Fires to the Sky: The Legend of Bucky Meyer

Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., Historian, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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The name “Guadalcanal” conjures up reverence and deference for those persons privy to this small island’s place in American military history. From August 1942 to February 1943, the American and Imperial Japanese military forces savagely engaged each other on land, sea and air in the Solomon Islands for control of Guadalcanal. Here the Seabees, particularly the 6th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), first found themselves under direct enemy attack, testing the skill and fortitude of the youngest member of the Navy family. One member of the 6th NCB, Seaman Second Class (S2c) Lawrence Christefor “Bucky” Meyer, distinguished himself above and beyond the call of duty at Guadalcanal, garnering the first Silver Star awarded to a member of the Naval Construction Force (NCF). Meyer’s actions to this day hold legendary status in the Seabee community, but few know the particulars of either the man or his actions.

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The distinctive insignia of the 6th NCB, depicting the islands of Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida in the Solomon Islands. Henderson Field is marked with a star, and the Presidential Unit Citation from service on Guadalcanal is shown at the top. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

In August 1917, a third year of World War I continued to decimate millions of lives in Europe. The Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium found British, French, and Belgian forces repeatedly thwarted by Imperial German defenses. Meanwhile in Toledo, Ohio on Aug. 28, Lawrence C. Meyer was born, the third child of William and Lena Meyer, joining children Clement and Lois. Until he joined the Navy, Meyer stayed in Toledo, an Ohio Buckeye through and through, growing up in a community with a strong German-American culture, himself a second generation American. Around 1922-23, his mother remarried Louis H. Hemple in the early 1920s, a watchman for a state garage of the Ohio Department of Highways. Growing up, Meyer took an interest in a variety of activities, including fishing, hunting, swimming, football, hockey, skiing, tennis, golf, horseback riding and especially baseball. From an early age, baseball became a passion, and the Toledo press deemed Meyer one of the best shortstops around. In 1932 amidst the turmoil of the Great Depression, Meyer entered Edward Drummond Libbey High School in Toledo. Three years later, after completing his junior year, he dropped out of school and began working full-time. On Dec. 10, 1938, he married Jean (maiden name unknown), an inspector for the Champion Spark Plug Company. Living with Meyer’s mother and stepfather, the young couple apparently made a go of things as the world moved once more to war.

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Henderson Field, Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, as it appeared in late August 1942. The view looks roughly northwest, with the Lunga River running across the upper portion of the image. Several planes are parked to the left, and numerous bomb and shell craters are visible. Source: Official U.S. Navy photograph, National Archives

From the start, Meyer had a reputation as a hard worker. Becoming a truck driver, Meyer worked for the Merchants Delivery and Hayes Transportation Companies in Toledo. At 5’11” tall and 170 pounds, he made a formidable driver, but he enjoyed working outside, notably heavy work. His fellow workers nicknamed him “Bucky,” but to family and his wife Jean, he was known as Larry. Regarding his work ethic, Jean Meyer recalled his former boss saying, “Larry was the best worker I have ever seen, in fact he was too willing to do more than his share.” As for the man, Jean fondly remembered Larry as “the swellest person in the world…best nature, congenial, kind, sympathetic and very happy-go-lucky…A very good mixer, he could mingle with anyone, the richest and the poorest he treated all like equals, but most of all he loved dogs. Many and many a time did he bring a dog home that was hungry and gave it a home.” Together, Larry and Jean shared a dream of going into the trucking business and building a home on the edge of town, “so he could bring home all the stray hungry dogs he liked, and have all the animals we could feed.”

After American entry into World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, the nation’s young men and women turned out to volunteer for military service. One of these volunteers was then 24-year-old Meyer. On May 1, 1942, the young truck driver began his active service at Great Lakes Naval Training Station where he completed his initial three-week training. Upon completion, now S2c Meyer left Great Lakes with a group of 100 men and traveled to the National Young Administration camp at Beltsville, Md., on May 26. While in Beltsville, the detachment received advanced drilling, training in the use and care of firearms, self-defense, and at last began to engage building, repairing and maintaining facilities, infrastructure and equipment as they transformed from civilians to Seabees. After three weeks, Meyer and the rest of the detachment moved again, arriving at Naval Construction Training Center Camp Bradford, Norfolk, Va., on June 15 where the 6th NCB finally assembled with its officers. Less than two weeks after being assigned to A Company, the 6th NCB moved to Advance Base Depot, Gulfport, Miss., only to move again on July 6 to Moffett Field, San Francisco, Calif. Finally, on July 21, 1942, the 6th NCB left the United States, as a rendezvous with destiny awaited them in the Solomon Islands.

