The Night is Darkest just before the Light
“If it’s too hard for everyone else, it’s just right for us Butterfields”. This is what my grandfather would always say to his six sons and two daughters, one of whom was my mother (Elaine Butterfield-Redlinger). Only a few were old enough to serve during World War II, but all 6 boys would eventually join the military, my mother joined the Marine Corps in 1950 when she came of age. One of those Butterfield Boys who served during World War II was my Uncle Wyatt. Wyatt Butterfield enlisted in the Navy and soon joined the newly commissioned U.S.S. Juneau, a light cruiser with a primary purpose of anti-aircraft defense. He and nearly 700 shipmates would soon be off to fight in the waters around Guadalcanal, to provide cover for the Marines who had just seized the Pacific island and its strategic airfield. Little did Wyatt know, he would be defined by a different kind of fight, one he could have never imagined. One where the enemy would be the sun, the sea, the cold, angry waves, thirst, hunger and man-eating sharks. For 8 days, he would have a front-row seat to the horrific sights and sounds of friends being eaten alive. He would emerge as one of only 10 survivors from the U.S.S. Juneau tragedy.
There is a lot of reverence to be paid this week, between the 244th Marine Corps Birthday on Nov 10th and Veterans Day on Nov 11th. But, let us not forget the tremendous loss, sacrifice, and heroism that occurred when the U.S.S. Juneau was attacked by a Japanese sub and destroyed on Nov 13, 1942; 77 years ago today. Stationed aboard the ship were the famous five Sullivan Brothers. They had told the Navy they would only serve if they could be on the same ship. In this case and others, the Navy waived the policy of family members serving aboard the same ship in combat. Their story was an inspiration for the epic film, “Saving Private Ryan”. Also on board were two of the four Rogers Brothers. Two of them had just departed the ship prior to the tragedy. Both the Sullivan and Rogers Brothers, like so many other men that day, paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
In the Land of Giants
As a young boy, I grew up in the land of giants. My mother and father both Marines, and seven uncles in total who were Marines, Sailors or Soldiers. All collectively serving during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I learned lots of valuable lessons on becoming a man, but some lessons were etched deeper than others. Such a lesson was overcoming adversity against all odds. My uncle Wyatt taught me this lesson in his actions following that fateful day on Nov 13th, 1942.
Into the Breach
The U.S.S. Juneau was engaged in heavy fighting during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific during World War II. After a fierce battle, it and other US ships headed to a nearby port for resupply and repair. The Juneau had already been hit by a Japanese torpedo and lost 19 men. The ship limped toward open waters when it was hit by another torpedo. This one scored a direct hit on the ship’s magazine, causing a terrific explosion that nearly disintegrated the vessel. Of the approximate 700 men on board, only a little more than a hundred were thrown into the sea; the rest would perish to the depths of the Pacific. My Uncle Wyatt was inside a gunner’s turret with other sailors. All were killed instantly except him. The turret quickly filled with water, but he was able to escape and ascend to the surface. Covered in thick black oil, he could see no remains of the Juneau, only smoke and bodies. He climbed aboard a life raft and soon others joined him. There were horrific sights everywhere, men missing body parts and screaming in agony from their wounds. They could not recognize each other as everyone was covered in oil from head to toe. Over the next 8 days at sea, he would witness over a hundred survivors dwindle down to just a handful. Day after day was nothing but a theater show of horrific death as men were eaten alive, died from exposure or just went mad from drinking saltwater, then slipping into the shark-infested waters to “go get a sandwich from the galley”.
Do not go Gentle into that Good Night
By the eighth day, my Uncle Wyatt explained that they were now numb to the sights of death. As they witnessed more men die, they became conditioned to it and began to consider the dead as lucky to finally have ended their suffering. Men flirted with the idea of submitting to death. But my Uncle always remembered his father’s words, as if he was there whispering in his ear, “Remember son, never give up. You’re a Butterfield, A Butterfield never dies young”. My grandfather’s advice reminds me of a poem by Dylan Thomas, where he encourages his own father battling with death “the night”, “Don’t go gentle into that good night. Rage…rage against the dying of the light”.
The Night is Darkest just before the Light
On that final day at sea, they were spotted by a Navy PBY plane flying above. While the plane was capable of a water-borne landing, the pilots had orders not to land in the open sea. So, the crew dropped a package with supplies and a note of pending rescue. The package landed approximately 50 feet away from the raft and the remaining men paddled desperately with their last bit of strength. However, the current was not working in their favor. The men sat quietly in the moment’s defeat while Wyatt Butterfield pondered his next action. He watched the sharks circle the raft and weighed the risks. Then, he stretched out his arm and shook the other men’s hands, asking that they tell his parents what happened here today. One of the men handed Wyatt his Bowie knife; Wyatt took it and slipped quietly into the water. My Uncle Wyatt would say that every second felt like an eternity and that 50 feet seemed like a mile. He anticipated being attacked and kept bracing to lose body parts to the predators. But, nothing happened until he reached the package. Then, he saw multiple sharks headed his way. While clutching the precious cargo, he took the knife and slashed wildly at the beasts. He felt the knife make contact and could hear the yells of encouragement from the men in the raft. Miraculously, he wounded one of the sharks and the others began to cannibalize it. Wyatt swam frantically with the package and was finally pulled back inside the raft.
Courage Breeds Courage
Against orders, and after witnessing the drama below, the pilots landed the plane and pulled the survivors aboard. 10 men out of 700 survived. My Uncle Wyatt would go on to live a full life. But, the horrible sights and sounds of those several days would plague his dreams for the rest of his life, until he died in 1991. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery and become a hero to the nation, his community and his family. To this day, his intestinal fortitude is a story of perseverance and remains a testament to those wise words continually uttered by his father.
Boys will be Boys! “Those Damn Butterfields”
It was a privilege growing up around the “Butterfield Boys” (and Girl, my mother). With a scowl on his face, my dad affectionately referred to them as “Those Damn Butterfields”. When they would visit, their laughter was full-throated and authentic, and the sister-service banter between my father and them seemed to never end. They would tell fantastic stories full of colorful words, animated gestures and military jargon. They would lovingly punch me in the arm, embrace me in horseplay, joke with me and tease me about wanting to be a Marine like my dad. There is great fortune in growing up around men like this. We should all be so lucky to learn from the giants around us.
“We can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell. One inch, at a time”
Fortitude is Measured in Minutes and Inches
I have banked on the lessons of my uncle’s deeds during my own bouts with adversity, especially those that were life-threatening. Additionally, I have weaved his tale into my own teachings, spanning the last 30 years. Whether it was for the benefit of Marines under my charge or topics of officer survival for my brothers and sisters in blue. Even when teaching civilians, I have emphasized that when you feel outmatched, are beaten down and want to quit, just fight one-minute longer…then repeat. Repeat the process until the accumulation of minutes has tipped the balance in your favor. This may sound similar to the philosophy of Al Pacino’s character, Coach D’Amato, in the film “Any Given Sunday”. Pacino tells his players in an epic halftime speech, that life is a game of inches, “we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell. One inch, at a time”.
To quote another classic character, In the 1976 movie featuring Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales, he gives a speech to a small rag-tag group of underdogs about to fight for their lives, “Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win”.
So as we honor the anniversary of that tragic day 77 years ago, remember, whatever life throws at you, be it mother nature, man-made or your own personal demon, “don’t go quietly into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.