I met WWII vet Dennis Butler several years ago through a friend’s recommendation – and am I glad for the opportunity to interview him! Not only did Denny (his preferred nickname) have an amazing story of survival in Europe, but he had a photo album of photos he had shot while serving as a soldier.
The following story is featured in my book, We Gave Our Best: American WWII Veterans Tell Their Stories.
With his permission I’ve used many of his photos throughout my books, including Battle of the Bulge: Stories From Those Who Fought and Survived and It Was Our War Too: Youth in the Shadows of World War II.
Denny Butler died Aug 17, 2021. The world has lost another great patriot and kind man. Prayers to his family and friends.
During basic training, Dennis Butler learned the unexciting, but necessary, task of digging foxholes.
The holes in the ground used by troops as a means of protection measured approximately 5-feet-by-5-feet and 18 inches deep. It would be the right size for a two soldiers to lie flat and be safe from enemy fire.
The digging exercise was tedious and monotonous, but Butler later understood when serving in combat how foxholes could save a soldier’s life.
Butler was born in 1925 in Detroit. He graduated from Detroit Southeastern High School before enrolling at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, in 1943. He didn’t have long to study due to being drafted into the Army.
Butler was placed in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at Michigan State University. It was designed to meet wartime demands for officers.
When the ASTP program closed in 1944, he was assigned to the Infantry and sent to Fort McCoy (then Camp McCoy) in Wisconsin where he was trained as a front line mortar gunner.
“I was paired with Leo Rihn from Pittsburgh,” he said. “He was my assistant gunner and a buddy of mine. We went through the war together.”
In January 1945, Butler, Rihn, and thousands of other troops sailed on the USS Sea Owl, a converted cargo ship, to England.
The soldiers sailed across the English Channel to LeHavre, France, where they rode in 40×8 train cars to Luxembourg. Note: 40×8 refers to the practice during WWI of loading the cars with 40 men or eight horses.
The Battle of the Bulge was in full force there and in Belgium and Germany. “That 200-mile ride on the train was cold,” said Butler.
In Luxembourg the soldiers of Patton’s 3rd Army, 76th Division, Company G Weapons Platoon, hiked 28 miles to the front. “It was one step forward, and one-half step back on snow and ice,” said Butler. As the Allied troops, including British and Australian and French Resistance, marched through liberated villages, residents cheered. “They had been under German occupation since 1940,” said Butler.
“We were like heroes to them.”
He recalled one small girl who handed him a raw egg. “It was probably her next meal.”
The troops took over an abandoned chateau that had been a duke’s home. “We slept on the floors, but it was better than being outside,” he said.
At the village of Echternach, the soldiers hit the Sauer River, which ran through to Germany, and the German front. Butler’s infantry platoon carried weapons, including machine guns.
Butler and his assistant, Rihn, carried the mortar gun, but when the base got too heavy and bulky, they threw it away. “We used a tree stump for leverage instead,” he said. Another armor bearer carried shells for the gun.
The soldiers stayed on high alert as they traipsed through the woods between towns to the Rhine River. They often encountered heavy fire. “Many times we never knew our location,” said Butler. “We were the typical infantry guys, just hoping to go in the right direction.”
The troops used their collapsible shovels to dig foxholes in the frozen ground. “Once we stayed in our foxholes for three days while shells flew over,” said Butler. “Those foxholes saved my life more than once.”
Throughout Germany, the soldiers saw hungry people. “We realized they had not had enough food for most of the war,” he said.
Most of the German soldiers they took as prisoners were old men and boys. “The German army had run out of young men as soldiers,” he said.
At one place Butler was assigned to guard a bridge. “German civilians wanted to cross to escape the Russians who would kill them,” he said. “I let them go.”
Another time Butler stood guard at a German hospital that the Allies took over. When he met a wounded German officer who could speak English, the two became friends “He said that he thought Germany and the US should have worked together to fight Russia, instead of each other,” said Butler.
By May 1945, Germany had surrendered. Four months later, Japan did the same.
Butler had enough points to be discharged and sailed home with 16,000 soldiers on the Queen Elizabeth. “We were so crowded that we slept on the deck,” he said.
Butler married and he and his wife, Rosemary, became parents to two sons. Dennis attended Wayne State University in Michigan for a degree in business and he sold insurance.
He believes the government should take a different stance on war. “Our nation needs an active branch of government that emphasizes peace,” he said.