Gonzalo Edward “Ned” Buxton Jr. (1880-1949) was born in Kansas City, Mo., to Dr. G. Edward and Sarah A. Harrington Buxton. When he was a teenager, his family moved back to their Rhode Island ancestral home. Showing early signs of leadership and intelligence, Ned graduated from Worcester’s Highland Military Academy in 1898 as class valedictorian.
After graduation from Brown University in 1902, Buxton worked as a staff reporter and telegraph operator at The Providence Journal, before entering Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1906. For the next decade, he combined a military career in the Rhode Island National Guard with work at The Journal, where he rose to treasurer and business manager. From 1912 to 1916, he held the rank of major and served as judge advocate of the Rhode Island National Guard.
When World War I began in August 1914, Buxton became a war correspondent for The Journal (whose publisher, John R. Rathom, was avidly pro-British) in France, Germany and Belgium. When the United States entered the war, in April 1917, he was commissioned major of infantry and assigned a command in Georgia of the Second Battalion of the First Officers’ Training Camp. In this capacity, he met and mentored the man who would emerge as the war’s greatest American hero, Alvin York.
York, later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, was weighing whether to apply for conscientious objector status because of his religious beliefs when he came under the command of Buxton. During several meetings in which they discussed the Bible’s teachings, Buxton persuaded York that there were instances when the sword could become the instrument to restore peace and preserve justice.
Buxton let York take a 10-day leave to visit his mountain home in Tennessee where he could wrestle with his conscience. When he returned, York was ready to engage the Germans. Years later, Sergeant York stated that Buxton “was the first New Englander I ever knowed [sic]. … I was kinder surprised at his knowledge of the Bible. It made me happy to know my battalion commander was familiar with the word of God.”
In 1941, as the United States geared up for World War II, Hollywood made the film “Sergeant York,” in which Colonel Buxton was played by Stanley Bridges while Gary Cooper starred as York. Both the colonel and the sergeant attended the premier of this Warner Brothers movie at the Astor Theater in New York City.
Buxton performed his own heroics upon his arrival in Europe in May 1918 by engaging in such crucial battles as the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Medal.
Soon after the war, Buxton became prominent in a movement among 20 officers to establish the American Legion, chairing the committee that drafted its constitution. In 1922, following his return to Rhode Island, he was promoted to colonel and commanding officer of the 385th Rhode Island Infantry, 76th Division, and held this post until his retirement, in 1932.
Buxton’s life in the private sector was equally impressive. In 1926, he rose to the presidency of the giant textile firm of B.B. & R Knight Company, which at one time had 22 cotton mills under its Fruit of the Loom trademark. He held that post through the 1930s.
After the outbreak of World War II, Buxton was recruited by President Franklin Roosevelt and William J. Donovan, one the Buxton’s fellow founders of the American Legion, to join a new civilian unit attached to the White House. It was charged with informing the president concerning the intelligence activity of the Army, Navy, State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This unit evolved into the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Donovan appointed Colonial Buxton as his first assistant director of the OSS. After distinguished service with the organization, Buxton resigned in June 1945. Many of the critical activities of Buxton (“Number 106”) remain classified.
Following World War II, Colonel Buxton reentered the business world, heading several boards and companies and continuing his civic involvement, including the chairmanship of a $6-million housing and development campaign for his alma mater, Brown University.
He died in Providence after a long illness on March 15, 1949, at 69. He was survived by his wife Aline, his only son, Coburn, and three grandchildren.
(Dr.) Patrick T. Conley