2nd Lieutenant John M. Butler (1918–1944)

John M. Butler (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)
Home StateCivilian Occupations
DelawareFarmer, spinner at DuPont’s nylon factory
BranchService Numbers
U.S. Army Air ForcesEnlisted 12012712 / Flight Officer T-121220 / Officer O-532941
European434th Troop Carrier Group (on detached service from 38th Troop Carrier Squadron)
Air Medal, Purple HeartNormandy

Early Life and Family

John Mitchell Butler was born on the morning of June 23, 1918, near Andrewville (an unincorporated area located in Mispillion Hundred just west of the town of Farmington, Delaware). He was the second child of Willis Norman Butler (who went by W. Norman Butler, a farmer, 1892–1965) and Mary M. Butler (née Barney, 1894–1985). Nicknamed “Johnny,” Butler had an older brother, Norman Franklin Butler (1915–1979), and an adopted younger sister, Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Barney (1923–2013).

Butler with his mother and son (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

Butler grew up on the family farm near Andrewville. As was common during that era, he left school after completing 8th grade. Butler was working as a farmer when he married Margaret Susan Donovan in Farmington on July 5, 1937. They had one son, Roger. The couple divorced sometime in the early 1940s.

By March 11, 1940, Butler was working for the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (better known as the DuPont Company) in Seaford, Delaware. Opened in 1939, the Seaford factory manufactured nylon. According to a statement by his mother, Butler worked as a spinner there. During World War II, Butler would come to rely on nylon towlines as a glider pilot. In a letter to the DuPont Company (written sometime between late 1943 and February 1944, when it was published in a company newsletter) Butler stated that “I never thought too much about the importance of my job in the Nylon Plant until one night” when he witnessed a glider crash into the woods during after the towline broke unexpectedly during a training mission. Butler was living in the area of Farmington, Delaware, when he registered for the draft on October 16, 1940.

Butler (right) with his plane before entering the military (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

Military Training and Stateside Service

Butler had roughly three years’ experience flying light aircraft as a civilian. He volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces in Wilmington, Delaware on January 8, 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the next 27 months, he moved between no fewer than 14 different bases in 10 states, covering the full length and breadth of the country.

Map of Butler’s movements between January 1942 and April 1944. During that time, he traveled over 13,000 miles traveling between various assignments in the continental United States. (Map generated by Lowell Silverman using the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz)

After enlisting, Private Butler was briefly stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. In the letter to his old workplace, Butler stated: “My stay at Fort Dix wasn’t so very interesting as it was all marching.”

Later that month, around January 22, 1942, Private Butler arrived at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was assigned to the 359th Technical School Squadron. He later recalled: “My time there was all spent in marching and some KP [kitchen duty] once in awhile.”

From there, Private Butler traveled by train to Arizona, arriving at Luke Field in Phoenix on March 6, 1942. He recalled in his letter to DuPont that: “There it was much better, I was a link training instructor.  This includes the teaching of Instrument Flying and Beam Orientation.” The Link Trainer was an early form of flight simulator. While stationed in Arizona, Butler met his future wife, Meredith Young.

Butler wrote that he transferred to glider training in Twentynine Palms, California on June 3, 1942. In a letter to his old workplace at DuPont, Lieutenant Butler commented on the irony of the assignment:

Whenever I did any flying in civilian life—which I did for about three years—I almost prayed for the motor to keep running while I was in the air.  However, when I reached 29 Palms, I saw they were flying without motors.

Butler (standing seventh from left) in a group photo with a Waco CG-4A glider taken at an unknown stateside installation (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

Contemporary airborne divisions were composed of both paratrooper and glider units. Towed close to their objective by a powered aircraft, gliders could land troops, equipment, and vehicles behind enemy lines. Glider pilots had to fly carefully even before detaching from the tug, lest they collide with other aircraft or put too much strain on their towline.

In his book, World War II Glider Assault Tactics, Gordon L. Rottman wrote:

The Preliminary Plane Gliding School lasted five weeks, with 40 hours in Piper Cubs practicing dead-stick (unpowered) landings and day and night instruction. […] The Elementary-Advanced Glider School lasted one week with eight flying hours in sailplanes, plus one week and eight hours in cargo gliders. There were seven of these schools, later replaced by Advanced Glider Schools at nine Army airfields. From May 1943, all advanced glider training was conducted at South Plains Army Air Field, Lubbock, Texas, which graduated the majority of the eventual 6,000 glider pilots.

Rottman added:

“Every landing is a crash-landing” was a glider pilots’ catchphrase – “a planned accident.” While pilots of powered aircraft looked down on GPs [glider pilots], they overlooked the unique challenges that the latter faced. The GPs had no second chances in the case of too long or too short an approach; they could not abort the landing and come around for another attempt. Once released, they had to land at their first attempt, and could not remain aloft while they looked for a better LZ [landing zone]. They had to be good every time. […] The distance a glider required to come to a halt was highly variable; it depended on touchdown speed (which could not be powered back or increased, as with a powered aircraft), angle of approach, glider weight, surface composition – grass (wet or dry), bare earth, sand, rocks – and obstacles on the landing zone. […] Landing slides could vary from 50ft to 200ft, or even more.

