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Remembering Uncle Bill

Remembering Uncle Bill

By Steven Butler


Because remembering “The Greatest Generation” is more than a cliché.

By Steven Butler

I never met my Uncle Bill. I’ll always wish I had. He went down in a submarine in the Western Pacific, late in World War II, years before I was born.

But he’s always been a presence that looms even larger as I get older and understand more about him and his world. As a writer, I hate clichés, but I have to thank Tom Brokaw for coining the term “The Greatest Generation.”

Uncle Bill is part of a generation of Americans that cheerfully made the best of what they were given.

When I was growing up, my father didn’t talk much about Bill, the middle of three brothers who grew up in a close-knit family in California. My dad was proud of his older brother. I knew that. And, yet, he didn’t express sorrow or talk about the hardship of losing him. In fact, there were a lot things people just didn’t talk about much in those days. And I never understood until years later that my father and his family had it pretty rough. Because no one ever complained about obstacles or challenges.

Learning about it was a gradual process that culminated when I lived in Japan for a decade and then returned to the United States, just before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — which seemed to underscore just how much my uncle and his generation achieved when they had their chance.

Bill and my dad were both born in Needles, California, way out in the desert east of Los Angeles. My grandfather, who worked for a bank, took his family there for the dry, warm air on the theory it would help his tuberculosis. He died shortly after my father was born in 1918.

So my grandmother hauled the family back to a small house in Downey, just outside L.A., that had a giant avocado tree in the back. I remember burying compost under that tree as a small kid when we visited from the East Coast. My grandmother raised her three boys — Hank, Billy and Johnny (my dad) — on her own, working as a nurse and then a grade-school teacher. It never occurred to me when I was young that raising three sons while working full-time wasn’t so easy. No one said much about it.

And my dad didn’t make things easier. He fell on a nail when he was 7 and contracted osteomyelitis in his right leg. The condition, considered fatal at the time, relegated him to wheelchairs and crutches, until, several operations later, he received an experimental treatment that cured him. It left one leg shorter than the other, and he wore special shoes and walked kind of funny. But he didn’t complain.

Uncle Bill’s name appears in battle reports, which read like the inspiration for the movie Run Silent, Run Deep.

The three brothers seemed to have fun as youngsters, playing practical jokes and spending summers at Laguna Beach, where they earned money washing dishes at a restaurant and spent the rest of the time body surfing. 

My dad was the brainy one, good with numbers, and he went on to become an engineer. Hank, the oldest, was a great storyteller — and a natural salesman.

Bill, I’m told, was the bright light: outgoing, athletic, a born leader. He went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1939. Later, he joined the crew of the USS Barbel, a Balao-class submarine launched in November 1943 from Groton, Connecticut, and headed into the war zone from Pearl Harbor in July 1944. The Barbel sank 10 Japanese ships in three war patrols, for a total tonnage of 56,900. Uncle Bill’s name — Lt. Cmdr. Butler — appears in several battle reports, which read, for all the world, like the inspiration for the movie Run Silent, Run Deep, starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.

Unfortunately, Bill’s luck ran out on the fourth patrol. Japanese aircraft bombed the Barbel as it was submerging southwest of the Philippine island of Palawan on Feb. 4, 1945, and it was never heard from again. Many years later, Uncle Hank told me that losing Bill broke my grandmother.

Half a century later, I had a wonderful time living in Japan as a foreign correspondent and a new father, and only rarely thought about the historical connection between the Japanese, the war and my family. Of course, the friendship between Japan and America today was built on those wartime sacrifices. I traveled to some of the seemingly faraway places — Saipan, Guam, Palau, the Philippines — where Bill’s submarine patrolled. When I returned to the states and visited the Naval Academy, I was moved to discover Bill’s name — William Mann Butler — on a plaque in a memorial chapel. You can find him on the Internet, too.

I’m glad for that. Glad that he’s remembered. Uncle Bill is part of a generation of people that cheerfully made the best of what they were given. I’m proud of my family — and Uncle Bill. But I also know that among Americans, they weren’t alone — then or now.

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