November 16, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
World War II veteran Bob Butler, of Orion, holds a model of the U.S.S. William C. Cole. Photo by Joe St. Henry. (click for larger version)
Lake Orion Review Editor
Longtime Lake Orion resident Bob Butler, 88, has made three hole-in-ones playing golf.
While others may be impressed, he says he has just been lucky. In fact, he thinks his good fortune really started back in the 1940s during World War II.
Butler, along with a number of his Pontiac Central High School classmates, enlisted in the U.S. Navy while still in high school. He was 18-years-old and quickly trained to be a gunner's mate.
During his first year at sea, he was on a tanker that ferried between the Caribbean and North Atlantic seas to deliver fuel to the allies. There was plenty of danger, for the waters were patrolled by German attack submarines. While his ship was never hit, others were not so lucky.
"If 25 ships were sent to Russia (to deliver fuel), only five may make it," Butler said. "The others were torpedoed and sunk. I saw a lot burning. We were just very lucky."
Butler said the merchant marines and Navy gun crew on the tanker did not live in fear – they had a job to do - but "thought about the German subs all the time."
As the European war wound down, he was transferred to the Pacific fleet to fight the Japanese for two years. "Name an island in the Pacific and we were probably there," he said.
Butler was assigned to the USS William C. Cole, a destroyer escort responsible for protecting aircraft carriers. One of its main responsibilities was saving U.S. pilots if their planes crashed trying to land on the carriers. Butler said they pulled 30-40 men out of the water after bailing out of damaged planes, most of who survived.
The fleet also was regularly attacked by Kamikaze fighters, willing to fly their planes into the larger ships in the fleet to destroy them.
"We slept on the deck a lot," he said. "We were scared to sleep below. If a Kamikaze hit us just right, it could tip our small ship over and we'd be trapped below."
The stoic veteran vividly remembers a time when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the carrier group. He witnessed the suicide pilots hit some 200 ships, sinking 30.
His gun crew shot down two of the enemy, with one plane hitting the water 30 feet or so next to the Cole and scorching the side of the ship. The other skimmed deck and crashed on the other side of the vessel – a very close call.
During the battle, Butler's ship came across a smaller one that was burning and sinking. His crew rescued 23 men. He remembers a shout of happiness from a crewmate, who had pulled a guy from the sea that had been in his wedding.
Butler never lost a personal friend during the war, but he saw plenty of dead servicemen, both Americans and Japanese.
"I would see a body floating in the water and think that could've been me," he said. "There were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was just fortunate to make it through."
Despite the sights and sounds of combat, to this day Butler does not think war changed him much. "I saw some bad things," he said. "Life was so cheap, it seemed. I prayed at night. But now those memories just seem like dreams."
There was plenty of downtime during his tours, as well, filled with light-hearted moments. Short stops in the Caribbean to fill the tanker featured beautiful women and pristine weather. Shore leave in the Pacific included beer and baseball.
Butler remembers one time his ship came across a large school of fish in the Pacific. Two depth-charges later, the crew had a feast of fresh fish for dinner. "I was really lucky, compared to some of the guys in the war. At least I had a dry place to sleep at night."
When World War II ended, Butler returned home to relax. He received his GED and went to work in a full-service gas station in Pontiac, where he became a mechanic. He eventually went to work for GM's Pontiac division in an engineering position.
His family moved to Lake Orion in the 1970s, in a house he has lived in for 40 years. Butler's wife and son passed away, but he still has a daughter who now lives in Oxford. He has two grand children and five great-grandkids.
Retired since 1986, Butler volunteers for the American Red Cross now, delivering blood supplies to local hospitals. He also has delivered food for the Orion/Oxford FISH charity for the past 20 years. Butler also is an active member of the Lake Orion United Methodist Church, which recognized him recently for his long-time volunteer activities.
Two years ago, he participated in an "Honor Flight" of 45 war veterans who traveled to Washington D.C. There, crowds greeted them with applause and they had the opportunity to visit various war memorials, including the one commemorating WWII.
"I was very impressed (with the World War II memorial)," he said. "It kinda choked me up. As a veteran, I've never been treated so well as I was on that trip."
Butler also has visited the Orion Veteran's Memorial and attended special events there. He said he has great respect for the veterans who maintain the Lapeer Road site.
"That's a great memorial - those are the guys who should be getting recognition, not me," Butler said.
He is a modest man, but his stories about World War II are intriguing. Butler walks through his neighborhood by Lake Orion High School on a regular basis carrying, what else, but a golf club. Ask him about his three holes-in-one or serving his country.