This story below is an excerpt from my upcoming book. It will be out early this summer for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
My friend Jimmy Butterfield used to come to my classroom with his bride of 60+ years, Mary. She would joke with him, and us, and call him by his high school nickname, “But”. Maybe it was “Butt”, I don’t know, but they had fun playing around with each other in front of 17 and 18 year olds.
Jimmy, of course, was blind and hard of hearing. Mary had to yell at him, he would crack a grin under the dark glasses and flirt with her. The girls loved it. When the hearing aide was cranked up to eleven, we would get some echo and feedback, which didn’t seem to bother him, or the students in the class listening to his story. He just liked to talk to the kids.
Several years ago, after the two of them and Danny Lawler (another First Marine Division veteran of really hard fighting in the Pacific at Peleliu and Okinawa) came to my room for an afternoon, I came home to an email from one of my senior girls, telling me how meaningful meeting Jimmy and Mary and Danny was to her and her classmates. I still have it.
You see, Jim Butterfield got struck not once but twice in the head by enemy fire at Okinawa about this time in May 1945 (that is 70 years ago this month, if you are noticing). He was evacuated first to Guam, then to Hawaii and later stateside for over 18 months, and as many operations, for reconstructive surgery. When he did realize that he would never see again, he was ready to tell his high school sweetheart to leave him be. Not to get attached to him, a blind man.
Well, she told us what she thought of that. They ran a small mom and pop store back in Glens Falls together until they retired.
Why is Jim’s story important? Well, you’ll have to listen to him tell it. You have the sense of the unfolding realization of the loss he is feeling, but at the same time, wonderment at his and Mary’s resilience in making a successful life afterwards. The sacrifices made by this and other generations of veterans becomes real. We need to also note that Jim came home. Chappy and many others others did not.
Jim never looked for sympathy or pity- and of course would be the first to point out that Memorial Day is for those who did not return. But still, if we are to pause as a nation for one weekend to remember, we can’t forget what this nineteen year old from Hometown USA gave up as well.
Mary and Jim have since passed on. What obstacles they overcame together…
Rest on Jimmy and Mary. Thanks for letting us witness your story.
From “The Things Our Fathers Saw” by Matthew Rozell.
On April 1st, 1945, the U.S. invasion of Okinawa began. Sixty miles long, the island hosted well over 100,000 Japanese defenders. It was nearly the last stand, a mere 330 miles from Tokyo, and was big enough to support 800 American heavy bombers. It is no surprise that kamikaze attacks at this stage claimed over 15,000 U.S. casualties.And within the space of seven weeks, the band of First Marine brothers from the counties— who had forged their bond at Peleliu— would be broken up for good. Jack Murray of Hudson Falls was stateside with his knee wound sustained on Peleliu; Harold Chapman of Gansevoort and Jim Butterfield of Glens Falls would be the next to fall.
Jim Butterfield: When you looked back on Buckner’s Bay at night, you would see all our ships would go back out to sea— because it was dangerous to stay around. We had two hospital ships there. The hospital ships would be lit up at night, and the Red Cross was supposed to be on them. These guys [the Japanese] weren’t supposed to hit the hospital ships. But I was up on the ridge, and I said to my friend Chappy, ‘If I get hit, Chappy, you make sure they don’t put me aboard one of those things.’ But Chappy got it before that.
Harold Chapman and Jimmy had been through boot camp together, and were in the same outfit, G Company, Second Battalion, First Marines, where Jimmy was the squad leader. Jim usually checked in with his friend every morning, but on May 5th, Jim was tending to one of his badly wounded men and did not see him. Word came to him later in the day that Harold was killed.* The loss affected him deeply.
Still on the Shuri Line, Jim was severely wounded in the head two weeks later. Over 60 years afterward, he came to my classroom with his wife Mary and Dan Lawler to talk to our students. His humor still intact and on display, Jim recalled with Mary, poignantly, the experience of struggling to accept the fact that he would never see again.
Jim Butterfield: I lasted 61 or 62 days up to Okinawa before I got hit. Danny was fortunate— he got all the way through. Right, Dan?