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Members of the 6th NCB lay Marston matting (pierced steel planking) on Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, Sept. 15, 1942. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

While the 6th NCB steamed south of the equator for the South Pacific, on Aug. 7, 1942, 11,000 men assigned to the 1st Marine Division came ashore unopposed at Red Beach on Guadalcanal between Koli Point and Lunga Point. The Japanese naval construction forces who had previously engaged in constructing an airfield at Lunga Point abandoned their work and fled into the jungle, allowing the Marines to promptly capture the airfield on Aug. 8. That evening the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) devastated the American naval forces in the Battle of Savo Island, a precursor of the intensity of combat to come in and around Guadalcanal. The following day Marine engineers resumed construction of the airfield, enabling the first Marine aircraft to arrive on Aug. 12. Marines then renamed the airstrip Henderson Field in honor of Major Lofton R. Henderson, the first Marine aviator killed during the Battle of Midway. On Aug. 20, 1942, the 6th NCB’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Paul Blunden arrived at Guadalcanal to survey Henderson Field and the surrounding areas. Recognizing the tenuous hold on the island and importance of keeping the field operational, he requested that A and D companies be brought in immediately.

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A Seabee scans the skies by Henderson Field in his protected foxhole in fall 1942. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

On Sept. 1, 1942, 387 Seabees and five Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers of the 6th NCB landed at Guadalcanal and established camp between Henderson Field and a second field built later known as Fighter 1. There among a narrow coconut grove, Bucky and his fellow Seabees dug small holes in the tropical soil, threw their ponchos overtop as cover and began work on Henderson Field the following day. Utilizing captured Japanese equipment supplemented with limited American heavy equipment the Seabees lengthened, widened and re-crowned Henderson Field, covering the length of it with 3,000 feet of Marston matting. Concurrently, the Seabees cleared a 4,600-foot-long additional grass flight strip, Fighter 1, to allow Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft – dubbed the Cactus Air Force – to operate when enemy bombing disabled Henderson Field. The first Japanese bombing raid on Henderson Field coincided with the 6th NCB’s work on Sept. 2 – raids that became a daily occurrence. As the men of the Cactus Air Force tangled in the skies over Guadalcanal with the aircraft of the IJN, the Seabees below raced to repair bomb damage to the fields before the American aircraft returned to land. Throughout September 1942, Bucky drove trucks of fill material for the men working on the fields and ferried supplies around Lunga Point for the overall construction effort.

As Japanese bombing raids continued to threaten Henderson Field and Fighter 1, ground defenses sprang up to accompany the efforts of the Cactus Air Force. For low-level attacks, the Marines built and manned a series of gun emplacements around Henderson Field, ranging from .30- and .50-caliber machine guns up to three batteries of M2 90mm antiaircraft guns, forcing Japanese bombers to fly above 20,000 feet, limiting bombing accuracy. The antiaircraft positions unfortunately could not cope with naval gunfire or hidden Japanese artillery, with one (or more guns) dubbed “Pistol Pete” lobbing shells onto the field, tearing up the Marston matting, cratering the grade and straining the Seabees to keep the field operational. To accelerate repairs, Seabees placed trucks loaded with fill, tools and matting at points around the airfield, able to race out to craters to commence repair. Meyer undoubtedly drove some of these trucks in addition to his other duties.

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The positions of Meyer relative to the path of Pilot Officer 1st Class Imahashi Takeru on Oct. 3, 1942, can be seen on this map. Imahashi and his two wingmen descended down to an altitude of only a few hundred feet south of the field. Aligning with the runway at Henderson Field, the three A6M2 Zero fighters commenced strafing as they came over the jungle. Meyer was located to the southeast of the field, marked with a blue asterisk. As Imashahi’s aircraft flew past Meyer’s accurate gunfire brought the aircraft down, which crashed west of the field, marked with a red asterisk. The locations are approximate only. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

