For Irvin “Butch” Johnson, recognition for a job well done was never the point.
|Johnson was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943.
But late last year, the 91-year-old retired wireman from Cumberland, Md., Local 307 became something of a local celebrity around his Western Maryland hometown.
In October, almost 70 years late, Johnson was presented with the Silver Star he earned in the aftermath of World War II’s pivotal “Battle of the Bulge” in 1945.
Celebrations followed, with Johnson feted by his church, a U.S. Army Major General, and by more than 12,000 people at a high school football game. Praise rolled in from the U.S. Senate, Congress, county and local officials, and Oct. 4, 2015 was officially declared “Butch Johnson Day” in the city of Cumberland.
In 1943, Butch Johnson was an 18-year-old senior at Fort Hill High School watching classmates get snatched up by the draft as soon as they graduated. Hoping to avoid their fate, he dropped out, thinking he’d slip past the draft board and get on with his life.
But his gambit backfired and he was soon packing his bags for U.S. Army basic training, where young Butch would learn the combat skills he hoped would keep him alive when he joined his fellow G.I.s in the fight against Nazi Germany.
After basic, Johnson was dispatched to Fort Jackson, S.C., where he was assigned to the 87th Infantry Division, 345th Infantry Regiment, Company K. More training followed over the next year, but in October 1944, Butch suddenly found himself aboard a train bound for Camp Kilmer, N.J.
Months earlier, in June, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in France, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of an 11-month campaign that would lead directly to Adolf Hitler’s doorstep in Berlin, Germany. By Oct. 17, 1944, Johnson and the rest of the 87th were departing Manhattan aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, then the world’s largest passenger ship.
“It was an awful trip,” Johnson recalled. The liner carried thousands of untested young soldiers on their way to fight in one of the world’s most destructive wars, and the choppy waters of the North Atlantic did little to quiet their already uneasy stomachs.
The ship’s unannounced destination turned out to be the River Clyde, just west of Glasgow, Scotland. “We made it in seven days,” Johnson said, “with a German U-boat following us the whole way. We were moving so fast they couldn’t keep up to get a clean shot.” From Scotland, the boys of the 87th worked their way south down the Isle of Britain, eventually staging in the English Midlands.
On the night of Nov. 25, Johnson and his fellow soldiers again boarded a train, this time bound for the southern port city of Southampton, where they would embark on the short journey across the English Channel to France. When morning arrived on November 27, Johnson and the rest of his division disembarked in La Havre harbor ready to join the Third Army of the fearsome General George S. Patton.
While engaged in fighting pockets of German resistance across France during the early part of December, Johnson and the 87th soon found themselves engaged in heavy combat near the French-German border town of Rimling in the Saar Valley. Fighting continued along the southern portion of the so-called Siegfried Line, a series of German defenses in northeast France, for the better part of two weeks.
|Cumberland, Md., Local 307 member Irvin “Butch” Johnson, right, with long-time friend and Local 307 brother George Smith.
“We lived through hell for a while,” Johnson said. The snow, feet deep at times, belied the dangers that lay beneath it: frostbite and worse, German landmines and snipers. “Wearing those olive drab overcoats in the snow was just like putting a giant target on your back,” Johnson remembered. “There were snipers in the woods and stuff under that snow that would blow your head off. We had to walk in the footprints of the guy in front of us to try and stay in one piece.”
Food and dry shoes were hard to come by as well. “The snow and mud soaked right through that leather,” said Johnson, who, decades later would lose both legs below the knees thanks to complications from the frostbite he suffered in France.
On Christmas Day, the 87th got new orders. German forces had broken through in the Ardennes Forest, north of Luxembourg, and reinforcements were needed. Overnight, Johnson and his fellow G.I.s were loaded into open-topped trucks, enduring freezing temperatures and total darkness, and driven 200 miles north over rough roads to stop the Nazi advance.
“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” Johnson said of the conditions that night. “When we got to Belgium, they told us, ‘When you get out of the truck, make sure you have your bayonets fixed.’ They dropped us right in the middle of it.”
“It” was the Battle of the Bulge, an Allied counteroffensive to stop one of the last gasps of Nazi military might. When all was finished, nearly 20,000 American soldiers were dead, another 26,000 missing, and more than 60,000 wounded. Combined German casualties were estimated as high as 125,000.
On February 6 in the battle’s aftermath, Johnson, who had been promoted to staff-sergeant, was leading his men near the German border town of Kobscheid when his squad was pinned down by an entrenched German machine gun nest. Ordered to take the bunker, Butch directed his men to provide covering fire while he fought his way up the hill and climbed up and on top of the concrete pill box from behind.
“It was hideous,” he remembered. “I crawled up there and you could hear the ‘ping, ping’ of bullets flying by and see the sparks where they hit the cement in front of you.” Chunks of flying concrete sprayed his face as he crawled to the edge of the bunker, seeing one of the Germans firing at his men below. Thinking quickly, he pulled the pin on a hand grenade, counted to two, and dropped it inside.
“I felt like I was going to be sick,” Johnson said, but moments after the explosion, a German lieutenant in full dress uniform stepped over his fallen comrade with his hands in the air and presented Johnson with his weapon.
It was months later, in a hospital in Paris, when Johnson learned he had been awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day. “I’d gotten shot by a sniper in Germany later that month,” Johnson recalled, “and they sent me back to Paris. And then one day, I was lying there in bed and a colonel comes by and pins this thing to my pajamas and tells me he doesn’t have the paperwork for it.”
