U.S. Army Cpl. Billy Joe Butler’s eldest sibling, 92-year-old Ellen Louise Chipman, remembers the day her brother came to ask her opinion about enlisting in the armed forces.
“We sat down on a cedar chest and he asked me ‘Hey, Sis, do you think I ought to join the service?’” Chipman said. “I said, ‘Billy, I’m not going to tell you what to do.’”
That would be one of the last times Chipman would speak with her brother about it, as it seemed his mind was already made up.
On July 28, 1948, the 17-year-old Texan became a U.S. Army private after he convinced his father to sign the paperwork to allow the underaged youth to enlist.
Butler, a casualty of the conflict often referred to as “The Forgotten War,” was finally laid to rest at Nichols Cemetery alongside his parents, Gertrude Ann (Holliman) Butler and Charles Drew Butler, after almost seven decades of separation from his family.
The residents of Kerrville turned out to honor Butler as the hearse that carried his remains made its way to his final resting place to ensure that his family knew that he was not forgotten.
Butler died for his country as a prisoner of war at Camp Hofong, North Korea, on Jan. 27, 1951, 24 days after he was reported as missing in action to his parents in a battle casualty report.
It would be another 1,018 days before his parents would be informed of his passing.
Butler was captured when his unit was overrun by the Chinese on Nov. 28, 1950, just five days after Thanksgiving. He succumbed to malnutrition and dysentery 61 days later in the camp, located in a valley that the Americans called “Death Valley.”
Pastor Steven Curry of Junction’s First United Methodist Church presided over Friday’s ceremony.
“It is a great honor and a great relief for the family,” said Curry, whose own son serves in the armed forces. “It’s miraculous that they were able to find him and bring him home. This really puts a face on the national conflicts of the world.”
Army Chaplain Major Scott Thompson, a member of the detachment from Fort Sam Houston, spoke during the church service.
“If it were not for the sacrifices made by people like Billy Joe, my life would be totally different, because my wife is from South Korea,” Thompson said.
The chaplain’s wife, 49-year-old Hyokyoung Thompson, came to the U.S. in 2010 after spending the majority of her life in South Korea.
Butler’s short life had a powerful impact on hers.
“His sacrifice is very meaningful to me,” Hyokyoung Thompson said. “I think God saved our country through the sacrifices of Billy Joe and other soldiers like him.”
The chaplain added that his wife’s father and two brothers served in South Korea’s army.
The story of the repatriation of Cpl. Butler’s remains and of his final laying to rest brought people together to fill the church’s pews. Some traveled many miles to pay their respects to Butler.
Bagpiper Larry Fowler of Brenham travelled 213 miles to play for Butler as the honor guard brought the casket of the fallen soldier forth from the church to the waiting hearse.
Walking at a slow, dignified pace ahead of the casket, Fowler played “The Army Goes Rolling Along.”
As anyone who has ever served in the U.S. Army or its sister military branches knows, giving service to the country creates a bond with all service members no matter when the service was given. This was the reason for Major Gen. Anthony C. Funkhouser’s presence at Friday’s ceremonies. He’s stationed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“I happened to be down at Fort Sam and took the opportunity to come out and pay my respects to Billy Joe Butler,” Funkhouser said. “We are both members of the Army’s Engineer Corps.”
Members of the Sons of the American Revolution Texas Southern Command came from throughout the state to provide color guard service. Among them was Kerrville resident Gerald W. Irion, a member of the group’s Hill Country Chapter.
“This is a little extra special, because my wife’s oldest brother is still MIA in Korea,” Irion said.
“She attended the viewing, and she took in the whole matter reverently.”
Linda Irion’s brother, Lt. Col. Gerald Montgomery, served as a pilot during World War II and was shot down over North Korea.
Gerald Irion said Montgomery’s children made a trip to Korea about 10 years ago, hoping to find evidence of his fate, but they were unsuccessful.
Unlike the Butler family, they are still waiting.