Drafted as a teen, Butcher proud to have served in WWII

Herman “Butch” Butcher spends a lovely summer day at his home in Green Bank. Butcher was drafted at the age of 19 to serve in World War II. S. Stewart photo
Herman “Butch” Butcher spends a lovely summer day at his home in Green Bank. Butcher was drafted at the age of 19 to serve in World War II. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

On December 5, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, through an executive order, changed the age range for the draft from 21 to 45, to 18 to 38, and ended voluntary enlistment.

The change made a world of difference for one 19-year-old, who lived in Dailey and was working at an Amoco service station. Herman “Butch” Butcher, now of Green Bank, received his draft notice only a couple weeks after the age range was changed.

“I got my notice in December and had to report down to the YMCA in the morning,” Butcher said. “They bused us over to Clarksburg for a physical. They were using the Stonewall Jackson Hotel at that time to do this.”

The Army allowed the draftees to spend Christmas with their families and on January 9, Butcher said he reported back to the YMCA to catch a bus to Clarksburg, where he boarded a train heading for Columbus, Ohio.

“I remember the night that we got there,” he said. “They met us at the train depot with a tractor trailer and crowded us in the trailer, and took us into Fort Hayes. Then they did everything to make you a GI there – issued us clothing and more physical examinations, and IQ tests.”

After Fort Hayes, Butcher was shipped out to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. From there, he was shipped down to San Antonio, Texas, where he attended school for equipment maintenance.

“We were there three months in the school,” he said. “That was nice there. We had a Class-A pass and the only requirements were we had to be there at school time. They had school five days a week and we were on our own for the other two days. It was nice there and San ‘Antone’ was a nice city. The Alamo was one of the main attractions. There was an old-time saloon – a Long Horn Saloon. They had a great big steer mounted on a pedestal and it was supposed to have had the longest horns of any steer in Texas.”

After three months of learning the ins and outs of maintaining equipment that was used to build air strips, Butcher was shipped out again, this time to Hammer Field in Fresno, California.

“We were there a month and a half or so,” he said. “That was the first time while I was in service I had a rifle. They took us out to the rifle range and they told us ‘you have to qualify.’ It wasn’t new to me. The Army rifle was certainly new, but I had been hunting, so I knew how to use a rifle.”

Butcher was reassigned with about a half dozen other soldiers to March Field in Riverside, California. The company he was assigned to was out in the Mojave desert building an emergency air strip.

“I remember the day we went out there,” he said.  “We went to the supply room to get our bunk and bedding clothes. They gave us three GI blankets and I thought, ‘boy, why do we need three GI blankets out here?’ That night, I found out, it really got cool. I used all three of them. It was quite an experience. It would get up over a hundred [degrees] in the day time.”

While stationed at March Field and waiting to ship out, the company found itself assisting a community in California during brush fire season.

“One Sunday afternoon, they loaded us all up and took us out to the San Bernardino Mountain to fight a brush fire,” Butcher said. “They took us out there right after lunch, and it was the next morning before we got back to the camp. That was quite an experience. They gave you a rake or axe and they said, ‘this is the fire line, we want you to clear the debris out so it won’t spread.’”

When the company was ready to leave the states, they went to Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, California, which was their Port of Embarkation or POE.

“They took us down to a dock in the river, and they had this old sternwheel boat,” Butcher said. “They had taken everything off of the deck. The name of it was Treasure Island – it had been a really popular gambling boat. We went down to Oakland and got on a converted delivery ship. There were two battalions of us. We were 860th Aviation Engineering Battalion. The next morning the tug boat pulled out, and we took off.”

The battalions spent 23 days on the water, traveling to Australia. While it didn’t bother Butcher to be on the water, some of the men didn’t fare so well.

“I remember going under the Golden Gate Bridge and the water was really rough,” he said. “A lot of people got seasick. We had a little guy in our outfit from Texas and he was real fair complexioned. He got down in the hole and they never did get him back up until we got to Australia.”

The battalions spent five weeks in Australia before moving on to New Guinea.

“We got off of the Cape Meares there and that was the last time we saw that boat,” Butcher said. “From then on, after we got our equipment, we were moved by LSTs – Landing Ship Tanks. It’s one of those boats when they get up to shore, they open up in the front of it. There were two decks, on the top and on the bottom.”

Once the men reached New Guinea, they were finally able to put their skills to use.

“We built an emergency air strip there at Oro Bay,” Butcher said. “I don’t know how long we were there. Then, we moved up to the next place which was Saidor, New Guinea. That’s where we really got into clearing jungles. We built two runways and taxiways, hard stands, bomb dumps and gas fields for gasoline storage. It was really a construction group. We were attached to the 5th Air Force and, of course, we did what the 5th Air Force wanted.”

The men didn’t spend too much time on the individual islands. Once the air strips were built and ready for use, they moved on to the next island to do the same. Many times, they were stuck on islands during the monsoon season, which made things more difficult and muddy.

“At Saidor, I guess we hit there at monsoon season,” Butcher said. “Rain, rain and mud. We spent half of our time pulling our equipment out of the mud. We got through that and moved up to the next place.”

The next stop was going to be Biak Island, but it was still occupied by Japanese soldiers, so they rerouted to a little island called Owi.

“Really, it was a big coral reef,” Butcher said. “The coral had grown up out of the sea, and we built an air strip and all the roadways and bomb dumps, and everything that was associated with aviation. I remember very, very clearly, when they cleared the timber and stuff off to build, it was just white coral and any night that the moon was out, the Japanese would be over and they could see that, and they really unloaded the bombs, but luckily, they didn’t do any damage to amount to anything.”

