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WWII Gunner and POW

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Soft-spoken Roy Butler:
WWII Gunner and POW

Jim Harris/Last Frontier

Jim Harris/Last Frontier

A few months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the United States declared war on Japan and the Axis Powers of Europe, 18-year-old Roy Butler took a bus to Lubbock, Texas and joined the US Army Air Corp.

Following World War II, Roy worked at several jobs, was a student in a commercial art school in Fort Worth, and ended up moving to Hobbs in 1965 and living a quiet life working and raising his family with his wife Jackie.

Roy’s time in the US military was anything but quiet. In fact, what he experienced in the service is the stuff of great American adventure novels and movies of that era, and the time he spent training and fighting is the material for history-book heroes.

Here is a passage from Roy’s riveting unpublished memoir of his time in the US Army Air Corps as a waist gunner in a B-17 bomber. He is describing his experiences after the plane was his hit multiple times and was starting its descent and demolition on German soil:

“Then the pilot was calling ‘Bail out, Bail out!’ And between me and the end of the wing tip, burst small white pubs with fire in their centers, which were 20-millimeter shells exploding with a muffled popping sound. Our B-17 bobbed and bounced to our right. I remember seeing the bewildered look of Keegan (another gunner) as I reached past him for my chest type chute, to clip it on my harness that I wore. Only then did I remember that I had left the chute by the orderly room door one day and it had got rained on, so I wondered now if it would work.

“I went to the door in the waist and tried to pull the emergency cable to release the door, but it was jammed. Back to the window, I yelled at Keegan, I think, about the door, but he was no help. A crazy thought occurred to me, that when desperate one has super human strength. I thought ‘Well, I’m sure desperate,’ so I tried the cable again, but it was jammed tight. That left the waist window, and I was afraid I would hit the horizontal stabilizer, but I had no more choices. I had ripped off my oxygen mask and wondered briefly about the altitude and how much time I had in that respect. When I turned back to the waist window, I looked toward the radio room just as a twenty-millimeter shell hit the gun in the top hatch. Smoke swirled into the room and I saw Kussman (another crewman) throw up his arms and fall back. But there was no more time and Keegan was by me, anxious, and all was chaos; so I thought of a way to hurl myself clear of the plane and not get my harness caught. I placed my hands on the metal skin outside the window and as I pushed out and down with my hands, I kicked up with my feet. I was in the slipstream tumbling, and glimpsed, as a blur, the stabilizer going over me. I tumbled wildly for a space and then flattened out and was falling on my back in a spin. I placed a hand on the ripcord, but didn’t pull.

“All the lectures came flooding back about parachuting, about how we should not pull the ripcord until we were clear of the fighting. ‘Delay your jump. Delay your jump’, they kept saying, so now I did it automatically. I fell and fell in that spin and I recalled hearing that you could stop the spin by spreading both legs and arms, I spread my legs and left arm, but I wasn’t about to let go of the rip cord.”

Most of Roy Butler’s friends and family thought of him as I did when we met first in the spring of 1975. He was a quiet, soft-spoken, and reserved man devoted to his family, his church, and work. He was also a talented artist who worked in multiple media, from pen-and-ink drawings and illustrations, to larger works in watercolor and oil painting. Some of his friends and family thought of Roy’s art as an addiction, or passion, he had just about all of his life.

In addition, as readers of his description of his exit from a doomed B-17 might guess, Roy was a good writer. He could have worked as a journalist following his years in the US Army Air Corps.

Roy could also have been the kind of journalist that his Pulitzer Prize fellow-New Mexican Bill Mauldin was with his GI Joe cartoons and essays about the everyday military men serving in Europe during the Second World War of the 1940s.

Reading his manuscript a couple of weeks ago, 13 years following Roy’s death in Hobbs, I was reminded first of the famous American novelists of the war, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Of the many WW II movies I grew up watching, the 1953, William Holden movie “Stalag 17” must have been an important one for Roy. Stalag 17 was the prisoner of war camp in which Roy spent 22 months of his life after he bailed out of the B-17 in which he was flying.

I initially met Roy when he was serving as the art editor for the “Southwest Heritage” magazine published for a dozen years at NMJC beginning in 1972. We were together again a couple of years before his death when he painted the 24-foot Lea County Museum sign on NM Highway 18 south of Lovington. The LCA also had an earlier one-man show of his paintings.

Roy passed away in Hobbs in 2011. His wife Jackie, a nurse for Dr. Branson for many years, died on the same month two years later in 2013.
Roy Butler’s writing, his art, and his life as a soldier in World War II is such a compelling, all-American, and heroic story, I will write about him and quote more from his memoir at least a couple of more times in the Last Frontier column.

After reading from “For What It’s Worth: A West Texas Boy as a German POW,” I sure regret not having known about the manuscript while working at the Lea County Museum and not having published the narrative and his accompanying illustrations at the LCM Press.

It’s that good of a book, one written by a man of many talents who ought to have been celebrated as one of America’s war heroes from the Second World War.

One final note: Roy was a part of the Eighth Air Force Heavy Bombardment Group, one of the great fighting forces in the history of warfare. A book, “Masters of the Air,” was published in 2006, and a movie with that title and from that great book by Donald Miller has just been shown on cable television. I just finished the book and hope to see the movie soon. Both will be subjects for future columns.

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