St. Louis veteran remembers the Pearl Harbor attack, 67 years ago Sunday
Marcus Butts' service medals hang on a picture of the destroyer USS Sigsbee,
where he served in the South Pacific until December 17, 1943. The Sigsbee was hit by a Japanese kamikaze bomber April 14, 1945. (Robert Cohen/P-D)
By Tim O'Neil
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. LOUIS — Marcus Butts is a cheerful man who begins his day in Carondelet Park. He walks his dog, tosses bread to the waterfowl and happily greets everyone he sees.
At 83, he moves slowly and with short steps. He uses a cane. He and Krissy, his dog, never venture far from his green 1998 Lincoln Continental. The ducks and geese, who appear to know the car by sight, cackle loudly and splash toward him in a frenzy before he opens their daily loaf.
"They' re hungry and appreciate the bread," Butts said. "And I enjoy the fuss."
Of his disposition, he says simply, "I am satisfied with how my life turned out."
The only evidence that the gentle Butts once was an American warrior is his
favorite faded Navy-blue windbreaker. It bears the name of the Sigsbee, a
destroyer on which he served on the Pacific Ocean in World War II. His station
was deep in the boiler room.
"I loved that ship," he said.
Sixty-seven years ago this afternoon, Butts was among the
boys and young men jolted into fury by news bulletins of Japan's surprise
attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese pilots killed 2,390 Americans, sank or damaged
21 ships and wrecked the American airfields. The most enduring image is of the
shattered battleship Arizona, on which 1,177 sailors and Marines died when a
bomb exploded its forward magazine.
Butts, like so many other Americans, heard the first sketchy reports over the family Philco radio. Still only 16, he went downtown two days later to enlist in the Navy. A sharp-eyed recruiter told him to come back on his birthday.
"Everybody was swept up," he said. "The recruiting station was mobbed with guys, all smoking cigarettes and talking how they would do this or that. I thought I was as big and tough as everyone else down there. Why not take me?"
He got his chance in June 1942 when, with his parents' permission, he entered the Navy barely a month after he turned 17. (Then as now, applicants needed parental permission to enlist before turning 18.) His enlistment record shows a popular reason for signing up: "Patriotism."
When he reached the Navy's Great Lakes training station near Chicago, he joined 3.8 million young Americans already in uniform. By war's end, 16.1 million had served, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 405,000 were killed in action or died from other causes.
Butts' Sigsbee was a Fletcher-class d estroyer, the Cadillac of the World War II destroyer fleet. It had two stacks, five main gun turrets and could hit 40 mph. Before he joined the brand-new Sigsbee at a New Jersey shipyard in January 1943, he served in the Atlantic on the USS Jouett DD-396, an older destroyer.
He was on the Sigsbee for an air strike on Marcus Island in August 1943 and the bombardment of Wake Island in October 1943 followed by the bloody invasion of Tarawa one month later.
He finished the war on the USS Sebec AO-87, a fleet oiler that carried fuel for other ships. Inside that vulnerable target Butts took part in invasions of the Philippines in September 1944 and Okinawa the following spring.
He returned home, finished his education at Roosevelt High School and joined the St. Louis Fire Department in 1949. He was promoted to battalion chief in 1978 and retired in 1984. Butts is divorced and has no children.
Butts said he attended a few ship reunions but didn't enjoy talking about young men killed in battle or the peacetime deaths of older veterans. He keeps his service medals mounted on a framed photograph of the Sigsbee in his living room, nine blocks west of Carondelet Park. Nowadays, he enjoys the racket of ducks feasting on bread.
"The lake is a long, long way from Okinawa," he said. "Truth is, I don't think a lot about it anymore."
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Today, about 2.5 million World War II veterans
are still living. Of those 84 or older — old enough to have enlisted as of Dec.
7, 1941 — the number dwindles to 1.5 million.
That sobering roll call explains the simple plan of the local Pearl Harbor Survivors As sociation for its commemoration Sunday, one of only a few events in the area. Two of the few remaining members of the association are to meet for a flag raising at 11:55 a.m. — the beginning of the attack in Hawaii in Central time — in the city of Pacific, at the Tri-County Senior Center, 800 West Union Street. The flag to be raised has flown over the battleship Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Bill Hogue, 84, of Catawissa, said it would be a simple ceremony. "No speeches, no bands," Hogue said. "We've tried to keep it going, but eventually you have to give it up a bit. We're not getting any younger."
Time was when the annual observance was a big deal. On Dec. 7, 1966, the 25th anniversary, a ceremony on the St. Louis riverfront included a volley by a Coast Guard honor guard on a riverboat. In 1991, the 50th, about 75 people took part in dropping a wreath into the river.
The association did that every year until 1993, when the flood of that year ripped the Inaugural minesweeper from its tourist mooring on the downtown levee and sank it. The annual event then moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. No observance is planned there Sunday.
Many of the survivors association here had been Navy reservists who had been called up earlier in 1941 and were serving in Pearl Harbor on World War I-vintage "four-piper" destroyers, so named because they had four tall smokestacks.