War Stories: Joe Butler

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Veteran shares his tales at sea during WWII

By Joey Cresta

Seacoast Sunday, January 29, 2012

[The following article is courtesy of the SeacoastSunday and Seacoast Online.]
WWII Navy Veteran Joe Butler

You never know who might be bagging your groceries. If you shop at Market Basket on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth, it might even be a hero from World War II.

Joe Butler, 87, has worked part time at the grocery store for 12 years. He said it helps keep his gas tank full, but mainly, he likes meeting people and talking with them, especially when they ask about his "Tin Can Navy" baseball cap.

"That hat attracts so much attention," he said. "A lot of people shake my hand."

"Tin Can" is a term referring to the destroyers used by the U.S. Navy in World War II. Butler served from 1943 to 1945 in the Pacific Theatre on USS Izard, a Fletcher-class destroyer that received 10 battle stars for World War II service.

Butler is more than willing to share his war stories with those who ask. One is his story about the day he had "nothing to do while on duty." It was a day he ended up saving some lives.

Butler started out as a gunner aboard Izard, but said he didn't like it, so applied for and was accepted to radio school at Pearl Harbor. "I became an excellent student, which I never was in high school. I fooled around a lot," he said.

He graduated two weeks ahead of his class and wound up back aboard Izard. He was on duty in the control room during the invasion of Guam and had nothing to do when he spotted a radio range finder. The Izard didn't normally use the device, which was made to pick up distress signals. Butler said he started fooling around with it and suddenly picked up a signal. He contacted his superior, who gave other ships the readings.

"Sure enough, I was right. I hit it on the head," he said. It was a downed patrol bomber, stranded roughly 300 miles inside Japanese waters, he said.

His ship ended up rescuing nine men from the downed amphibious plane. "They were sitting on the water, a perfect target. Anybody could have captured them," he said.

After the rescue, Butler was initially miffed that his task force commander simply told him, "Good job. Just what I expected," with no "thank you." Looking back, Butler thinks the commander was right. "That's what we were there for," he said.

He continues to defer credit to this day. He is quick to mention the support of Americans back home — "We had a great country behind us," he said, adding the true heroes were the men who operated the ship below deck and made victory possible. "They were locked down in that ship below deck during combat. There's no way they could escape. One hit (and) they're all gone. ... They never saw the war, but they had the most important job."

He did receive some belated recognition for his actions, though. His story was published in Jack Haberstroh's "Swabby II," a collection of stories from World War II sailors. And since his shipmates kept bringing up the story during reunions, he finally sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen about his exploits. Last August, she sent him a letter of thanks that now hangs on a wall in his home.

Butler was also involved in the Battle of Iwo Jima, which has an anniversary coming up on Feb. 19. The Izard alone fired 3,200 rounds of ammunition at the island, he said.

During the battle, Butler was on the radio one night with a soldier on Iwo Jima. The soldier was "just a kid who wanted to go home" who asked Butler to read him the sports section in a newspaper. Just an hour later, he said, the soldier radioed in, "Banzai. Banzai. Banzai."

"I never heard from him again," Butler said.

After the war, Butler worked for the railroads, eventually moved to North Hampton and now lives in a mobile home off Lafayette Road in Portsmouth. His home is directly under the flight path of aircraft heading in and out of Portsmouth International Airport at Pease. Military aircraft roared overhead numerous times during a 90-minute interview with Seacoast Sunday.

A picture of Butler, taken in Hawaii in June 1944, hangs on a wall in his home. Butler taped his medals to the picture frame, including silver stars and Philippine liberation, American defense and Japan occupation medals.

The walls of his home are filled with photographs of a family that has made deep commitments to its country's security. There are photos of his son Rodney, a Vietnam War veteran, and grandsons Frank and Nathan, who have served in the Middle East conflicts.

Working at Market Basket gives Butler a chance to meet others who have sacrificed for their country. People who have siblings, children or spouses in the military thank Butler for his service and talk about their loved ones, he said.

"These are the people I meet," he said. "I enjoy working there. You never know who you're talking to."

World War II Navy veteran Joe Butler served on USS Izard in the Pacific Theater.
At a glance
USS Izard, Destroyer
Builder: Charleston Navy Yard
Laid Down: May 9, 1942
Launched: Aug. 8, 1942
Commissioned: May 15, 1943
Decommissioned: May 31, 1946
Fate: Stricken May 1, 1968;
Sold: April 2, 1970 and scrapped
Source: www.destroyersonline.com