Dan Lawler: 98 days I was there.
Matthew Rozell: Mary, do you remember getting the news that Jim was wounded?
Mary Butterfield: Yes, I remember. This girl that lived on our street went with this Navy corpsman, and he wrote a letter to her, telling her that Jimmy was very bad, that he was wounded through the eye. She came over that Saturday morning, I remember, and she told me. I was surprised, and I called his mother. And she said that she got a letter from the government only telling her that he was wounded. But that’s the way that I found out about it, about how he was wounded on Okinawa.
Jim Butterfield: Well, the first letter that they got was telling them that I was temporarily blind at the time. When I got hit, we were going to take Shuri Castle because the 6th Division was already in there, and they were catching it real bad. So they decided to put us in there to pull some of the people away from them. To give them a hand.
We were doing very well. It was a beautiful day when we started out. I had gotten seven Japs when they attacked the perimeter that night, and I thought I had a good day in front of me. So as we were moving along, somebody behind me yelled, ‘Whitey* just got it!’ He was a friend of ours. So I turned around, and I saw him rolling down the ridge. He got it in the head, and the face too. So I told this Marine next to me to take the squad, I’ll be right back. I figured it was an easy job to do because it was downhill. So I ran down and grabbed Whitey by his belt. We went over a little ridge, and I thought we had enough shelter.
Then a couple of other guys came. I said, ‘Look it, we have to get a corpsman up here, I think Whitey’s going to go into shock.’ You see when you got hit, you didn’t always die from the wound. Sometimes you went into shock. Shock could kill you. So I turned around to say something to him, and that’s the last I remember. I don’t know where that guy, the shot came from. I got it with a rifle [shot].
I lost part of the right side of my face. I don’t know if it was a day, or two days later— I don’t even know really what happened to me— the enemy laid a mortar barrage when I was on my way to the hospital at the beach, and I got hit again, in the face! That took care of the other side of my face.
This is a small world we live in. A guy named Joe Gavita from Glens Falls was the corpsman at that station. Of course I knew Joe before that, and Joe was taking care of me! I don’t remember this at all. He said I carried on a conversation with him. I was telling him how bad it was up there. I don’t remember that. The next thing I remember is: I woke up in that station and what a head ache I had! Oh! Talk about a hangover!
The corpsman came and said ‘How are you doing?’ I said, ‘How about loosening up these bandages, they’re killing me.’ He said, ‘No can do.’ So I sat up in the sack and started to unroll it myself. The next thing I know, I got a shot in the arm and I was knocked out again. The next time I woke up, I woke up in an aircraft. A C-54 transport. I never flew before. I had no idea where the hell I was! I put my hand out on the deck, and I just could not put it together— that I was in a plane! Someone must have had a word out to keep an eye on me, because the next time I reached out there, there was a patent leather shoe. I moved my hand a little bit, and there was a nice ankle with a silk stocking! [Some laughter.] I thought, ‘Jesus, I have died and have gone to heaven!’ [Much laughter from students.] I started running my hand up that leg, and she said, ‘I think you’ve gone far enough.’ [More laughter.]
She said to me, ‘Jimmy, would you like a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk?’ I said ‘Real milk?’ She said, ‘Real milk.’ I said, ‘You bet your life!’ She brought it down, and there had to be something in it, because I was out again. I woke up in Guam, in the hospital. I was there about three weeks, I guess. I got an operation there. I didn’t know they did it. But what was left of my left side of the eye and face, they took out. Now see, these people knew that I was not going to see again.
The doctor came up. I said, ‘How am I doing Doc? I have to go back up there. They’re short of people.’ He said, ‘You’re doing fine, my young boy.’ That was all I would get, see? Do you want to hear this whole story? [Class responds: Yes!]
They took me to Honolulu. The nurse said, ‘You’re going to like it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that will be nice. Now how about a cigarette?’ [To the young people] We smoked them then; we didn’t know they killed you… So she said, ‘No you can’t. They’re putting fuel in the plane.’ I said, ‘I’m dying for one— let me have one.’ Then she let me have one.