The Air Force was able to pick up the Japanese planes on radar and came to the assistance of the men on the island.

From Owi, the battalions moved on to the Philippines. The further north they traveled, the closer to the battle zone they got.

“The first place was Leyta,” Butcher said. “We were there a month or so, then they loaded us back up. I remember it was on Christmas morning. They pulled out about daylight, and we were out about 8 a.m. and here come the Japanese again. That was the first time I saw a suicide bomber.”

As the ships attempted to move north, suicide bombers rained down on them. Butcher watched as a bomber hit one of the ships near the one he was on.

“Those guys would come over and go right straight down the hole,” he said. “When the smoke and stuff was cleared up, there wasn’t anything in the water but some ripples. It completely destroyed it. I was standing on the deck. They had a spare anchor lying there and I dived under it. This old fellow standing by me wasn’t as fortunate. A rivet went through his helmet. When the debris quit falling, I looked at my arm and it was all bloody. I thought ‘I’m hit,’ but he fell across that anchor.”
The soldier was given a burial at sea, a first for Butcher.

“They brought a table up out of the mess hall and set it beside the railing,” Butcher recalled. “They put weights on him and covered him up with the flag. They blew Taps and raised it up, and he slid off.”

The convoy was headed toward Mindora which is just south of Manila. The Japanese struck hard, trying to keep the convoy from reaching its destination. It seemed bleak for the battalions, but the Air Force swooped in and saved a lot of lives.

“About noon we heard that the commander of the convoy had readied back and said if they didn’t get protection he was going to turn the convoy back,” Butcher said. “So after a while, someone said, ‘boy, we’re really in trouble now.’ And here come a whole bunch of planes and they were the American planes. After that, we were out of trouble.”

The Japanese may have sunk a few PT boats and one ship, but the convoy made its destination to Mindora. It was the furthest north Butcher would get during the war.

“We were in Mindora when the war was over,” he said. “We built an air strip and all the facilities that went along with it – bomb dumps and gasoline farms and everything like that. We were there about six, seven months. After we got everything under control, we had to move our company early because the monsoon season was starting and the Filipinos told us, ‘that place where you have your camp is going to be under water,’ so we had to move up on higher ground.

“That’s where we were,” he continued. “I remember I was laying in the bunk the night that they announced the war was over. All the guns were firing. I couldn’t figure out what the devil was going on and then we heard that the war was over. In the meantime, after we got all the construction pretty well under control, we started upgrading our equipment and that only meant one thing – we were going in on the invasion of Japan. It was really a Godsend when the war was over.”

After the small celebration, the men loaded up and prepared to go home. First, they had one last thing to deal with – the surplus of bombs.

“They just had rows and rows of bombs,” Butcher said. “They loaded them on barges and they’d take them out and dump them in the ocean. If there’s anything left of them, they’re still out there. They took them out quite a ways. They didn’t want to fool with hauling them.”

The battalions loaded up and docked at Manila. From there, they went to Japan to pick up ships to join the convoy home. While at Yokohama, Japan, the men were ordered to destroy all the equipment at the base of operation.

“They opened up the side of the building and took a tractor, and yanked all this stuff out and smashed it up,” Butcher said. “They buried it.”

Five thousand men loaded up on the troop transport and in nine days, they were back to the United States, or at least the dock of a US city.

“We got back to Seattle and there was a train strike,” Butcher said. “We couldn’t get off that boat for five days. When we finally got off, we were at Fort Lewis. We got on the train finally and went down to Fort Knox. That was where I was discharged.”

Butcher returned to Dailey at the age of 23. During his time in the service, he sent his pay back to his mother, who put it in the bank for him, creating a nice nest egg once he got home.

“I started with $55 a month and went to $108 a month,” he said. “I just drew five dollars a month. There wasn’t any place to spend it. The only place you could spend it was a poker game and there were a lot of those. I sent my pay back to Mom and she put it in the bank for me so I had a little bit of money when I got back.”

When Butcher returned, he worked in the maintenance shop at a local bus company, then Ingersoll Rand, before getting a job with the State Road.

Butcher married his girlfriend, Dorothy Leigh, in February, a month after returning home. After 20 years of marriage, Dorothy Leigh passed away after suffering a brain aneurism. The couple had a son and a daughter.

While working for the state road, Butcher was assigned to projects in Pendleton and Pocahontas counties. He created friendships in Pocahontas County and by 1967, he moved to Green Bank.

“Dottie died in April of 66,” he said. “That summer, I was assigned to the relocation down here at Dunmore. I was staying up at the Hermitage. We closed down that fall and I came back the next spring. I got to be good friends with Randolph [Bledsoe]. After I was back over here the second summer, he said, ‘now, you’ve been single long enough. I’m going to find you a woman.’

“He got me a date with Louise,” Butcher continued. “I came down, she was working in the library up here, that’s where we met. We started going together and we were married the 23rd of December. We had 47 years.”

Louise was a teacher for Pocahontas County Schools at Spruce, Cass and Green Bank, where she retired in 1985.

Butcher left the state road to work at Howe’s Leather Company. Halfway through his 15 years with the company, Butcher became the Safety and Health Manager.

“The funny thing, I came home the last day of school of ‘85 and Louise said, ‘I retired today,’” he said. “She said, ‘I turned in my resignation.’ I said, ‘if you can do that, I can, too.’ I retired in September.”

Louise passed away in February and Butcher remains in Green Bank in the home they made together.
As he reflects on his service to the country, Butcher doesn’t resent being drafted.

“I never regretted the time that I spent in the service, but I sure didn’t want to go back again,” he said. “One trip was enough.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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