The war heroes that we read about stir our hearts. But for every such hero, for every general or admiral, for every fighter pilot or tank commander or warship captain there are thousands of men, and sometimes women, who are the ones on whose shoulders the heroes stand.
In the American Civil War they were Johnnie Reb and Billy Yank. In World War I they were called doughboys. In World War II they were dogfaces. Grunts seems to be the all encompassing name since then.
But they were there. They were there when we lost battles and when we won them. They were there when the wars began and when they ended. They were always there, unsung often, forgotten often, but always there.
Seated across the Editor’s desk at the TIMES recently was one such man: Malcolm Butler. He was in a wheel chair and he would be ninety one on his next birthday, in June of this year, 2014. He told his story, slowly, haltingly, interspersed with recollections of his parents and his childhood in Houston County, Alabama, where the Butler family raised acres of cotton and peanuts year after year. He told of moving to Panama City in 1937, where he got a job digging foundations for houses. He dug foundations and septic tanks with hand tools, for there were few backhoes then, and he got $1.25 an hour when he found work.
Malcolm’s mother had developed a cancer in her jaw and members of the family sought work wherever they could find it in order to buy medications and treatment for her. Malcolm and his brother worked as partners in carpentry at the St. Andrews shipyard. They then moved to Two Egg, Florida and worked at Graham Air Base where Sunland is now located. They then went back to Panama City and worked at Tyndall Field. Tyndall Field is where he was working when he joined forces with the United States Army. War had come to the world and it came to the Panhandle. Malcolm’s mother died in July of 1942 and he left for Camp Blanding in Stark, Florida in October of 1942.
After basic training at Fort Eustis, Virginia, he trained at Camp Tyson, Tennessee. He would be using a most unwarlike but necessary trade: carpentry. He was reassigned to Jackson, Tennessee, where he learned about balloons that were to be used in combat.
Balloons were first used in warfare in the American Civil War, mostly for spotting for artillery and for cavalry tactics. World War I gave promise to the tethered, or barrage, balloons; for these kept the fighter planes and the bombers from flying too low. World War II showed the need for barrage balloons when the German Wehrmacht began sending bombers over London. Hundreds, even thousands, of tethered balloons forced the planes to fly higher and to end up in the range of anti aircraft guns. Around ports they protected vulnerable shipping from torpedo bombers, who flew low to launch their deadly fish.
The American Army recognized the importance of these still, quiet protective balloons in combat. Many combat units were assigned balloon detachments, particularly where the enemy had superior air power, as in North Africa. That is where Malcolm Butler, with his skills learned on the southern Alabama farm and the houses and ships he built in Bay County, Florida, entered the picture. His unit landed, protecting places like Casa Blanca and Algiers. They moved with Patton and his forces to Sicily, to Salerno, to Messina, to Anzio, the Po River and eventually into the south of France and to Germany itself. He spoke of General Mark Clark. The headlines followed the heroes. The men like Malcolm Butler were there, making certain that the protection of the barrage balloons was always present. Butler’s carpentry skills were valuable in building bridges across the Rhine River into Germany. He told us of pulling trees out of the forest to build a bridge back out of Germany when they were ready to leave. He was there when, finally, the Nazi forces surrendered. He was standing by for transport to the Pacific when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and peace came. He lacked eleven days serving three years all during war time.
Malcolm Butler came home, returning to the trade that he had learned early on. He met and married his wife, Edna, whom he says “was the prettiest girl he had ever seen and he didn’t find her until he had been around the world and was home again”. In 1946 he returned with his wife to Alabama, wanting to farm again. He bought property, did some farming and construction. He speaks with pride of the house he built for his family where their first child was born. However, a decision was made to move to Tampa early in 1952. He was successful in construction business in the Tampa area, from which he later retired. Many fine houses that he built are still serving as homes in Hillsborough County.
He talked about his travels and his exploits when he fought across the Mediterranean and into the continent of Europe. But he talked, almost longingly, about his childhood; when his family raised cotton on forty acres of Houston County farmland. He spoke with pride of the very spot where his children, Carolyn and Kenny, were born.
Yes, family and friends were the most important things in Malcolm’s memory. In fact, that is why Malcolm was in Jackson County, Florida. His last living sibling, Mildred Louise Lambert, was buried December 18, 2013. Malcolm made that final trip in honor of her. Due to the illness of his daughter, Malcolm had to remain behind with his niece, Janice Norris, so he could receive the care he needed. Their goal, to get him back home, didn’t turn out as planned.
Although, the TIMES was planning to publish this article honoring Malcolm while he was living here, he joined Jesus and his other family members in another dimension that he called Heaven on January 31, 2014. Malcolm’s body was returned to Tampa, and a celebration of his life was attended by many friends and family. He is buried in The Garden of Memories there. Janice Norris would like to say thank you, Uncle Malcolm, even though you are no longer here . Thank you for sharing all these treasures while you were here with me. I would not have known about if you hadn’t told me. You were so strong in so many ways. Thanks for letting me help you when you needed help. It was a pleasure and an honor to care for you..
And the Jackson County TIMES adds its thanks to a soldier who served his country on many battlefields, all the while remembering his early years as a farmer and contractor.