By Kevin Wilson
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Irvin Butler is a survivor — despite a grueling 55-mile death march; despite two years in a prisoner-of-war camp; despite a telegram sent to his family reporting his demise.
Butler, now 85, was honored Friday for his World War II service, accepting a place on the Airman Leadership School’s Wall of Heroes at Cannon Air Force Base.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” said Butler, who survived the Bataan Death March, followed by 24 months in a Japanese POW camp. “It really makes you feel appreciated.”
The Wall of Heroes is part of a history course at ALS. It was created earlier this year to make history more relevant to students by having them learn about local military members and their accomplishments.
Dewey Langston of Portales, a previous Wall of Heroes honoree, spoke on behalf of Butler.
“I’m a much better citizen and I feel honored,” Langston said, “that I live under the freedoms he helped provide us.”
Langston said Butler was a member of the 200th Coast Artillery, which was engaged in combat near the Phillipine Islands. On Dec. 10, 1941 — exactly 63 years before Friday’s ceremony — the artillery came under attack from 54 Japanese bombers.
The Japanese forces attacked in a followup to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the forces near the Phillipines could not be resupplied because of heavy losses suffered by the Pacific Fleet.
On April 9, 1942, with only two days of food left for his troops and facing an imminent Japanese assault, the American general commanding Bataan surrendered. Japanese soldiers began rounding up Americans and Filipinos in small groups and marched about 100,000 malnourished and diseased men 55 miles to a railroad station.
The Bataan Death March began at Mariveles on April 10, 1942. Troops that fell behind were often executed, and Japanese troops beat soldiers randomly and denied POWs food and water for many days. The troops were already malnourished and had wounds, and Langston said many had malaria as well.
“The Japanese did not expect a single American to have the fortitude to withstand the atrocities made to the humans that followed the death march,” Langston said.
It was torture that many soldiers did not survive, and the government believed Butler was among the dead. A telegram was sent to Butler’s family to inform them of his death.
The telegram arrived home a few months before Butler did. Bob Butler, Irvin’s son and a firefighter at Cannon, said he saw the telegram when he was a child and never comprehended it until years later.
“I did see it when I was a kid,” Bob Butler said. “When I saw it, it didn’t mean much to an 8- or 9-year-old.”
Irvin Butler did survive the march, and the prison camps. When he was rescued, he weighed in at under 100 pounds — about 75 pounds under his weight when he began with the artillery.
He was honorably discharged in 1946, and returned to Portales where he worked on a farm. Butler later worked as a groundskeeper with the Portales school system, and retired in 1982.
Despite the hardships, Butler said he isn’t bitter about his time of service.
“I really don’t care for more of it,” he said with a slight laugh, “but I don’t have hard feelings.”