WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — Sometimes, moving an inch or so can mean the difference between Life and Death. Nobody knows that better than Doug Butler. The 96-year-old World War II veteran from Winchester came dangerously close to dying over the same German city in December 1944 where his brother was killed two months earlier when his B-24 bomber strayed into the prop wash of another Liberator and both aircraft plummeted more than five miles to the earth below.
Butler was manning twin 50-caliber machineguns in the nose turret, and it was his job on bombing missions to lean forward and see if bombs from the lead bombardier’s B-24 hit the target. Butler’s bomber and the rest in the squadron always dropped on the lead aircraft.
“I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was over Maintz, Germany where my brother died,” said Butler, “and I leaned back after the lead bombardier dropped his load over a railroad martial yard, the same target my brother Bobby’s bomber attacked. When I leaned back in my seat, I felt a breeze on the right side of the nose turret and saw a hole in the plexiglass about the size of an orange, and then a few feet over on the left of the ‘greenhouse’ as the nose of the aircraft was called, there was another hole about the same size.”
“If I hadn’t leaned over to see about that railyard, that would have been the end of me,” said Butler as he described what it was like to sit up front and watch flak begin to fill the sky ahead.
“I would always tell the fellas on my crew there’s enough flak out there I think we can walk on it today and that always scared them, but the only time you really worried was when you could see fire coming out of those black puffs of smoke because you knew the flak was close-by. If you could see the fire from those shells, you knew you were going to take a hit.”
Butler’s brush with death came on his first combat mission, But he and the other eight crewmembers of his crew made it home unscathed after 35 combat missions over Europe.
Butler believes a 23 millimeter round of Triple-A, anti-aircraft-artillery, that narrowly missed cutting him in half over Maintz, Germany came from a multi-barreled German flak battery.
“Little Mike,” the nickname of his B-24 bomber, also survived the war. Butler says it was named for the young son of the radio operator, the only married man on the crew.
For a pack of cigarettes and a pair of nylon stockings for his wife, an Italian artist painted a baby wearing a diaper and a derby, smoking a cigar and carrying a bottle of booze as he rode a bomb.
“That was exactly like our radio operator,” laughed Butler, “He would smoke a cigar after a mission and also booze it up.”
It took months before Doug learned his brother had been killed in action on his fifth mission.
Only two members of each B-24 that collided over Maintz made it out alive. They parachuted from their stricken bombers and were captured and spent the last year of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
“Some of the folks on the ground buried Bobby and the other airmen in a mass grave,” said Butler. When the Army discovered their remains after the war, Doug’s mother was given the option of leaving her first-born son buried in a German church cemetery or have his remains shipped home. She chose the latter option.
The day I took Doug Butler to the cemetery to visit his brother’s grave, he placed new flags on both his brother’s grave and the grave of his father, Robert Butler Sr., who was a World War One veteran. Before leaving their graves, Doug snapped to attention and saluted their final resting place.