William C. Butz never knew the German soldier’s name.
He didn’t know his rank. He didn’t know what the man’s duties were during World War II.
Butz knows this. The young soldier walked toward him near the end of the war in Europe in 1945, with one hand on top of his head. But first, he looked behind him.
Butz was ready with his rifle. He was ready to shoot, and tensed when the German used his other hand to reach inside his uniform.
“I thought he was going to come after me with a grenade,” said Butz, remembering seconds of drama from 72 years ago.
He almost pulled the trigger.
The German wasn’t looking for a fight. He produced a sheet of thin green paper that represented salvation for many enemy soldiers who had decided to give up. Butz accepted the surrender.
Colonie resident Butz, 97, served in the U.S. Army from February 1943 through September 1945. As a member of the 6th Armored Division and later in General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, he served overseas and saw action in the famous “Battle of the Bulge.” He rose through the ranks, earning his sergeant’s and staff sergeant’s stripes and leaving the service as a second lieutenant.
Today, Veterans Day, America celebrates and salutes men and women who have served in the military. One of the largest events will be held in Albany, where the city’s annual Veterans Day Parade kicks off at the corner of Central Avenue and Ontario Street at 11 a.m. The parade will proceed east on Central, and continue east on Washington Avenue to Hawk Street, located just east of the state Capitol.
Butz can offer compelling stories about his time in World War II. During the late 1990s, daughter Margaret Butz Perry asked her father to write down his memories of the war. She compiled the notes into a book, “World War II As I Saw It,” that was self-published in 2000.
Butz shares his stories often, and has talked to students at local schools about brushes with danger — and death — during the war years. There are stories about life as a soldier, some hard stories about war, even some stories tinged with humor.
An example of the latter: Guys knew Butz’s father had been born in Germany. In France, soldiers had to deal with artillery shells from the opposition. “My buddies would yell, ‘Hey Butz, your cousins are shooting at us again.’ My answer was, ‘So, you’re shooting at them.”
Butz remembers the green papers that helped save lives, the paper that saved the young soldier. The Allies called them “safe conduct certificates.”
“They dropped them from the bombers,” Butz said.
Butz still has one of the papers, which he folded and mailed home. For Germans, it was a “passierscheini,” or a pass. It reads, in both English and German, “The German soldier who carries this safe-conduct is using it as a sign of his genuine wish to give himself up. He is to be disarmed, to be well looked after, to receive food and medical attention as required, and is to be removed from the danger zone as soon as possible.”
Butz said the German soldier he met was very young. “I know he hadn’t shaved,” Butz said. “I would say he might have been 15, 16. Why he looked back, I found out later, the Germans had orders to shoot those guys in the back if they were caught with one of these passes, they weren’t supposed to pick up one, they weren’t supposed to quit. This was about two weeks before it ended.
“I don’t know yet why I didn’t pull the trigger,” Butz added. “Boy, I would have felt so bad. Here’s a kid trying to quit and I thought he was pulling a grenade out, which you’d expect. He had that thing hidden from his own men so they wouldn’t see it.”
William C. Butz was born in Lockport, outside Buffalo, in 1919. “We had a greenhouse business, we lost it when the Depression came,” Butz said, sitting for an interview in the kitchen of his home. “When I was 10 years old, we moved to Cohoes. Around 1930, I guess.”
The family later moved to Latham, and Butz attended Troy High School. He never graduated — at 16, he had to leave during the mid-1930s to work a job. “I had to help support the family,” he said. “We had four boys and a girl.” The job was a grower’s assistant, and Butz was still in the floral business when he married Effie Booth In Schuylerville on June 15, 1940. The couple recently celebrated 76 years together.
By 1943, Butz was working at Lindy’s Greenhouse in Glens Falls. By this time, brothers Ed and Bob were in the Marine Corps and brother Karl was in the Army. Butz wanted to sign up, too, but because he was married with a baby daughter, he was kept in Class “3A” and told he would be staying home. He disagreed with the Army recruitment officer.
“I started out the door and he said, ‘You really want to go?’ I said, ‘I’m here, aren’t I?” Butz said.
Effie had to sign paperwork that was sent to the local draft board. “In 10 days I was at Fort Dix,” Butz said. “That’s how fast it went.”
Then it was on to Fort Sheridan in Illinois for basic training. Butz would eventually run a half-track unit; half-tracks were military vehicles with regular wheels in the front for steering and continuous tracks in the back to power the vehicle and carry most of the load.