A CG-4A glider in flight during training in the United States (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

On July 11, 1942, Private Butler departed Twentynine Palms for the Army Air Forces Glider School at English Field in Amarillo, Texas. Staff Sergeant Butler spent a few days in Delaware on furlough before returning to Texas. Shortly thereafter, on July 24, 1942, he was promoted to staff sergeant. On July 29, 1942, he received orders to depart on August 1, 1942, for detached service to the 26th Army Air Forces Glider Training Detachment in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

The following month, on September 8, 1942, Staff Sergeant Butler left Aberdeen for the 21st Army Air Forces Glider Training Detachment in Pittsburg, Kansas. A civilian firm, the McFarland Flying Service, had been contracted to instruct glider students at Pittsburg. Butler wrote that his job there was “to give final army check rides to the students.  If they passed their check ride, they went on to the next school, if not, they were washed out.”

Butler on the flight line, likely in Pittsburg, Kansas, around October 1942 (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

Staff Sergeant Butler remained in Pittsburg until January 1943, when he was ordered to attend the Advanced Glider Pilot course at the Army Air Forces Glider School in Dalhart, Texas. Butler arrived at Dalhart on January 21, 1943. After graduating on February 8, 1943, Butler was appointed to the grade of flight officer. On February 19, 1943, he was transferred to Ardmore Army Air Base, Oklahoma. He arrived there two days later. Butler wrote that while stationed at Admore, “I was chief check pilot in power ships, and also in charge of 43 instructors.”

A February 25, 1943, certification by a flight surgeon at Ardmore stated that Butler had logged 1,050 hours of powered flight (including 110 hours of instrument flight), plus 45 hours of glider flight, two months instructing, and five months as a check pilot.

On March 31, 1943, Flight Officer Butler transferred to Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky, where he joined the Glider Pilot Combat Training Unit. Butler wrote that “There I was in charge of 110 Instructors.” While stationed at Bowman, he received a letter of commendation dated May 31, 1943, that stated: “At the request of Colonel Landis, Chief of Staff, I Troop Carrier Command, you are to be commended for your fine display of formation flying during the review of the GPCTU, this date.”

Lieutenant Butler in North Carolina (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

On August 6, 1943, Butler was transferred to the 38th Troop Carrier Squadron—an operational training unit—at Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base, North Carolina. The unit operated at nearby Camp Mackall from September 10, 1943, until January 17, 1944, when it returned to Laurinburg-Maxton.

Butler was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on September 1, 1943. A flight physical dated February 15, 1944, stated that 2nd Lieutenant Butler had 1,200 hours of flight time as a pilot including 125 hours in the last six months. Butler was certified to pilot the main American glider—the Waco CG-4A—as well as the larger Waco YCG-13 and a British glider, the Airspeed Horsa. Even after qualifying as a glider pilot, Flight Officer Butler continued to log hours piloting powered light aircraft.

On February 13, 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Butler went on temporary duty at South Plains Army Air Field in Lubbock, Texas. During that assignment, Butler remarried, to Meredith Young (1914–2005), on March 8, 1944. The couple had met two years earlier while Butler was stationed in Arizona. A March 17, 1944, article in the Wilmington Morning News stated: “The ceremony was performed by candlelight in the First Methodist Church, Lubbock, Texas, and was followed by a reception in the Blue Room of the Hotel Lubbock.”

On March 26, 1944, Butler’s temporary assignment ended, and he returned to Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base.

Lieutenant Butler with his wife, Meredith, at their wedding in Lubbock, Texas, on March 8, 1944 (Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

Mission to England

2nd Lieutenant Butler’s relatively low rank belied his importance to the American glider program. On April 3, 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Butler and two other officers, Captain Wallace Winthrop Peabody Smith (1908–1995) and Captain Edward C. Milau (1912 or 1914–1967), transferred from the 38th Troop Carrier Squadron to Headquarters I Troop Carrier Command at Stout Field, Indianapolis, Indiana. A set of orders dated April 5, 1944, dispatched them to London, “reporting upon arrival to the Commanding General, Allied Expeditionary Forces for temporary duty approximately ninety (90) days for the purpose of coordinating AAF glider problems[.]”

At Stout Field, a fourth officer joined the group: Lieutenant Colonel Michael C. Murphy (1906–1981) of I Troop Carrier Command. Destined to fly alongside Lieutenant Butler on D-Day in Normandy, Mike Murphy had been a barnstormer in the 1920s and was perhaps the U.S. Army Air Forces’ foremost glider proponent. It is unclear whether Butler and Murphy had met before, though it’s likely considering that both spent time at Laurinburg-Maxton.

