Ralph Butler in Italy, age 21. by Photo courtesy Ralph Butler.
My dad, Ralph Butler, is a member of a rare breed: he is a WW2 veteran. At 90 years old, he's still smart, clever, funny and active, and he's outlived all the other males in his family. He's also been lucky. And he was well-fed by my mom, who was a great cook - - and who, along with her Aunt Dixie, was touting health foods long before they were popular. He always said he married Mom for her fabulous chocolate cake, which, he complains, she stopped making after the wedding. But maybe that's his secret to being one of just a million WW2 veterans left. And that number gets smaller by about 600 every day.
Ralph Butler, age 90, still standing 6'2.. by Meryl Ann Butler
At the end of WW2 there were over 16 million veterans. But in the early 1940's there was hardly even an American military - at the beginning of the decade, the US Army ranked 17th in the world, after Romania. And there wasn't a separate Air Force, yet.
After Dad received his letter of "Greetings" from President Roosevelt, he joined the Army Air Corps because he wanted to be a pilot -- but colorblindness kept him on the ground.
In Corsica he debriefed recon pilots. They were flying the fastest planes in the sky, and carried no guns -- their only defense was speed. One day Dad debriefed a pilot who had come back pretty shaken up. The wide-eyed fellow said that while he was flying at top speed, a German plane passed him "like I was going backwards." That pilot had witnessed his first jet engine in operation. Lucky for him, the experimental jet didn't carry guns either.
Cover of publication by the 4th Photo Tech Squadron, Bari, Italy by Public domain
In August of 1944, Dad was flown to Italy in order to join the 4th Photo Tech Squadron in Bari. He flew in an unpressurized plane, and remembers that he passed out at 12,000 feet. I guess it's a good thing he wasn't the pilot! He was shocked when they landed in Florence -- he didn't know the Allies had taken it until someone told him it had been liberated just two days earlier.
In Bari, Dad read recon photos, many taken by Col. Karl Polifka, who had flown over 125 missions by the age of 33. Polifka had the reputation of being the "most outstanding reconnaissance pilot of WWII," and went on to fly missions in Korea.
Col. Karl Polifka by Public domain
Many of the photos Dad wrote reports on were aerial views of Dachau. Of course, he was making note of supplies being transported. At that time, no one knew what was going on in the buildings that were marked with the red crosses.
Dad's a member of another rare breed, too, due to a brush with fate that happened just before he got to the Mediterranean.
In early 1944, Dad was stationed at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City, with the 32nd Photo Recon Squadron. It was part of the 5th Photo Recon Group in the 15th Air Force, which consisted of the 32nd as well as the 15th Photo Recon Squadron and the 4th Photo Tech Squadron.
Emblem of the 15th Air Force of the United States Army Air Corps by Public domain via wiki
Every Wednesday night at 9 pm he'd phone his parents in New York for a highly anticipated three-minute long-distance call. His fiance, Florence "Johnnie" Johnson always had dinner with them on Wednesdays so they could all have a chance to talk to him.
When Dad got a furlough in March of 1944, he planned a complex coordination of train connections that would take him from Oklahoma through Chicago and on to New York, putting him at his parents' house at just the right time to surprise them while they awaited his phone call. It took a couple of days of travel time, and a fair amount of walking, but to his delight the surprise worked!