Harrington pays tribute to gutsy World War II glider pilot

Shown are a locket Second Lt. John Butler carried with his photo and one of his wife, Meredith.

HARRINGTON — The words in the diary of Second Lt. John Butler provide some insight into the days leading up to his death on June 6, 1944.

He wrote about the challenges and concerns of the daring stealth mission into Normandy on D-Day that he and other glider pilots were facing.

“This is the day we got some news,” wrote John Butler in his diary six days earlier.

“They told us we had to fly gliders in at night without any lights on the tow-ships, gliders, or even a light on the ground to land or cut off by.

“It’s just a guess and hope for the best, on this deal.”

The next day, he wrote about his orders to be the co-pilot of the lead glider. Col. Mike Murphy, the senior Army Air Force glider pilot in the European Theater, chose him.

Aboard would be Brig. Gen. Don Forester Pratt, an assistant commander of the 101st Airborne Division, and an aide.

In his June 1 entry, he talked about a photo opp next to the glider, dubbed “The Fighting Falcon” and an assignment.

“The Col. told me to get some iron around the nose to knock off a few bullets,” he wrote. “But I couldn’t find any iron what-so-ever, so I guess we’ll fly it anyway.”

Lt. Butler’s diary does not offer any additional insight on the protective metal plate.

But consensus from historians seems to be that the general’s staff did make sure there was metal under the frame of the glider, which essentially was made of steel tubing and covered in canvas.

A scene from the film “Saving Private Ryan” depicts the aftermath of the crash and the general’s death.

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Many of Lt. Butler’s military diary pages, personal letters home to family and his personal effects will be included in a new display at the Greater Harrington Historical Society on Monday.

Roger Butler, Lt. Butler’s son, turned over the items to Doug Poore, the curator of the museum.

“I was 6 years old when my dad got killed,” said Mr. Butler, who still lives on the land of his family farm in Andrewville, near Harrington.

Days prior to the invasion of France, he posed for a photo next to the glider with Lt. John May, Brig. Gen. Don Pratt and Col. Mike Murphy.

“They sent a foot locker with a lot of things in it. At that point, I lived with my grandparents and we just put it up in the attic and it was forgotten.”

Over the years, Danny Waite and the late Harry Farrow, both history buffs, pored over the letters and diary entries while writing about Lt. Butler.

Mr. Butler said he was happy to turn the items over to the museum so other people could appreciate the connection to local history.

“I’m not going to be here forever,” he said.

Mr. Butler said he sometimes wonders what his father would have done if he returned from the war. Lt. Butler was just 26 years old at the time of his death.

“He had flying experience and maybe he would have had his own airport,” he said.

Prior to enlisting, Lt. Butler had his own Piper Cub plane.

Mr. Butler said his father’s flight experience no doubt helped him rise through the ranks quickly after he enlisted in 1942.

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Brig. Gen. Pratt, who made the flight in the seat of his personal jeep in the small cargo bay of the Waco CG-4A glider, was an assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne.

The pilot, Col. Murphy, and the general’s aide, Lt. John L. May, survived the crash.

Historians and military researchers have said that armor plating was added to the underside of the glider to protect the general from enemy flak.

The additional weight made the glider more difficult to control once in the air and may have contributed to the its crash. Reports indicated that they skidded more than 800 feet across dew-covered grass on a downward slope.

A family photo shows Lt. Butler with his son, Roger, and mother Mary Margaret Butler.

“Murphy said the glider was overloaded by 1,000 pounds and handled like a freight train,” according to retired U.S. Air Force Major Leon B. Spencer, who published a report on his 1995 research and personal interviews.

Their glider was the first of 52 – all lifted and towed behind C-47 aircraft with 350-foot nylon ropes – departed from England about 1:19 a.m. on June 6.

In all, they carried 148 airborne troops, 16 field guns, 25 vehicles, a small bulldozer, 2½ tons of ammunition and other supplies.

(Interestingly, Lt. Butler’s last civilian job was in the nylon plant in Seaford and he wrote the company to explain just how important it was to the mission.)

From England on D-Day, the flight was about 2½ hours.

Lt. Butler and Col. Murphy were said to be exhausted from fighting the unstable glider when they got the signal to release the tow rope seconds after 4 a.m. Below, moonlight allowed them to see the outline of the landscape below.

The landing was much harder and faster than normal, first touching down at about 80 mph. Mr. Spencer, in his research, said the glider would stop at 200 feet under normal loads.

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In addition to the items at the Harrington museum, an additional connection and perspective could be gained at Dover’s Air Mobility Command Museum where there is a C-47 that dropped paratroopers on D-Day.

Along with it, there is a glider on display. The Waco glider is 48 feet long and has an 83½-foot wing span.

Bob Leicht is a retired U.S. Army colonel who did extensive volunteer restoration and authentication work and research on the C-47 and glider at the AMC Museum. He said the exhibit on Lt. Butler in Harrington will serve a great purpose.

“When we can show images of a man who actually flew in that aircraft, we can put a face on history,” he said. “It’s not just cold words in the archives.”

Mr. Leicht, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, said his days as a paratrooper give him a great appreciation for the bravery of Lt. Butler.

Lt. Butler’s pilot’s wings.

“To climb into one of those fragile crafts and to be cut free, and to land at night, is the height of courage and daunting,” he said.

“I have a lot of time and respect for the men who did that.”

Mr. Leicht noted the pilot wings worn by Lt. Butler.

“There’s a ‘G’ in the middle, as opposed to an American eagle or whatever,” he said.

“They would say the ‘G’ stood for guts.”

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The Greater Harrington Historical Society and the city’s 150th anniversary committee have a full day of events set for Memorial Day, starting with a red, white and blue color run.

At 9 a.m., there will be a parade, proceeding down Dorman Street to Commerce Street and ending at Asbury Church on Weiner Avenue.

At 11 a.m., wreaths will be placed at graves of Lt. Butler and other veterans in Hollywood Cemetery.

There will also be recognition of Matthew Clark, the man who drew the original plans for city of Harrington.

Visit ghssociety.org for more details on the Memorial Day events.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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