The four men flew to Washington, D.C. on April 8, 1944, and to New York City the following day. On the evening of April 12, 1944, Murphy, Milau, Smith, and Butler began a multileg transatlantic journey, taking off from LaGuardia Field in New York as passengers aboard a Douglas C-54 transport aircraft. They landed on the island of Bermuda just after midnight on April 13. The group was on the ground just long enough to pick up sandwiches in the mess hall while their plane refueled. During the next leg of their journey, they weathered a storm hallway across the Atlantic. Butler wrote afterward: “The way that storm tossed us around 14,000 ft. in the air, it sure wasn’t funny.  I thought the wings would fall off that old C-54, but she’s a wonderful ship.”

The plane landed in the Azores just after noon local time. Lieutenant Butler wrote in his diary: “While they gassed up our ship we went up to have something to eat.  There is where I first ate Spam. Friends , it isn’t very good, even after that ride we couldn’t eat it.”

They left the Azores that same afternoon, landing at Prestwick on the morning of April 14, 1944. The group finally reached London that afternoon.

An April 20, 1944, memorandum addressed to Lieutenant Colonel Murphy, Captains Milau and Smith, and 2nd Lieutenant Butler stated in part:

1. In the U.S. you were occupied with the training of glider pilots and establishing procedures for glider use and maintenance.  Your position here in England is a continuation of your U. S. job except that now you are to act in an advisory capacity to The Commanding General, IX Troop Carrier Command, and will also absorb information in this theater to help you in the later conduct of your school and station in the U. S.

2. You are also to assist the Troop Carrier Command in any help they want or need in training and in the preparation of plans for operations against the enemy.

Brigadier General Paul L. Williams (head of IX Troop Carrier Command, 1894–1968) gave the four officers broad latitude to travel to bases throughout England to accomplish their mission. He also sent a memo to the commanders of the troop carrier wings under his command encouraging cooperation with the four officers. They spent the weeks that followed moving from airfield to airfield by train or plane, evaluating and troubleshooting. Lieutenant Butler encountered many glider pilots that he had trained back in the United States. He also met some staff officers who he considered ineffectual at implementing the upcoming D-Day mission, complaining that one “had been giving directions, but not following them up to see that they were being complied with” and that another was “fooling with things that didn’t concern him.”

Waco CG-4A gliders (left) attached to Douglas C-47 tugs in a March 26, 1945, photo (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photograph via Fold3)

Butler worked closely with Lieutenant Colonel Murphy, writing approvingly on April 23, 1944, that he found Murphy in the plans and training office (apparently at IX Troop Carrier Command headquarters in Grantham) “talking to three Cols. and is he raising hell.  He sure is speaking his piece and it is the truth.” 

Butler and Murphy sometimes flew together in a Stinson L-5 in order to move around quickly or observe glider training flights from the air. In his April 30, 1944, diary entry, Lieutenant Butler wrote: “Col. Murphy asked me if I wanted to fly in the mission of the [Operation] Overlord. My answer was yes.” 

Glider historian Leon B. Spencer wrote that Murphy

was not originally scheduled to participate in the D-Day Normandy mission, but talked General Paul Williams, Commanding General of the Ninth Troop Carrier Command, into letting him fly General Pratt’s glider. Murphy wanted to get a first-hand look at the performance of glider pilots in combat.

On May 24, 1944, Lieutenant Butler flew to R.A.F. Aldermaston, where the 434st Troop Carrier Group of the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing was based. He spent the next few days doing check rides. With the invasion coming up, Butler wrote that they were working 16-hour days to get ready. 

Ground crew preparing a glider towline prior to a mission (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photograph via Fold3)

Lieutenant Butler wrote in his diary on May 30, 1944: “Went and had breakfast and then we got about the hardest blow since we have been over here. Our flying will be done at night!”

Most of the glider pilots scheduled for the mission had little experience flying at night during training missions. Historian Sebastian Ritchie explained that Allied planners had originally planned to avoid night glider landings in Normandy, which had gone badly during the invasion of Sicily:

The potential problem where the gliders were concerned centred not merely on night navigation but on the nature of the terrain in the proposed landing areas. In the east – the British sector – there were numerous flat, open fields. But the terrain in western Normandy where the American airborne objectives were located could hardly have been less suitable for glider operations: the area was so-called bocage, typified by small fields enclosed by high hedgerows. It was always clear that the difficulties of landing heavily laden assault gliders safely in such territory would be significant even in daylight; after dark the challenge would be a daunting one.

