C.O.s, had to continue leading the company.
The German artillery shelled the woods near the town of Foy. Lt. Compton witnessed his close friends, Toye and Guarnere, lose their legs to a shower of artillery. He became mentally ill after seeing his friends get mangled. He had to be shipped out due to a severe case of trench foot. That was the end of the war for Compton.
Transition to Civilian Life
After the war, Buck Compton declined an offer to play professional baseball. He studied law at Loyola University. He became a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department from 1947 to 1951. Afterwards, he worked at the district attorney’s office for twenty years, and was promoted to Chief Deputy District Attorney.
In 1968, he was the lead prosecutor for the case involving the assassination of Robert Kennedy, convicting Sirhan Sirhan. In 1970, Compton was assigned as an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeals by then Governor Ronald Reagan. He retired in 1986. He is happily married to Donna, with whom he has two daughters.(302)
Combat is a true test of one’s character. When the bullets start flying all over the place and when the fighting gets really thick, the ability to make the right decisions amidst explosions and screams of agony would save your life and others. Indecisiveness could be futile. After surpassing overwhelming odds in combat, veterans would be instilled with a philosophy that they could take anything that would be thrown at them.
Buck Compton survived the toughest battles in World War II, armed with the skills that he learned in the Army. He had shown firmness and strategic thinking during critical moments in the battlefield. As a result, Buck reached the same level of success in his civilian life as he did in the Airborne. He spent a long and distinguished career in the legal system, ensuring the triumph of justice.
Stephen Ambrose said that in the postwar careers of veterans, "they were remarkably successful, primarily because of their own determination, ambition, and hard work, partly thanks to what they had taken from their Army experience that was positive. In the Army they had learned self-confidence, self-discipline, and obedience, that they could endure more than they had ever thought possible, that they could work with other people as part of a team." (292)
Buck Compton and Neal McDonough
Sources and Links:
Ambrose, Stephen E. (1992) "Band of Brothers". New York: Touchstone Rockefeller Center.
HBO’s Band of Brothers Website: http://www.hbo.com/band/landing/currahee.html