With Henderson Field operational and the Marines firmly in control of the perimeter around the field after decisively defending against several enemy attacks in late August and early September, the Japanese military leadership commenced building up air, sea and ground forces to retake the island and Henderson Field. Intense days of aerial combat ensued from the end of September into October. On Sept. 27, heavily reinforced IJN raids commenced over Henderson intent on seizing control of the air over Guadalcanal, but time and again the Cactus Air Force shot enemy bombers and fighters out of the sky. On Oct. 2, however, a change in tactics enabled Japanese pilots to catch the Americans by surprise, resulting in the loss of eight American aircraft. With Japanese morale boosted, on Oct. 3, 1942, they returned over Guadalcanal, intent on repeating the previous day’s success. Around noon, Marine radar detected 27 A6M2 Zero fighters of the IJN’s 751 Air Group Fighter Squadron as they approached Lunga Point. Operating without radios, the Japanese formation broke into three Chūtai nine-aircraft formations, each composed of smaller three-ship Shōtai formations arranged in a V (flight leader and two wingmen). This time, however, the Marine fighters caught the Japanese by surprise and in a hail of bullets shot down seven Zeros.

One more Zero kill remained before the day’s air battles finished. Of the three Chūtai formations, one did not engage any American aircraft and by 1:25 p.m., their formation leader, Lt. Toshitaka Itō, decided to turn to home; however, his Third Shōtai led by Pilot Officer 1st Class Imahashi Takeru decided to dive down and strafe Henderson Field. At the field, the members of the 6th NCB were operating under “Condition Yellow,” which warned of enemy planes overhead within 30 to 40 minutes. “Condition Red,” warranting a complete retreat to foxholes, occurred when planes were overhead preparing to bomb. Otherwise, crews continued to work. On Oct. 3 only fighters appeared over Henderson. Presumably Seabees continued to work on the field under “Condition Yellow,” although this possibly changed to “Condition Red” at some point in the battle. Suddenly, Imahashi’s three Zeros roared in at treetop level in close column, flying the length of Henderson Field, guns blazing.

As Seabees and other ground personnel raced for cover, Bucky found himself in a Marine machine gun emplacement at the southeast corner of the field. Evidently first to reach the weapon, he trained it on Imahashi’s aircraft and returned fire. Eyewitness accounts from fellow Seabees and Marines attested that tracers from Meyer’s gun repeatedly struck Imahashi’s Zero, which crashed into the ground just west of the field. The two other aircraft in formation, flown by Pilot Officer 2nd Class Shimizu Takeo and Pilot Officer 3rd Class Takahashi Junichi, each suffered three and nine hits, respectively. One third of the Japanese aircraft failed to return to base that day, and two others had to be scrapped from battle damage. For the first time, the Seabees could claim an enemy aircraft destroyed, with credit awarded to Meyer for the ninth kill of the day. After downing the Zero, fellow Seabees came by to shake Meyer’s hand, but a friend wrote that “he just disregarded it as if it was all in a day’s work.”

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The only known photograph of S2c Lawrence C. “Bucky” Meyer, possibly taken in the summer of 1942 during his training. Source: The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

The battles for Henderson Field continued to escalate in the days following Meyer’s actions. From Oct. 13-14, 1942, the Japanese heavily attacked the field, first with bombers and then just after midnight on Oct. 14 with shelling by battleships and more waves of bombers. During this shelling, one 14-inch shell collapsed a foxhole occupied by six Seabees. One, Chief Machinist Mate Henry L. Thompson died of suffocation, the first Seabee killed in action. The field suffered 21 holes in the Marston matting, with craters varying in size from 15-20 feet deep and 40 feet in diameter. Equipment shortages found Seabees using their helmets as scoops to help fill in the craters, while Bucky and other truck drivers raced around unloading gravel and fill for the repair crews. Heavy bombing and naval shelling of the field continued until Oct. 17, keeping the entire battalion busy repairing the field.

By now a shortage of aviation fuel further hampered the Cactus Air Force’s operations at Lunga Point. On the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1942, a detail of 17 Seabees – including Meyer – under Chief Shipfitter Raleigh B. Jennings boarded a pontoon barge loaded with empty fuel drums at Red Beach to rendezvous 300 yards offshore with the USS McFarland. The McFarland, an old four-stack destroyer turned aircraft tender, carried a desperately needed cargo of 40,000 gallons of aviation fuel. With the pontoon barge tied up on the McFarland’s starboard side, the Seabees began to pump fuel into the empty drums. Around 5:45 p.m., with half the fuel unloaded, nine Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers of the 31st Air Group under the command of Reserve Lt. Kitamura Norimasa dove upon the old destroyer and commenced bombing. Aboard the McFarland, Marine Cpl. Raymond O. Erickson cut the line to the pontoon barge, but one of the last bombs to fall struck the destroyer portside on the fantail. This detonated depth charges, which blew the stern off the ship and ignited the 20,000 gallons of fuel aboard the barge. In the massive fireball, Meyer, Jennings and six other men were killed, with another dying a day later from his wounds.

