Monday, May 24, 2004

Grenade explosion ended
his 2 years at war



By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Charles Butke
Charles Butke, 81, of Colerain Township with the medals he earned serving as an infantryman in WWII. He served from 1942-1945 and his 96th Division was among those first ashore in both Okinawa and the Philippines.
(Glenn Hartong/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)

COLERAIN TOWNSHIP - Nearly 60 years later, Charles Butke remembers the poke of a rifle butt, the nudge that brought him back to life.

"Hey, buddy, are you alive? Are you alive?"

It was one of his fellow soldiers of the 96th Infantry Division - called the "Deadeyes" because of their prowess with rifles - staring down at the young soldier from Cincinnati as he lay in the bottom of a foxhole on the Pacific island of Okinawa. He had passed out from shock and loss of blood, his right side riddled from knee to shoulder with shrapnel from a Japanese grenade.

LAST OF SERIES

On Saturday, the National World War II Memorial will be dedicated in Washington, D.C. This is the last of a seven-part series profiling local WWII veterans who plan to attend this week's ceremonies. Enquirer reporter Howard Wilkinson will travel to Washington to cover the dedication. Look for reports of local veterans participating in this week's dedication beginning in Friday's Enquirer.

EVENTS IN WASHINGTON

• Best of World War II Film Series, American Film Institute, Through June.

• World War II Servicewomen's Tribute Luncheon, Women in Military Service for America Memorial, 11:30 a.m. May 27.

• Smithsonian World War II Reunion on the Mall, May 27-30. Events include a Reunion Hall, family activities, talks by veterans and designers of the memorial, performances of WWII-era music and dance; displays of military equipment and of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.

• Battle of Midway Commemoration, U.S. Navy Memorial, 11:30 a.m. May 28.

• Interfaith service at the Washington National Cathedral, 10 a.m. May 29.

• World War II Memorial dedication ceremony: 2 p.m. May 29.

• National Memorial Day Concert, U.S. Capitol lawn, 8 p.m. May 30.

• A Parade Salute to World War II veterans, 8:30 a.m. May 31.

WORLD WAR II EXHIBITS IN WASHINGTON

• American Women in World War II, National Women's History Museum, through September.

• Art that Inspired a Nation, Corcoran Gallery of Art, through Sept. 6.

• The American Red Cross in World War II, American Red Cross Visitors Center, through October.

• World War II photographs from the Associated Press, Union Station, May 24-June 1 and June 28-July 31.

• Liberation 1945, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, May 27.

• The Role of Faith in the Greatest Generation, Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, May 27-Sept. 6.

World War II Combat Art, Washington Navy Yard, May 28-Sept. 3.

-Gannett News Service

It was a wound that would, in April 1945, end the war for Butke and send him back home to his family in Westwood.

But it was not a wound that would go away. Two small pieces of metal still rest above his right lung. From time to time over the years, his wife, Esther, would find a tiny piece of metal the surgeons had missed poking out of his shoulder or arm.

Also not leaving is the memory of friends and comrades who did not come back to life in the jungles of Okinawa, the beaches of Leyte Island or the other places where the Deadeyes fought and died.

"I was one of the lucky ones,'' said Butke, 81, sitting in the living room of his Colerain Township home with his wife, Esther.

"I'm here. A lot of good men aren't."

Today, he remembers fellow soldiers like Rudy, whose last name escapes him. Rudy was a big man, a giant Yugoslavian from Cleveland "who looked like he could play pro football.''

Rudy's job was to carry the Browning automatic rifle (BAR), a bulky .30-caliber weapon with ammunition so heavy that it required another soldier to carry the rounds. Butke carried the BAR rounds for Rudy in the invasion of Okinawa.

"We met little resistance at first, but then things got pretty hot,'' Butke recalled. "I remember Rudy, big as he was, struggling with the BAR. He said, 'Charlie, I can't make it; you carry the BAR for awhile.' "

The two soldiers switched weapons.

"Twenty minutes later, Rudy was dead," Butke said.

'A pretty darn good life'

Three years earlier, when Butke was an engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, he could not have imagined facing the horrors of combat when Army recruiters came to campus. They talked Butke into joining the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which was formed to train academically superior young men for the officers' corps.

He ended up living in a fraternity house on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus with a group of ASTP soldiers.

"I thought that if this was the Army, then it was a pretty darn good life," Butke said.

In 1943, however, the Army closed the program and put Butke and thousands of others in the infantry. Butke ended up in the 96th Infantry Division, which was about to ship out of Camp Pendleton in California for the Pacific Theater, where the need for ground troops was great.

Instead of being an officer-to-be in the ASTP, Butke found himself a private first class, getting his first taste of combat after an amphibious landing at Leyte, one of the Philippine Islands.

Later, his unit was sent on a mission to take the Philippine island of Samar.

'Charlie, you've had it'

Today, there are aspects of life as a foot soldier in the Pacific Theater he remembers fondly:

• His unit watching in amazement as a shot-down American pilot in a rubber raft floated by them in a Philippine Islands channel, firing flares wildly into the air.

• He and his buddies selling Japanese war booty to the souvenir-hungry Merchant Marines on Okinawa. "We sold those guys a Japanese machine gun for $250," Butke said. "It was kind of stupid. We didn't have any place to spend $250."

There are more disturbing memories as well, such as the day he earned the Purple Heart that now hangs in a frame in a hallway of his home, alongside his Bronze Star and ribbons from World War II.

His platoon had just chased the Japanese off a ridge in the interior of Okinawa the day he was wounded.

He spotted a Japanese soldier about to throw a grenade in the direction of his squad. Butke reached for his own and tossed it. A grenade exploded right next to where he was standing.

"When you get hit, it's like a big thud on your body,'' he said. "But you don't feel any real pain. Not at first.

"I remember jumping into the nearest foxhole. There was a guy already in it, screaming, 'Password! Password!' Well, I couldn't remember the password. I couldn't remember anything right then. So I dived in.

"I thought, 'Charlie, you've had it.' I was raised in church, but you know how you get away from things like prayer when you are a young man. But I prayed that day."

His next memory is that of the fellow soldier poking him with a rifle butt.

After emergency treatment on the island by a medic named McKinney - "He saved my life'' - Butke was evacuated to a medical hospital on Guam and then to Letterman Hospital in San Francisco. He spent six weeks there recuperating, looking out his hospital window at the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was weeks before his parents learned of his injury. While on board ship from Guam to San Francisco, Butke met a Navy chaplain, a parish priest in Clifton, who was heading back to Cincinnati. The priest ended up telling Butke's parents.

'Don't marry that boy'

Butke's sweetheart, Esther, whom he had met while they were both working at Procter & Gamble before the war, was waiting for him when he returned. He was thin as a rail and still in considerable pain.

"He came back so skinny, my mother said, 'Don't marry that boy, he won't live very long,' " Esther recalled.

But they did marry two years after the war and raised a family, and Butke went on to a career as a processing engineer for Drackett Co. in Cincinnati.

This week, he will travel to Washington, D.C., with his son, Lee, for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial.

"When I go," Butke said, "I'll remember guys like Rudy."

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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