Ritchie added that Allied planners had decided in the spring of 1944 that:

The main glider landings would be delayed until the evening of 6 June – before nightfall. However, more limited glider operations were eventually still scheduled for dawn on 6 June in both the British and American sectors, and these plans exerted a direct influence on the glider training programme conducted by 9th TCC. As no night landings were envisaged, the command’s training logically enough focused on day and night formation flying and on dawn and dusk landings. Such were the parameters of their glider aircrew instruction when, at the end of May, the broader revision of US airlift arrangements caused the glider landings to be rescheduled before daybreak. This decision was taken against the explicit advice of Brigadier General Paul Williams, commander of 9th TCC, but once again the senior army officers were unable to comprehend the issues involved. When informed that Williams ‘did not think the gliders could operate by night’, [General Bernard Law] Montgomery simply replied that they should be ordered to do so.

A CG-4A glider in flight as seen from its tug during training in the United Kingdom prior to D-Day in Normandy (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photograph via Fold3)

Butler wrote in his diary on May 31, 1944:

Did quite a bit of flying in CG-4A’s. This is the day we got some news. They told us we had to fly the gliders in at night without any lights on the tow-ships, gliders, or even a light on the ground to land or cut off by. It’s just a guess and hope for the best, on this deal.

In the event, pathfinders did in fact mark glider landing zone during the glider operation, codenamed the Chicago Mission.  Multiple accounts indicate that this was ineffective, albeit for different reasons (see Notes section below). 

Around June 1, 1944, Lieutenant Butler learned the final plan for the operation.  He wrote:

There is an awful lot of work to do today. The first thing, Col. Whitacre and Col. Beech are flying the lead aeroplane.Col. Murphy and I are flying the lead glider. We are taking with us the glider, a jeep, General Pratt, and his aid[e]. So they took pictures of us, glider, and towship. The glider has written on the side of it, ‘The Falcon ‘. After that was over, the Col. told me to get some iron around the nose to knock off a few bullets. But I couldn’t find any iron what-so-ever, so I guess we’ll fly it anyway. Then I had to check out my gun and clothing to protect us from [poison] gas. I wanted to write a letter to my dear little wife, but I just had too much to do, such as cleaning by gun and so forth.

Lieutenant Colonel Murphy would be pilot and 2nd Lieutenant Butler the copilot aboard the lead CG-4A of 52 gliders in the Chicago Mission. As Butler mentioned, they would be carrying Brigadier General Don Forrester Pratt (assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division, 1892–1944), Pratt’s aide 1st Lieutenant Lee John May (John L. May in some sources, 1916–1992), and Pratt’s command jeep. Pratt was traveling by glider because he was not a qualified paratrooper.

Passengers and crew of The Fighting Falcon, seen in a photograph taken on or around June 1, 1944. This particular glider was actually swapped out on the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Murphy prior to the actual mission on D-Day. (Courtesy of Charles L. Day)

Their assigned glider was high profile as well. Charles L. Day wrote in his article “The Flag Ship” that:

The Fighting Falcon CG-4A serial number 42-46574 […] was the 23rd glider built by the Gibson Refrigerator Company, Greenville, Michigan and was delivered to the Army late in May 1943. The grade school children of Greenville, Michigan sold war bonds in the first government approved War Bond Drive by private citizens with the intent to sell enough War Bonds to purchase one of Gibson’s gliders for the Army. In approximately six weeks these grade school children sold over $72,000.00 of War Bonds, enough to buy three and one-half Gibson built gliders (based on Gibson’s contracted average cost). The children decided to name the glider The Flying Falcon.  […] An officer of the Gibson Refrigerator Company had decided the name Flying Falcon was not fierce enough and he had changed it to The Fighting Falcon

According to Spencer, General Williams himself “decreed that it would be the lead glider in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in recognition of the Greenville school children’s patriotic spirit.”

Butler wrote his last diary entry on June 3, 1944, apparently with his wife Meredith in mind:

“This is the last day before D-Day. So I will put this away, and if any thing happens maybe you’ll get it.

“Close with love–”

The replacement for The Fighting Falcon, which Murphy and Butler actually flew on D-Day (Courtesy of Charles L. Day)

According to Spencer, that same day, “Colonel Murphy decided to replace the original Falcon with a CG-4A equipped with the frontal crash protection device, the Griswold Nose.” In doing so, Murphy gave up a different safety device that the original Falcon was equipped with, a deceleration parachute.  (See Appendix II below for a discussion of the possible consequences.) The replacement glider, 43-41430 (also manufactured by Gibson Refrigerator), was then painted as another Fighting Falcon.

D-Day in Normandy

Murphy and Butler’s glider took off from R.A.F. Aldermaston at 0119 hours on June 6, 1944, towed by a Douglas C-47 piloted by the 434th Troop Carrier Group’s commanding officer, Colonel William B. Whitacre (1898–1977). 

Leon B. Spencer wrote:

Colonel Murphy said that the armada flew at 2,000 feet across the Channel, lowering to 1,500 feet as they approached the Cotentin peninsula from the west. […] Just after passing the coastline of the peninsula the formation dropped down to 600 feet and maintained that altitude to the glider LZ. Things were quiet and peaceful until the German gunners woke up and opened up on the formation about halfway across the twenty plus mile peninsula. The formation was under fire from there to the cutoff point. […] As the formation continued across the peninsula Pratt’s glider took some small arms hits, but no serious damage was done. Murphy said that it sounded like popcorn popping as the slugs passed through the taut glider fabric. It was learned later that the No. 2 glider, flying beside Pratt’s glider, took ninety-four small arms hits in the tail section, but no one inside was hit. As the gliders approached the LZ the sky became cloudless.

