War creates a thousand heroes a day and almost no one ever hears about them. Vernon Buss of Portland is a hero of the unsung variety, but he never cared about recognition or notice for his actions that day on Samar.
But Irving Saunders did – and long ago, Buss realized that Saunders was “a stubborn man” and it was pointless to deter him.
At last, the stubbornness paid off. All Buss had to do was show up Tuesday morning at a state office building and accept the thanks of a grateful nation . . . and of a grateful Saunders.
It would not be far wrong to say that Saunders, 87, has thought about Buss, 84, almost daily since Jan. 24, 1945. He gets reminders when he looks in the mirror, when he celebrates a birthday, when he speaks of his wife, Pearl, his children and grandchildren.
He should have died that day, at 22, but Buss saved his life. For decades, Saunders, then an aircraft ground crewman, never even knew the name of the fellow Marine who had pulled his burning body from the crashed F4-U Corsair on the speck of an island in the Philippines.
“I wasn’t supposed to live,” Saunders said, “but the Marines had developed this new way to treat burns, and as soon as I could, I asked to go back to my unit, so I could find my rescuer.”
When Cpl. Vernon Buss, a 20-year-old aircraft mechanic, saw the Corsair explode, he raced to the burning aircraft searching for survivors. He scooped up the unconscious Saunders, carried him to an ambulance and returned to the crash site to rescue others.
Nearly a year later, when his tour ended, Buss returned to his hometown of Portland, worked seven years in a rendering plant then joined the Fire Bureau, where he spent 31 years, retired as battalion chief and even had a fire boat named after him. He and Madge have been married 63 years; they had four children and are great-grandparents.
“I wondered what had happened to him,” Buss said of Saunders. “But there were other things to do.”
Saunders finished his service – never finding his rescuer – and went back home to Southern California. His back, arms and legs carry the scars from third-degree burns he suffered in the aircraft fire. The back brace he wears daily is another reminder.
Saunders went to veterans’ reunions with the No. 1 aim of finding his rescuer. In 1996, he went to an event wearing a T-shirt silkscreened with an image of an F4-U. A woman approached him and complimented the T-shirt; she said her husband would love to see it.
A moment later, the husband appeared and said his name was Vernon Buss. He and Saunders engaged in the veterans’ eternal guessing game: Where did you serve?
In the Pacific – check. Through Guadalcanal – check. In the Philippines – check. . . On the island of Samar . . . Jan. 24, 1945 . . .
Saunders had found him. He gave Buss the T-shirt.
They stayed in touch. Saunders carved a plaque from solid basswood with the Marine Corps’ emblem and presented it to Bass. But that wasn’t thanks enough.
So Saunders got stubborn. Three times, he petitioned the Marine Corps to give Buss a medal. But few witnesses were alive to corroborate events. Finally, he contacted a staff member in the office of U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer because Buss lived in that House district.
After much back and forth, with Saunders pushing hard, Blumenauer’s office worked out a plan for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who represents Saunders, to read a commendation into the Congressional Record on July 29:
“With total disregard for his own safety, Corporal Buss rushed to the side of Staff Sergeant Irving Saunders and carried him away from the burning aircraft, the burning pools of gasoline and the random detonations of .50 caliber ammunition as it ‘cooked off’ from the Corsair’s burning ammunition supply.”
The Marine Corps in Portland and Blumenauer’s staff arranged for the ceremony in Blumenauer’s district office to present Buss with a framed copy of the Congressional Record statement.
The day before the ceremony, Saunders said he wouldn’t make it. He is 87, after all. Then, “My daughter said, ‘Dad, this is what you’ve worked for! You have to be there! I’ve already bought the plane tickets.’ So, here I am.”
Buss never wanted the attention – Madge Buss said, “Vernon is a very, very modest man” – but he didn’t deter Saunders from his quest.
"I didn’t say, ‘Go to it, pal,’ but I didn’t say, ‘Let it rest,’ " Buss said. “It was obviously very important to him.”
Saunders’s son-in-law, Derek Barton, who accompanied Saunders to Portland, said Buss “literally saved Irv twice: One, in the wreckage; two, it kept him going. He had another will to live, to continue to find this man and to recognize him.”
Shortly after 9 a.m., two Marines in dress uniforms arrived. They invited Buss and Saunders to stand before them for the reading of the Congressional Record commendation.
The veterans stood side by side. Saunders put his arm around Buss’s waist.
When it was over, Buss said, “OK, pal.” Saunders said, “OK, pal.”
After the ceremony and handshakes, Saunders plopped down on a soft couch. Buss’s daughter, Jan, sat with him.
“It was so nice of you to persevere,” she said.
“I could not give up,” Saunders replied.
“Well, now you can rest.”
“Yeah,” he said, “now I can rest.”
By Anne Saker, The Oregonian
October 20, 2009, 7:51PM