In July of 1944, Butz’s 6th Armored was part of Patton’s Third Army, and the Third Army was moving into France. And here some troubles began. The objective: Cut off the Brest Peninsula, the location of a large German submarine pen. Troops entered a small French town, and did not know exhausted German soldiers had bedded down in the area. Butz believes the Germans thought they were safe because they were far from front lines.
Here are some of the stories from “World War II As I saw It.”
“Just as we pulled into that little town with the German cars, everything happened. The Germans heard us coming. MG tracers were flying everywhere. It looked like the 4th of July. We had stopped in front of the first house in town. It was about 6 a.m. and just getting light.
“A woman ran out of the house towards our half-track, she yelled something in French. Louie LeVesque, my machine gunner, could understand French. He yelled to me that she said a German officer was upstairs in her house. I sent Corporal Stanford around the side of the house and almost immediately I heard his M1 rifle fire. He no more than said, ‘I got him!’ when the French woman appeared again and said we had shot her husband.
“Sure enough, the husband had been shot in the head. We felt bad, but that’s war. What in the world did he move that curtain for?”
The husband had been hiding behind the curtain.
“Boy, that hurt,” Butz said. “That gunner of mine, he sat on the steps there and he cried, he felt so bad. The woman, I do remember slightly, she went over to the porch, I was standing beside the porch and he was sitting on the steps crying. She put her arm around him. That must have made him feel a little better.”
Butz expects the soldier never could forget the incident. “I never forgot it,” Butz said.
An army travels on its stomach. Sometimes, for Army men in World War II, it was tough traveling.
“We lived mostly on C & K rations. The one I hated the most was the can of hash, but it was not so bad if you could heat it. Some soldiers put the can on a manifold of the half-track and had them blow up over the motor. You had to punch holes in the can before heating it. The best thing we had was the D bar. It was a chocolate bar full of vitamins and that was what kept us going.”
Once, the quest for food saved soldiers’ lives.
“As our half-track was going by a field of carrots, one of my men begged me to stop long enough to grab a bunch of carrots to eat. I didn’t want to, but I gave in. While the men were pulling carrots, I happened to look down about four feet in front of the half-track. What I saw almost made me sick. I could see the top part of a German teller mine sticking up. When the soldier who had asked me to stop got back into the half-track, I told him I was glad he talked me into stopping. We flagged the mine by putting up a marker. We then backed up and went way around the mine. If we didn’t stop for the carrots I would not be writing this.”
Butz would run out of luck shortly afterward. In November 1944, his unit had just cleared a small town after heavy fighting.
There was a road outside the town that had been heavily mined. Command officers ordered Butz and his 32 men to clear the mines — the brass would supply mine detectors and men who knew how to deactivate the explosives.
There was heavy fire, and four of Butz’s men were killed and 12 were wounded. Replacements, a captain assured Butz, were on the way.
“I reached around to my back pocket and I felt a rip. I reached through the heavy tank pants … and when I pulled my hand out, I knew I was hit, but it didn’t hurt. Another barrage of mortars came in and I hit the ground.
Before medics got to me, I looked down the road to see if replacements were coming. I saw six men coming up. They all had new, shiny gear. I knew they were the replacements. I was worried because they were all bunched up. Just then about six mortars came in. One had hit in the middle of the replacements … when medics reached me, they said all the replacements were dead.”
Butz’s unit later participated in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign of World War II. The first objective was relieve the 101 Airborne Divisions at Bastogne in southeast Belgium. Another objective was not planned.
“By accident, the 6th Armored ran right into Buchenwald concentration camp. If I didn’t see this, I’d never have believed it. I took a few pictures and ran out of film. Most prisoners were unable to walk. When they stood up, they looked like skeletons. There was a huge pile of dead bodies about 100 yards from the barracks. They were stacked like cords of wood. Inside the barracks were shelves called bunks. They were four high and only about fifteen inches between them. No mattresses, just plain boards. There were three or four people in each shelf. There was one or two dead in every bunk. The division radioed for medical aid. We were warned not to give these men any drinks, food or anything as it might kill them.
“After moving on, about one and a half days later, we heard that General Eisenhower heard about this incident. He had the nearest village, men, women and children, march through the concentration camp. Hundreds of women fainted. They said they had no idea this was happening there.”
Butz and his brothers all came home. During the late 1940s, Butz landed a job at the Georgia Pacific pulp and paper mill in Thomson (near Schuylerville) and retired as superintendent in September 1980. For many years, he kept in touch with Army buddies through an annual exchange of Christmas cards. But many of the guys are gone now.
“I only got one last year,” Butz said. “Usually, the wives will write me and tell me their husbands have died.”
He remembers those men, and the soldiers who died during World War II.
“The men who didn’t come back,” he said, “they are the real heroes.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.