According to the 434th Troop Carrier Group history, at 0354 hours the gliders arrived above Landing Zone “E,” located near Hiesville. The C-47 tug crew signaled Murphy and Butler to release.  Spencer continued:

According to Murphy’s watch the time was about five seconds past 0400 hours. They were right on schedule. As he hit the glider release knob he heaved a sigh of relief. He and Butler were arm and leg weary from trying to keep the unstable glider in level flight for over two and a half hours. […] In view of the heavy load it was carrying, the final approach speed of the No. 1 glider was somewhat above the normal tactical speed of 70 mph. Murphy said that he touched down on the first third of the field at 80 mph. He immediately pushed the glider down on its nose and jumped on the brakes to stop the glider quickly. To his astonishment the glider’s forward speed didn’t appear to diminish at all. A fully loaded CG-4A could normally be stopped in 200 to 300 feet. That morning the ill-fated substitute Falcon continued to slide on the slick, dew covered pasture grass for about eight hundred feet before crashing into a hedgerow.

The glider struck a large tree, killing Lieutenant Butler and General Pratt instantly. Lieutenant Colonel Murphy’s legs were injured. Only Lieutenant May escaped serious injury.

The Fighting Falcon seen in the aftermath of D-Day (Courtesy of Charles L. Day)
This June 1944 photograph taken in Normandy illustrates the challenge of landing a glider in a small field bordered by hedgerows (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photograph via Fold3)

Honors and Burial

In a condolence letter dated September 7, 1944, General Henry “Hap” Arnold wrote Butler’s widow: “Lieutenant Butler’s determination to accomplish arduous training successfully has been called to my attention” and that “After graduation from the Army Air Forces Glider School at Dalhart, Texas, he earned the confidence of superiors and respect of his comrades by his fine courage and unwavering loyalty to the group.”

Map of Butler’s journeys while serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces between January 1942 and June 1944. He traveled over 18,300 miles during that time. Detailed movements within England are not shown. (Map generated by Lowell Silverman using the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz)

2nd Lieutenant Butler was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. His body was initially buried at the temporary military cemetery known as Blosville Cemetery, located in Carquebut, France. After the war, his family requested that his body be repatriated. On May 7, 1948, Lieutenant Butler’s body arrived in New York aboard the U.S.A.T. Lawrence Victory. After services at the Boyer Funeral Home in Harrington, Delaware, on May 20, 1948, Butler was buried at the nearby Hollywood Cemetery. His parents and brother were also buried there after their deaths.

Meredith Butler returned to Arizona. On April 12, 1947, she remarried in Phoenix to Samuel Marion Hurlbert (1907–2000), with whom she raised four children.

Lieutenant Butler was memorialized on a plaque of employees who died during World War II displayed at the DuPont company plant in Seaford beginning in 1948. He is also honored on the list of names displayed at Veteran’s Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware. His son Roger donated many photographs and documents to the Greater Harrington Historical Society, where an exhibit about Lieutenant Butler is now on display.

Roger Butler visiting the exhibit about his father on Memorial Day in 2019 (Courtesy of the Greater Harrington Historical Society)

Appendix I: Overloaded (or Over-Armored) Glider?

Many accounts about The Flying Falcon state that the glider was overloaded due to the addition of armored plate prior to the D-Day flight, implying that it was a significant factor in the crash. The gist of that claim even inspired a scene discussing the death of a fictitious “General Amend” in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan.

Perhaps the best summary of the argument is Leon B. Spencer’s 2006 article “The Death of General Don F. Pratt” (an updated version of an article first published in 1997). Spencer wrote that

the general’s staff, fearful for his safety, had ordered armor plating installed beneath the general’s jeep and under the pilot’s and copilot’s seats for protection against enemy flak and ground fire. Murphy would not learn of the armor plating until just before takeoff. With this considerable extra weight, plus the additional weight of the jeep radios and extra gasoline, the glider was probably over the safe load limits, but of greater import was the fact that the center of gravity had been altered significantly. Murphy said the glider was overloaded by 1,000 pounds, and handled like a freight train.

In his 1970 book, D-Day with the Screaming Eagles, George E. Koskimaki quoted Colonel Murphy regarding the landing. Murphy mentioned that the glider was overweight but didn’t mention any added armor:

My wheels were locked and sliding on the dew-covered grass for approximately eight hundred feet, when normally we could stop in two hundred to three hundred feet. My machine, in addition to carrying a jeep, had all the command radio equipment and was about one thousand pounds overloaded.

