PROVIDENCE — One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen will be celebrating his birthday soon — and it’s a milestone. He’s asking people to send him birthday cards from all over the state to mark the occasion.
US Army Air Forces Sergeant Victor W. Butler’s request has gone viral, and the Cranston native, who turns 100 on May 21, is receiving cards from all over the country, his son, Gary Butler, told the Globe.
They include hundreds of handmade letters from kids, dozens of bigger parcels, and bags of letters postmarked from places like Georgia and New Jersey.
The story spread online after an interview with WJAR-TV.
He almost joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before signing up with the Americans. He stared down racism before, during, and after his time in uniform.— Canadian Forces in 🇺🇸 (@CAFinUS) April 26, 2022
Victor Butler, one of the last living Tuskegee Airmen, wants one thing for his 100th birthday.
A card from you. pic.twitter.com/4MHJuF13Ey
Veterans groups, libraries, and friends have shared the story with others. Gary Butler, 65, said the response to his father’s request is overwhelming.
“We planned a party for my father and people were interested when he turned 100 and that he was a Tuskegee Airman,” he said. “People asked about him and how to send cards, the easiest way was just to open it up and tell the news.”
Victor Butler had planned to join the Canadian Air Force, he told the TV station, but his parents wouldn’t allow it. He joined the US Army Air Forces instead. He trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskeegee, Ala.
The 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, painted the tails of their planes red for identification. The distinctive look earned the squadron the nickname “Red Tails,” which later became the title of a movie about them.
More than 16,000 men and women participated in the bombardment and fighter units between March 22, 1941 and Nov. 5, 1949, so it’s difficult to determine how many Tuskegee Airmen are still alive in the US. The organization Tuskegee Airmen Inc. estimates that as of July 2021, just eight of the 355 Tuskegee Airmen single-engine pilots who served in the Mediterranean theater of operation during WWII were still living, and two of 32 Tuskegee Airmen single-engine pilots who were prisoners of war were still living.
The men were subjected to racism and prejudice, but flew more than 15,000 sorties over two years in combat, according to History.com. Black aviators also flew for the 477th Bombardment Group, the website said.
After the war, large numbers of Black airmen chose to remain in the service and became part of the newly formed US Air Force, which integrated them into units in 1949.
Victor Butler was a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen.
“The history is overwhelming,” Gary Butler said. “Knowing that Black men weren’t allowed to have a rifle on base in Alabama; the struggles they had to overcome and the accomplishments they made were never acknowledged.”
Gary Butler referred to the Redtails’ victory in the first Top Gun contest in 1949. It drew the best pilots in the Air Force, but after the Tuskegee Airmen won, the trophy was put in a basement.
Their victory was finally acknowledged 73 years later.
“They didn’t want the minorities to win,” Butler said. “Do you know what kind of challenge it was mentally and physically and not to be acknowledged?”
Butler said he and his four sisters are all “very, very proud” of their father, who spent years working for Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing in Providence. He later owned his own business.
“He’s been a great father, a fine example of life,” said Butler, whose voice cracked with emotion. “He taught us all to reach for the sky. And he always encouraged us to accomplish anything we wanted.”
Butler said his father instilled strong values in them and is a loving man who came home from work with a smile on his face.
Butler said that as a boy he would proudly put on his father’s military uniform, which was stored in the basement of their house — a service top, jacket, and hat. His father was proud of his military service, but did not speak about it.
The Barrington Library will be collecting cards for Butler until May 9. Anyone visiting the library can make him a birthday card at one of the tables in the front lobby or in the children’s room.
Siobhan Egan, the community engagement librarian, is facilitating the project in partnership with Justine Currie from the Confetti Kids of New England.
You can also mail cards to him: Victor W. Butler, c/o Gary Butler, P.O. Box 3523, Cranston, RI 02910.
Victor Butler said he would read every one. His son wishes other airmen had been given a similar celebration.
“They should have all had the chance to get these cards,” Butler said.