There would be a formal ceremony to present him with the Army’s third-highest award for valor at a later date, he was told. But that day never came. On April 30, Hitler would shoot himself in his Berlin bunker and eight days later, the Allies would accept Germany’s unconditional surrender. “I just figured they had the wrong Johnson,” Butch said.
A Homecoming and a New Life
When Johnson finally returned home, the journey took twice as long – 14 days versus the seven he spent on the Queen Elizabeth. “But, boy is it a great feeling when you stand on that deck and see that lady holding her torch in New York harbor.”
After a few months assigned to Fort Meade near Baltimore, Johnson got his discharge papers in November 1945 and travelled back over the mountains to Cumberland.
“I started looking for a job,” he said, “and they had an event for returning veterans downtown where a fella came up to me and said, ‘You want to be an electrician?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ So they had me go down to the post office and take an examination.
|Johnson with Local 307 member and World War II veteran Floyd Wigfield, 97.
“When I came out, I handed in this occupational test and the guy says to me, ‘Are you sure you want to be an electrician? Every answer on this thing says you want to be in a band.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to be in a band,’ so he sends me back in and says, ‘Every time this thing asks you what you want to do, you better put down ‘electrician.’ And that’s how I got involved with our Local 307.”
Within a few months, Johnson was working for Sterling Electric, a signatory contractor in Cumberland, wiring commercial buildings, schools and responding to residential service calls. “No matter what you wanted to do, I had the tools in my truck,” he said.
It was at Sterling in 1952 that he met George Smith, another veteran, who had served in North Africa during the war. The two men struck up a quick friendship, and where you saw one, the other was sure to follow. “We were like brothers,” Johnson said, “even more than I was with my actual brothers.”
The two were so close, in fact, that they married sisters, Marian and Virginia, two lovely locals who just happened to be the boss’s daughters. Their status cemented at Sterling, Butch and George went on to work for the company side by side for the next 30 years.
“I never missed a day’s work,” Johnson recalled with pride. “We cared about what we did, and we wanted to do the job right.” When he would get house calls to the stately homes on a ridge overlooking town, Johnson remembers slipping thick woolen socks over his muddy boots to protect the rugs.
“It got to where the ladies up there would call Sterling and say, ‘Send Butch over, I need a light bulb.’ I think they liked me because I swept up after myself,” he said, laughing.
“We talk a lot about the Code of Excellence at the IBEW,” said Jim Combs, who retired as the senior executive assistant to the international secretary-treasurer in 2008 and was business manager of Local 307 when Johnson and Smith retired in the late 80s. “But guys like Butch and George lived it long before we ever thought to write it down.”
When Sterling closed down in 1985, the pair moved on together to another contractor, A.G. Cronkleton before retiring within a year of one another in 1986 and 1987.
Toast of the Town
Last summer, Johnson spent some time in a Maryland rehab center learning how to use his new prosthetic legs. Thanks to the frostbite he’d suffered in the war, he had both legs removed below the knee in 2005 and 2006.
While there, he met retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Emmer, who was tending to his ill father-in-law. The two struck up a casual friendship, and Emmer took an interest in Johnson’s military career.
|U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William E. Rapp presents Johnson with his long-awaited Silver Star at a ceremony last October.
“When I heard the story about the officer pinning Butch’s medal to his pajamas, I knew I had to get him the recognition he’d earned,” Emmer said.
So he made a few phone calls. One call led to another until Emmer managed to connect with an old acquaintance from his days at the Air Force Academy, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
“Once the request got to him, we had the original citations within 36 hours,” Emmer said. A few more calls and a lot more help lined up someone to present the medal as well.
Maj. Gen. William Rapp, the commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and former commandant of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, would drive the two hours to Cumberland on Oct. 4 to finally give Johnson the recognition he’d earned 70 years earlier.
The celebration was held at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, where Johnson and Smith were long-time congregants and where the pair had volunteered their electrical skills for many years. Elected officials at every level of government got in on the festivities as well, and Johnson received congratulatory citations from the Allegany County Board of Commissioners, the Maryland General Assembly, U.S. Rep. John Delaney and Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
At the ceremony, with Smith, Combs, his IBEW brothers and sisters and friends and family looking on, Rapp reminded them what it means to be a leader of men. “What squad leaders do, what staff sergeants do, is nothing other than put themselves at the point of the spear,” he said before pinning the Silver Star to Johnson’s chest. They don’t “just send privates forward. … [Johnson’s] gallantry on those days is in keeping with the highest commissions of military service.”
“What he said about staff sergeants really meant a lot to me,” Johnson said, still beaming at the idea that an important general would come to Cumberland just for him. “Those years weren’t easy, but I’ve got no regrets. I’m alive, and I had some good times in there too.”
A month later, around Veterans Day, Johnson found himself in Cumberland’s spotlight again. He was invited to his local high school for a lunchtime assembly and honored in front of 12,000 people at the beginning of the school’s annual homecoming football game.
Through all of it, Johnson seemed slightly bewildered by all the attention. “I got called on to serve my country, and I did it,” he said. “Then I came back and I got on with my life.” That life has been a pretty good one too, in no small part because of that man who asked him if he wanted to be an electrician so many years ago.
“The IBEW has been good to me,” Johnson said, sitting next to Smith, who will be 93 this March. “Just wonderful. I never went without work, and I got to spend eight hours a day with my brother here for 32 years.”