Koskimaki also wrote that Lieutenant William G. Padrick, “whose responsibility had been to provide security for General Pratt” told him that a contributing factor in the crash was that “The bottom of the glider had been armor-plated with steel plates[.]” Koskimaki stated in his introduction to the book that “The material on the glider chapter has been edited by former Colonel Mike Murphy who was in charge of the American glider lifts into Normandy”—suggesting that Murphy had no objections to Padrick’s assessment.

James E. Mrazek erroneously wrote in his 1975 book, The Glider War,that General Pratt flew in the co-pilot’s seat rather than in his jeep and claimed that “his co-pilot’s seat in the glider had armor plate under it.” Michael H. Manion repeated Mrazek’s claims in his 2008 thesis (subsequently published as a book in 2015), Gliders of World War II: “The Bastards No One Wanted.”

One of the most recent accounts of the crash was published in Peter Caddick-Adams’s 2019 book, Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasions and the Liberation of France, citing Spencer but stating that the armor was on General Pratt’s jeep rather than the glider itself: “Murphy knew he was taking Brigadier General Don Forrester Pratt, assistant divisional commander of the 101st, into battle with his jeep, but was unaware that the general’s staff had installed armour plates on the vehicle for extra protection.”

Interestingly, 2nd Lieutenant Butler’s previously unpublished June 1, 1944, diary entry stated that Colonel Murphy “told me to get some iron around the nose to knock off a few bullets. But I couldn’t find any iron what-so-ever, so I guess we’ll fly it anyway.”

Butler’s statement doesn’t prove that armor wasn’t added later (since Butler was too busy to write much after June 2). However, it does call into question the notion that Colonel Murphy was unaware of any efforts to add armor, considering his own involvement in the endeavor.

Glider historian Charles L. Day wrote in his article “Emile Natalle’s Recollection of curved steel plate in nose of the replacement Fighting Falcon –BGen Don F. Pratt’s Normandy glider” that the notion that any armor had been added to the glider’s nose was nonsense. Work crews would have needed specialty tools to shape the metal, not to mention that due to the glider’s internal structure, “there is no way that one piece of curved steel was inserted inside the nose WITHOUT the entire nose structure being torn apart and rebuilt with the steel in place.”

In another article, “Fighting Falcon: A rebuttal of previous contradictions, contrivances or imaginative conjectures,” Day wrote that in a 2004 phone interview, Sergeant Justin Jones of the 484th Air Service Squadron told him that armor was indeed added to the glider. Day explained that Jones recalled “that the available armor plate was ¼” thick.” Day added that “Mr. Jones also stated that the steel plate was placed inside the cargo section of the glider and to his knowledge was not in the nose/cockpit of the glider.”

In Day’s analysis:

Covered with ¼” armor steel this would add approximately 870 lb. to the glider weight.  If the entire floor was covered, the glider would not have been out of balance, tail heavy or nose heavy, only heavier. It may or may not have made the glider hard to control as described [by] Colonel Murphy […] A full analysis of the weight of the items carried (gas cans, radio, men, steel plate, guns, ammunition, etc) in the replacement Fighting Falcon establishes that the glider likely was not more than 8,500 gross weight which was 1,000 over design weight.  However, this weight was not a singular situation. Many gliders in all the various glider missions were overweight by 500 to 1,000 pounds.

Appendix II: Would a Deceleration Parachute Have Made a Difference?

Spencer wrote in “The Death of General Pratt” that the original Fighting Falcon—which Murphy had given up—landed intact during the Chicago Mission. Interestingly, that CG-4A was one of a handful of gliders equipped with a deceleration parachute. Charles L. Day wrote in “The Flag Ship” that “In England a decision was made that both the deceleration chute and the BOGN [bolt-on Griswold Nose Protection Device] would not be installed on the same glider because there were so few of each.” Murphy had switched gliders at the last minute specifically to obtain the better protection afforded by the Griswold.

Of course, the parachute wasn’t the only factor to consider. Although it’s unknown if the fields were equally wet with dew, there is no mention in Spencer’s account that the original Falcon was overloaded. In addition, Spencer wrote that while the original Falcon “struck a knoll further slowing its progress” during its landing slide, Murphy and Butler’s Falcon reportedly landed with a tailwind and “the field it landed in sloped downhill[.]”

In their article “Development and Use of the Waco CG-4A Cargo Glider Deceleration Parachute,” Day and Spencer wrote that some glider pilots liked the device, while others claimed it didn’t work well. Using the deceleration parachute, had it been available, surely would have slowed Murphy and Butler’s glider to some extent. However, it is unclear if—given the full set of circumstances—the chute would have slowed the CG-4A enough to prevent or significantly reduce the impact with the hedgerow.