We flew into Hawaii, and it was a beautiful hospital. It was overlooking the Pacific. Down below you could see Diamond Head. Now, I couldn’t see any of these things. But I was told all of this stuff.
I still had the bandages on. They were teaching you little things: like to sit down at the tray, how to eat. Now, the first thing they teach you is: you work by the clock— like your milk would be at 1:00 o’clock, your bread at 9:00 o’clock, your potatoes at 6:00 o’clock. Things like that you had to start learning, see… I went along with this, still not thinking— and this is how stupid that you can be— that I wasn’t going to see again. Nothing in my mind thought that[being blind] was going to happen to me. I was getting around. I always had somebody with me.
So this one day, we were sitting there, and this guy said, ‘Jimmy, I bet you five bucks you can’t go to the head and back in five minutes.’ Five dollars is pretty good money. I had done it before already, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet you.’ So I did a good job— I got to the men’s room, the head. But when I came back, I took a quarter of a step wrong, and I ended up in a long, not-too-wide closet and I didn’t know how the hell to get out of there! Then I start sweating. I was all bandaged up, and underneath my bandages was Vaseline, gauze. I thought, ‘Geez, I have got to get out of here!’ Five bucks is five bucks, and I had lost it already.
I finally got out of there, and I went over and sat down. I said, ‘How about a cigarette?’ Someone handed me a cigarette. There was a Zippo lighter. Guy goes like this [holds hand up, makes flicking motion with thumb]. My whole face goes up in flames! [Laughter.] I had this guy who was nearsighted next to me, trying to put it out [he laughs], and all he did was fan the flames… you’d think you were back in the foxhole again! The nurse comes running over, and off goes the bandages. Fortunately, I did not get burned. So she says, ‘Give me your lighter. Give me your cigarettes.’ She took them away from me. So all day long, I’m bumming cigarettes and a lighter. Then I’m going over and putting them underneath my mattress. Now that nurse is standing there watching me do this, and I don’t know she’s doing this. So I get up about 4:00 o’clock— I look under the mattress. There was no lighter, no cigarettes. The nurse says, ‘You want a cigarette, Jimmy?’ [Laughter.]
I’m sitting there one day with one of the guys that was just in from Okinawa. I was asking how they were doing and stuff, and this guy sticks his head in the door. He says, ‘I’m looking for Jim Butterfield.’ I said, ‘He’s right here, what do you want?’ He says, ‘It’s Dick Barber, Jim.’ Now this is Dr. Barber* from Glens Falls. I had no idea how he knew I was there. He was stationed there. I get a nice lieutenant-colonel walking into my room— my stock automatically goes up! He says, ‘Let me look at your face.’ I said, ‘Dick, you can’t do that. This is a Navy hospital, I think they’ll frown on an Army guy doing this.’ He said, ‘I want to see what they’re doing to you.’ So he looked. This man knew right there that I was never going to see again. He never said a word to me. I don’t think he ever told anybody back here at home.
I didn’t know, until they told me there.
So here’s the climax. Every morning there was inspection with the doctors. So the doctor came around that morning. He said, ‘How are you, Jim?’ I said, ‘Fine.’ He said, ‘You need anything?’ I said, ‘Nope, I’m doing fine.’ He says, ‘Well, are you used to the idea?’ I said, ‘Used to what idea?’ He said, ‘That you’re not going to see again.’
Well, you could hear a pin drop. I said, ‘I don’t think I heard you, Doc.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to see again.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Didn’t they tell you in Guam?’
I said, ‘No! But it’s a good thing that [first] doctor isn’t here, because I’d kill him!’ I got so mad! I couldn’t really grab the idea. I’m not going to see again? … What the hell did I know about blindness? Nothing!
I said, ‘How about operations?’ He said, ‘You’ve got nothing to work with, Jimmy.’ So a pat on the shoulder, and he just walks away. The nurse comes over and says, ‘The doctor wants you to take this pill.’ I said, ‘You know what the doctor can do with that pill?’
Mary Butterfield: Don’t say it.
