Joe Butko

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Summer 2007,
Summer 2007
Original Images:

Joe Butko is no featherweight when it comes to his experiences during World War II. But yes, he was a featherweight in Southeastern Michigan; The Featherweight Boxing Champion of Southeastern Michigan! Joe won this championship in the early 40s. He got sick and missed the next level's match, something that bothers him to this day.

By trade, Joe was a tool and dye maker and while an apprentice at Hamilton Rifle in Plymouth, the company got war contracts for rifles. Then he got a job with Preston Tucker in New Orleans making marine engines for Higgins boats. He worked with a guy named Art Chevrolet, the auto-maker. Before going into the service. Joe made one great move, marrying his high school sweetheart, Mae, and she waited patiently for him to return, which he did.

At age 19 in 1944, Joe was drafted but he chose to join the Navy and went to Great Lakes for boot camp. His next stop was Evansville, Indiana, where he picked up his ship, an LCVP. The sailors took the ship down the Mississippi for a shake-down cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.

Joe was assigned the job of helmsman, steering the ship. The landing craft was 300 long and had a flat bottom, making it difficult to steer in rough weather. The bow opened up to allow men and machinery to be brought up onto the beach. For a trip to Hawaii they loaded the ship with gas in barrels and headed out. Barrels were everywhere making the ship a sitting duck for an attack. Subs were reported in the gulf and around Florida as well as in the Pacific. Joe was very nervous during that trip but they made it.

The LCVP made three landings, Kwajalein., where the island was completely turned to rubble, Guam, which had been bombarded 13 days before the landing, and Saipan. They were met with strong resistance on all of these islands. On Guam Joe had a chance to observe the visual terrors of war when he saw hundreds of ambulances transporting the dead and wounded from Iwo Jima.

On April 1, 1945 Joe was the helmsman on an LCVP taking Army men to the beach during the 1st wave at Okinawa. He stood high above the 35 men on his ship and looked out of a slot behind a protective metal shield. He guided the ship toward the beach and into water shallow enough to disembark. Once the ship was on the beach Joe had to keep the ship “straight”, that is, perpendicular to the beach. If the ship got sideways there would be no way to take it back out again. At Buckner Bay there were 1,400 ships involved in the invasion of Okinawa. Joe's ship was threatened by kamikaze attacks. The planes would come in low and in the middle of the flotilla of ships so they couldn't be shot at. If ships would fire, the shells would hit other ships in the flotilla. Joe's ship managed to bag a Zero during this action and survived without damage.

At sea he had many interesting experiences, and perhaps the most interesting involved a sailor who had appendicitis. Joe's skipper, only 27, the “Old Man” as the men would call him, took control of the situation and turned all 14 ships in the flotilla into the wind to create smoother water so a Doctor could operate on the sailor. The skipper wasn't afraid to tangle with brass and did so on occasion. The ship was anything but a spit and polish ship. Living was loose and easy, without specific regulations as long as the job got done.

Joe saw a lot of Ypsilanti residents in the Pacific including two of his three brothers who were also in the Navy. One brother was on the Atlanta, a cruiser which was sunk at Guadalcanal. 750 were lost but his brother survived and Joe saw him at a small island in the Carolina's. Family reunion!

Joe estimates that his 300 foot ship with 110 sailors aboard traveled 76,000 miles in the Pacific at six knots per hour. The ship had a flat bottom and it rolled constantly and at six knots per hour the men thought that LST stood for “large slow target.” It goes without saying that Joe has never been interested in recreational boating.

His travels took him to Shanghai after the war, where he brought 1,000 Chinese prisoners home from Japan. Finally, he returned home himself to Mae in February of 1946 when he was discharged.