Volume 14, Issue 32 ~ August 10 - August 16, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

From Solomons to Battlefields and Back

The stories of men who lived to tell them

All we recall of Solomons Island were the forests, swamps, mosquitoes and other bad bugs.

—Ensign Ed Butler, U.S. Navy

The words quoted above surely don’t sound like the Solomons Island being promoted these days as a tourist destination with fancy eateries, drinkeries, antique, specialty and gift shops, even a wooden boardwalk on the Patuxent — not to mention one of the biggest fleets of power and sailboats in the Chesapeake.

Time changes all; Ed Butler was recalling Solomons Island of the mid 1940s when there were more sailors than there are tourists on a summer afternoon these days.

But Butler’s visit to Solomons wasn’t as a tourist. His time was spent at the United States Naval Amphibious Base at Dowell, about a mile as the sea gull flies north of today’s Tiki Bar.

A young and new Navy ensign had no time for liberty to take in the sights and hospitality of Solomons. World War II was underway, and he had been assigned a new crew and had maybe a few weeks at most of training to prepare for amphibious landings in the Pacific.

60-Odd Years Back

Ed Butler, now of Reston, Va., reminisced about those old days when the Navy set up the nation’s first amphibious training base as one of six panelists describing their experiences during Calvert Marine Museum’s three-day Cradle of Invasion commemoration. The annual event honors those who trained there, then went on land on enemy soil in Europe and the Pacific.

There was Jack Williams, raised on a farm at Prince Frederick, who recalled the days at the base when the chain-driven Mack trucks had solid tires. After training, he headed east to be at Omaha Beach on D-Day and for six weeks thereafter. Much of his early time was spent evacuating the wounded; later on French soil he recalls his unit trying to get the Germans off a rock pile. They shot the pile up badly, the fire just bounced off, and they had to take it.

“As we were preparing to attack the pile by force, fortunately, the Germans decided on their own to go home,” Williams said. While he was in Europe he got word of his daughter’s birth via a buddy whose wife had written him of it. Mail delivery was erratic on the battlefield.

Calvert Countian Bob Miller, who tested torpedoes at Dowell, remembered his concerns when a captured torpedo was tested and proved to be “better than anything we had. Some of our torpedoes would bounce off hulls,” he said. That problem was quickly corrected, and later Bob was set to head for Guam. Too late, for “suddenly the war was over.”

Vernon Garner — who worked on the base when it was being built and later joined the old Army Air Corps — recalled that when he had his option he told recruiters he wanted something with more than one motor. He ended up flying B-29s. Of Dowell, he said the USO, which entertained troops was active and “the Solomons girls were pretty, but also conservative.”

Bottom of the Barrel

Ed Butler recalled his qualifications for selection of officer in charge of an LCT in the new amphibious force: “I was selected because I reported a trip to Bermuda at age 16, and then three summers sailing off Marblehead, Mass., I learned the rudiments of piloting in our [family] sailboat. If those bits of information qualified me to become a prospective skipper, you can see how close the Navy was to the bottom of the barrel.”

(Akin was my WWII experience. I was midway in boot camp at Sampson Naval Training Base in upstate New York, when I casually mentioned I was a farm boy who cleared land with dynamite. The next day I was on a train headed to the Seabee base at Davisville, R.I., assigned to underwater demolition. Surely the Navy was at the bottom of the barrel).

The Dowell training, Butler said, “was fast, furious and intense.” He was assigned a crew of 12 that remained with him on his 120-foot LCT to the end of the war. But before they would leave Dowell they had to learn to handle their vessel.

Then they went off to war.

Sixty-two years later, Butler doesn’t recall the names of the crew, but “I knew I had their respect when an hour or so before we returned [from that final test], Cookie [the LCTs cook] accompanied by off-duty crew members brought me a half-bottle of whisky. I took the bottle and immediately threw it over the side saying Too bad, now there is no evidence, so you can’t be arrested for violating a law in effect since John Paul Jones established the United States Navy.”

The crew later served in the Philippines. Upon landing at Subic Bay, Ed said “A chief petty officer in a ragged uniform marched down as if he was on parade at the Naval Academy, went through the proper procedures to board us. To me he said, Where’s the paymaster? The Navy owes me four year’s pay. He had been on the 100-mile Death March on Bataan Peninsula, escaped and spent the remainder of the war spying on the Japanese.”

Next week we’ll cover how two Solomons ladies recall the Navy invasion of their island and peninsula.

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