Jim Butterfield: I’m not going to, Mary. So I had a hard… two months, I guess. I kept mostly to myself. I wouldn’t talk to people. I tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do when I got home. How was I going to tell my mother this? You know what I mean?
So they come around and said, ‘You’ve got a phone call.’ So I went in to where the phone was. They were calling me from home. They got the message, see… This one here was on the phone [points to Mary]. I said, ‘Looks like things have changed, kiddo.’ She said, ‘No, we’ll discuss this when you get home.’ She was already bossing me around! [Laughter.]
But that’s how I found out, and that’s how it happened. And after a while, I just started to live with it.
There are not days— even today— I go to bed and I wish I could see. So much I miss. I miss watching a nice girl walking down the street. I miss seeing my daughter, my wife. I even miss looking at Danny. [Laughter.]
Mary Butterfield: But you see, I’m only 17 to you now. That’s a good thing.
Jim Butterfield: Since we got in the conversation, when I dream, and I do dream, everything is real. Everything I knew before, I see it as it was then, not today. My wife and daughter would never get old in my eyes. When I dream of Mary, she’s still 17 years old.
Mary Butterfield: But you never saw your daughter.
Jim Butterfield: I dream about my daughter. Mary’s caught me doing this. We lost our daughter a year and a half ago. But I sit right up in bed and I’m trying to push away that little cloud of fog in front of her, but I can’t quite make her out. Mary says, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘Just dreaming.’*
Jim Butterfield was 19 years old at the Battle of Okinawa.
In the final push at the Shuri Line that cost him his eyesight, the Marines lost over 3,000 men and the U. S. Army even more. When the island was declared secure near the end of June, in Lawler’s K/3/5, only 26 Peleliu veterans who had landed with the company had survived Okinawa. It had been the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific, with over 12,500 Americans killed or missing and nearly three times that number wounded.[ii] For the Japanese, no accurate counts are possible, but perhaps 110,000 were killed.
* Harold Chapman’s remains were repatriated nearly 4 years after he was killed on Okinawa. He joined the Marine Corps in 1943 at the age of 17. He was survived by three sisters and his mother, whom Jimmy Butterfield and Danny Lawler visited upon their return home in 1945. ‘Body of U.S. Marine Being Returned Home’, The Glens Falls Post Star 7 March 1949.
* Marine Corporal ‘Whitey’ Hargus.
* Well-known Glens Falls doctor Charles Richard Barber (1914−1999).
* Mary and Jimmy Butterfield were married for 67 years. After the war, they were the proud owners and operators of Butterfield’s Grocery Store on Bay St. in Glens Falls for 40 years. Mary passed in Oct. 2012; Jim passed the following summer. This segment was taken from a classroom interview with Dan Lawler, James Butterfield, and Mary Butterfield on Jan. 11, 2007.
[i]Sloan, Bill, The Ultimate Battle −Okinawa 1945 −The Last Epic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2007. 257.
[ii]Miller, The Story of World War II. 151.
Mary and Jim Butterfield in my classroom, Jan. 2007.
Excerpted from “The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA“. Available July 2015. Details at teachinghistorymatters.com.
Book Description: At the height of World War II, LOOK Magazine profiled an upstate New York community for a series of articles portraying it as the wholesome, patriotic model of life on the home front. Seventy years later, a high school history teacher and his students track down over two dozen veterans residing around ‘Hometown, USA’ who fought the war in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to the surrender at Tokyo Bay. They resurrect firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no community unscathed. Here are the stories that the magazine could not tell, from a special generation of Americans speaking to the youth of America today. 270 pages.
About the Author: Matthew Rozell’s teaching career is now spanning 4 decades, beginning as a quiet kid returning to teach in his own hometown to being recognized as a national History Teacher of the Year and as a recipient of a national Medal for History Education. Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow, has had his lessons filmed for NBC Learn, and has even been chosen as the ABC World News Person of the Week. He is also a recipient of several state and local awards for history education. He writes on the power of teaching and the importance of the study of history at his website, teachinghistorymatters.com.
He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.