In email correspondence with the author, Day expressed doubt that either the deceleration parachute or the bolt-on Griswold Nose would have altered what happened to The Fighting Falcon. He wrote:

It was only a 10′ diameter chute purposed to quickly decrease altitude to get the glider onto the ground more quickly. It was not intended to be used as a braking chute on the ground.  I guess that it would not have been much help in stopping the glider on the ground.  The BOGN was not really heavy in terms of steel thickness. Its strength was in the shape of the steel as it was formed.  Think of 8,000 pounds of bulk skidding along on wet grass going 70 to 80 mph-what would stop it, or what would it smash or knock down as it stopped. I don’t believe the BOGN or the Deceleration chute would mean much difference from the other in stopping it.


Click to any document to view a larger copy. All are courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society.


Adopted Sister

Betty Barney was John M. Butler’s first cousin (the daughter of his uncle John Barney) but raised by John’s parents. In 1943 she married Abner Nelson Markland (1923–1992) and after his death, remarried to Luther Preston Hatfield (1924–2005).

Physical Description

Butler was described on his draft card as standing about six feet, one inch tall and weighing 154 lbs., with gray hair and brown eyes. However, a February 7, 1943, document in his personnel file described him as having brown hair and blue eyes! A flight physical dated February 15, 1944 described him as standing six feet tall and weighing 172 lbs.

Enlistment Location

Butler’s enlistment data card states that he enlisted in Wilmington on January 8, 1942. That was supported by his discharge paperwork from February 7, 1943, a formality that occurred before he was appointed flight officer the following day. His mother’s statement reported that he enlisted in Georgetown, Delaware, on January 8, 1942 and that he left for Fort Dix around January 10.

Nose Art

Butler wrote on June 2, 1944:

I was to get the glider out today, and let General Pratt’s aid[e] paint a picture on the nose of it. I went over to my B.O.Q. [bachelor officer quarters] at noon and they restricted all pilots in that area at noon. […] We are now under guard until D-Day.

The picture Butler referenced was presumably the 101st Airborne Division’s “Screaming Eagle” shoulder patch. A painted on American flag and the words “FLAG SHIP” may have been added at the same time. These three items were known to have been painted on the replacement CG-4A with the Griswold Nose Protection Device. It’s unclear whether the original CG-4A also had this nose art (The Fighting Falcon decoration on the rear of the fuselage was definitely duplicated) or whether this entry means that Colonel Murphy made the substitution a day or two sooner than Spencer and Day believed was the case.

Pathfinder Lighting

Different sources give various reasons for why the pathfinders’ lighting efforts were ineffective. The 454th Troop Carrier Group history stated that “The T-Signal set up by pathfinder paratroopers was not on the same field as had been planned.”

In his book, D-Day with The Screaming Eagles, George E. Koskimaki quoted pathfinder Frank Lillyman, who told him: “Unfortunately, one of the early gliders landed directly on top of the lights, destroying each one of the carefully laid out indicators. The remaining gliders had to land in the moonlight without field markings.”

On the other hand, Sebastian Ritchie wrote in his book, The Arnhem Myth: “As the gliders lost altitude during their descent to the LZ, the markers guiding them disappeared behind the high Normandy hedgerows, causing many aircraft to miss the zone completely and to land in nearby fields that were not sufficiently long.”

Unit Listed on Headstone

2nd Lieutenant Butler’s headstone lists his unit at the 38th Troop Carrier Squadron. That was his unit back in the United States, though he was on a temporary duty assignment to the United Kingdom. He was on detached service to the 434th Troop Carrier Group during the mission in which he was killed.

In fact, the 38th Troop Carrier Squadron no longer existed by the time of Butler’s death. According to the squadron history: “On 14 April 1944, it was inactivated and absorbed by the 810th Army Air Forces Base Unit, Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base, Maxton, North Carolina, in accordance with the plan for reorganization within the Army Air Forces.”


Special thanks to Roger Butler and Doug Poore (the latter of the Greater Harrington Historical Society) for the use of the extensive collection of documents, letters, and photographs pertaining to Lieutenant Butler. Thanks also go to glider historian Charles L. Day, who provided several photographs as well as valuable insight into the discrepancies surrounding the final flight of The Fighting Falcon.


Applications for Headstones, compiled 1/1/1925–6/30/1970, documenting the period c. 1776–1970. Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774–1985. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2375/images/40050_2421401755_0399-02361 

Butler, John M. “Nylon Glider Towline.” Threadline (DuPont Company newsletter), February 1944. Courtesy of the Greater Harrington Historical Society.

Butler, John M. Unpublished correspondence. Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society.

Butler, John M. Unpublished diary covering the period of April 4, 1944, through June 3, 1944. Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society.

Butler, Mary. John Mitchell Butler Individual Military Service Record, November 18, 1944. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/17945/rec/7

Caddick-Adams, Peter. Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasions and the Liberation of France. Oxford University Press, 2019.