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On June 16, 1943, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox (center) presented S2c Meyer’s Silver Star and Purple Heart to his widow, Jean Meyer (second from right). Also present were (from left to right) Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks; Mrs. Lena Hemple, S2c Meyer’s mother; and Rear Adm. Randall C. Jacobs, chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

News of Meyer’s death reached his wife, Jean, in Toledo, Ohio, on Nov. 30. Four days prior, Lt. Cmdr. Blundon recommended Meyer for the Silver Star for his actions on Oct. 3, noting now “Meyer’s action in manning the machine gun was unquestionably above and beyond his duty, which was, as a member of the Sixth Naval Construction Battalion, work in the construction and maintenance of the air field.” As Jean Meyer and Bucky’s family mourned his death, on Feb. 9, 1943, she received word of her husband’s Silver Star recommendation. On June 16 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox presented Jean with her late husband’s Silver Star and Purple Heart, as Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Rear Adm. Randall C. Jacobs, chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, and Bucky’s mother, Lena Hemple, looked on. The Silver Star citation read at the presentation ceremony declared:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands, October 3, 1942. While working on construction and maintenance of an airfield, MEYER manned a machine gun mounted in a pit where he had taken shelter during an air raid alarm. Acting unhesitatingly and beyond the call of regular duty, he fired on the enemy Zeros during the Japanese strafing attack which followed and it was observed that tracer bullets from his gun repeatedly struck an enemy plane which was shot down. On October 16, 1942, he was killed in action while working on a pontoon barge loaded with gasoline which was struck by an enemy bomb. He gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country. 

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Meyer’s body was never found after his death on Oct. 16, 1942. He is forever memorialized, alongside the names of 36,285 Americans killed in the Pacific War, on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in Manila, Philippines. Source: Manila American Cemetery, American Battle Monuments Commission

A week later, Jean Meyer and Lena Hemple presented the unit colors to the 11th Special Naval Construction Battalion during its commissioning at Naval Construction Training Center, Camp Peary, Magruder, Va.

Meyer’s valor and sacrifice swiftly became an integral component of the growing Seabee legend. The Marines’ Leatherneck magazine noted that Meyer’s story “makes it easy to understand why the Navy’s oldest branch and its newest have formed unofficial Mutual Admiration societies wherever they have worked and fought together.” Willys-Overland featured Meyer’s story in magazine advertisements and other publications in 1943 and 1944, heralding his valor. Admiration also led to variation on the sequence of events, notably the issue of the machine gun. When Lt. j. g. William B. Huie, CEC officer, first published his history of the Seabees, Can Do!, in July 1944, he featured an interview with Shipfitter 1st Class Duncan J. Gillis, himself a Silver Star recipient of the 6th NCB. Gillis claimed that Meyer “had salvaged a .30-caliber machine gun, had cleaned it and set it up in his dugout.” On Oct. 3, 1942, Gillis recalled that, “As the alarm had started sounding, Bucky had jumped off his truck and started full speed for that gun. . . Well, that Zero came in about 200 feet from the ground, just shooting like all hell . . . Bucky had reached his gun and was firing back for all he was worth. We saw Bucky’s tracers hitting the Japanese [aircraft], and we all yelled for him to keep it up. The Japanese [aircraft] went down in flames right at the end of the strip.” This version of the story, in which Meyer salvaged a machine gun and raced for it under fire is not supported by any battalion documentation, other written records or any account other than that of Gillis. Nonetheless, this version of Meyer using a bit of “Can Do” ingenuity to provide himself a means to defeat the enemy remains strong in Seabee and Navy lore.

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The colors, bearing the signs of battle, fly proudly over Henderson Field, November 12, 1942. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The exact particulars of Meyer’s actions are but part of his continuing legend. Killed in the early days of the war less than two weeks after his medal action, basic details about his life remain shrouded in mystery. Today he can be found memorialized in a World War II memorial in Toledo, Ohio, and at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, his name etched in marble on the Tablets of the Missing. Meyer’s wife in the months after his death wrote, “I have nothing but beautiful memories because he was as wonderful as a husband as he was a man who served his country to the utmost.” As the first Seabee decorated for valor, Meyer is somewhat unfamiliar to the men and women of the Naval Construction Force today among its other heroic members. Nonetheless, the man and his actions remain a stalwart example of the Seabee motto Construimus, Batuimus: We Build, We Fight.


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