Irvin “I.R.” Butler will be remembered for his time in the military and surviving a 55-mile death match. But he would have been just fine if people knew him as Grandpa.
Butler died Christmas Day in Lubbock, one day short of his 92nd birthday. He was the only native Bataan Death March survivor still living in Roosevelt County.
Roosevelt County historian Joe Blair said there are two other march survivors who are also Roosevelt County natives — Alvin Fails of Clovis and Clemmons Kachman of Brenham, Texas.
Born Dec. 26, 1918, in Oklahoma, Butler grew up in Elida, where he played basketball and baseball and rodeoed. In Portales, he ran the Casino Recreation Parlor with his father. The pool hall was one of three on that block of State Street (now Second Street) and was located in what is now the Fashion Girl clothing store.
Blair said the pool hall was an 18-and-over club — at least, as far as the police knew.
“All of those guys my age who were going to junior high school, we had a deal with him,” Blair said. “They’d let us play pool if we’d play on the back table. That way, if the chief of police, John Grider, came by, somebody would yell out, ‘Here comes Uncle John,’ and we’d go out the back door.
“We never got caught, and Irvin and his dad never got in trouble.”
Butler joined the New Mexico National Guard at the beginning of World War II and was deployed with the 200th Coast Artillery.
The artillery, which was engaged in combat near the Philippine Islands, came under attack Dec. 10, 1941, from 54 Japanese bombers.
The Japanese forces attacked in a follow-up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the forces near the Philippines 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. The next day, the Bataan Death March began at Mariveles.
Japanese soldiers marched about 100,000 malnourished and diseased men 55 miles to a railroad station. Troops that fell behind were often executed, and Japanese troops beat soldiers randomly and denied POWs food and water for many days.
It was torture that many soldiers did not survive, and the government believed Butler was among the dead and erroneously sent a telegram giving word 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 found out later it very nearly became true.
“If somebody escaped, they would kill 10 on each side of him in the beds,” Bob Butler said. “They brought in a prisoner one night, and he escaped that night. They’d got a new commander in. He said, ‘I don’t feel like killing anybody. Just send them back to their room.’”
Three years later, after the march and time at a prison camp, Butler was rescued and weighed 100 pounds — 75 less than his enlistment weight.
He was honorably discharged in 1946, and shortly ran a pool hall in Elida. He later started a dairy, and worked as a groundskeeper for the Portales school system until retiring in 1982.
Butler didn’t bring up his war memories, preferring to make new ones with his family.
“He was a father who loved all of his kids and grandkids, attended all of the events around when he could make it,” said Bob Butler, who retired from the Cannon Air Force Base Fire Department last year. “He was really into the kids and grandkids. He even attended his great-grandson’s basketball games, and he was nearly blind.”
He never really talked about his service. His son said it was probably something he’d rather not remember.
“The only time he’d say something to me is if there was something about Bataan on TV,” Bob Butler said. “I’d asked him, ‘Is that what happened?’ He’d explain a little bit, that’s all he’d say.”
Butler was honored in 2004 by Cannon Air Force Base’s Airman Leadership School and inducted into its Wall of Heroes. But he let Dewey Langston speak on his behalf during the induction ceremony.