County Marriage Records. Arizona History and Archives Division, Phoenix, Arizona. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/60873/images/40657_541746-00348

Day, Charles L. and Spencer, Leon B. “Development and Use of the Waco CG-4A Cargo Glider Deceleration Parachute.” https://www.315group.org/waco.pdf

Day, Charles L. “Emile Natalle’s Recollection of curved steel plate in nose of the replacement Fighting Falcon –BGen Don F. Pratt’s Normandy glider.”

Day, Charles L. “The Flag Ship: The pictorial history of the Fighting Falcons.” National WWII Glider Pilot Association website. https://www.ww2gp.org/normandy/accounts/FightingFalcon.php

Day, Charles L. “Fighting Falcon: A rebuttal of previous contradictions, contrivances or imaginative conjectures.”

Delaware Marriages. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-266-12600-49303-55, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-266-12417-51012-51

“Edward C. Milau, 53, Construction Man.” The New York Times, May 10, 1967. Pg. L47. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1967/05/10/90586120.html?pageNumber=43

“Historical Data 434th Troop Carrier Group Month of June 1944.” Reel B0543. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

“History of 38th Troop Carrier Squadron 14 February 1942 to 14 April 1944.” Reel A0974. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

John Mitchell Butler Standard Certificate of Birth, 1918. Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society.

John Mitchell Butler military records. Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society.

Koskimaki, George E. D-Day with The Screaming Eagles. Originally published in 1970, republished by Casemate Publishers, 2011.

“Lt. John Butler Buried Here.” Newspaper clipping (likely from the Milford Chronicle), probably May 21, 1948. Courtesy of Roger Butler and the Greater Harrington Historical Society.

Manion, Michael H. Gliders of World War II: “The Bastards No One Wanted.” Pickle Partners Publishing, 2008.

“Mary B. Markland Hatfield.” Delaware Coast Press, November 13, 2013. Pg. 50. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/77421134/betty-markland-hatfield-obituary/

“Meredith Young Hurlbert.” The Arizona Republic, May 26, 2005. Pg. B8. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/77284601/meredith-hurlbert-obituary/

“Meredith Young, John M. Butler Marry In Texas.” Wilmington Morning News, March 17, 1944. Pg. 25. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/77360222/young-butler-wedding/

Mrazek, James E. The Glider War. Robert Hale and Company, 1975.

“One Killed, Two Wounded In State’s Casualty Lists.” Journal-Every Evening, July 11, 1944. Pg. 10. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/75892708/john-m-butler-killed-in-crash/

Ritchie, Sebastian. Arnhem Myth and Reality: Airborne Warfare, Air Power and the Failure of Operation Market Garden. Robert Hale, 2011.

“Rites To Be Held For Two War Dead.” Wilmington Morning News, May 18, 1948. Pg. 4. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/76770646/john-m-butler-burial/

Rottman, Gordon L. World War II Glider Assault Tactics. Osprey Publishing, 2014.

Spencer, Leon B. “The Death of General Don F. Pratt: A D-Day Glider Casualty.” Originally published in Silent Wings in 1997 as “Normandy D-Day CG-4A Glider Crash Claims Life of General Don. F. Pratt.” Updated version from 2006 posted on the World War 2 Glider Pilot Charles E. Skidmore Jr. blog. https://worldwar2gliderpilots.blogspot.com/2009/03/death-of-general-don-f-pratt.html

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295768-00606

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531890_00615  

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00544-00881

World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=12012712&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=483889

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_11_00001-01723

A 360° panoramic view of the CG-4A’s cockpit is posted on the Air Mobility Command Museum website.

Last updated on April 15, 2022

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3 thoughts on “2nd Lieutenant John M. Butler (1918–1944)

    1. Thank you for this great article. I am with the National WWII Glider Pilots organization under the Silent Wings Museum Foundation. Could you please change the link to our website for Charles Day’s Flag Ship article The PDF is going away and we have the article at https://www.ww2gp.org/normandy/accounts/FightingFalcon.php.
      Charlie Day is working on getting his articles on the website and reviewing Leon’s articles for the website. Leon had some mistakes in his original articles prior to declassification. Our team obtained the majority of USAFHA reels for squadrons, Groups, Wings and Command starting in 2012 Articles are put on the site after vetting mostly by Charlie but are in PFD and difficult to read.

      Doug Poore from the Harrington Historical Society contacted our Leon B Spencer Research Team on August 10th 2018. We (Charlie Day, Hans den Brok and myself were able to give him a lot of Infirmation including the glider reports , Squadron and Group files. The report by the glider Pilot behind Murphy was interesting and so was Murphy’s report. Mr Poore, in turn, gave us information that we did not have on Butler. I will be linking this article in John Butler’s record. If you do not have these reports let me know and I will send them. They may be in the Reels you have. I can check ours and see.

      I always thought it interesting the Aid-de-Camp, Lt L John May, did not sit in the Jeep as standard practice (to expedite leaving the glider on landing) but instead sat in the jump seat behind the Jeep. It saved his life.

      Thank you for considering the URL change.
      Kind regards, Patricia

      Liked by 2 people

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