NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Retired Sergeant Victor Butler, who is believed to be the last member of the Tuskegee Airmen living in Rhode Island, has become a bit of a celebrity.
On Saturday, he celebrated becoming a centenarian with visits from Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, motorcycle passes by the group Tuskegee Airmen Inc., and American Legion Riders. But it was the guests in a black truck with tinted windows that brought the biggest surprise.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, his fiancee Dr. Dana Blumberg, and long snapper Joe Cardona stepped out of the truck and presented Butler with a Patriots jersey with his name and “100” on it, a signed football, and Patriots hats. Then they gave the former Army Air Service mechanic a fist bump.
Kraft spent about 30 minutes visiting with guests.
“You have a special, great grandpa,” Kraft told Butler’s grandson, Al Green. “He left a great legacy for you. Be really proud of him.”
Kraft called Butler one of the “heroes of this century” and said he represents the best of America.
“Whenever I’m privileged to meet someone very special, I try to say ‘What would be meaningful to them that no one else could give them?’ That’s a jersey right out of the locker room,” Kraft told the Globe. “That’s truly a custom jersey that’s very valuable and in a small way, we wanted to show respect to him and what he’s done for the country. Maybe we’ll get some good vibes off it and have some good luck.”
The Patriots’ gifts were among the more than 40,000 cards, letters, packages, and videos that Butler has received from people as far away as Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Many of the cards are handmade and include drawings. They are stacked inside the homes of three relatives and Butler has already read about 5,000 of them. He not only reads the notes but the envelopes, too.
Every day more and more come.
Butler’s family says he didn’t want anything special for his birthday, and he initially only asked for cards from his family and friends. However, his granddaughter, Ronelle Halfacre, started a social media drive, urging people to send cards to her grandfather. The request reached veterans groups, libraries, state and local political leaders, classrooms, and other veterans and their families who shared their stories with Butler.
“You know, I asked for cards because I thought that some of my good friends would send me cards and that would be it,” Butler told the Globe. “I didn’t think it would mean that I’d be getting truckloads of cards. They don’t seem to stop coming — I have a lot of reading ahead of me.”
Butler was even invited to be at guest at the Garth Brooks concert at Gillette Stadium on Saturday but it was too much for him, his son said, so they didn’t go.
Butler remembers quite a few things from bring in the service, and said he was willing to fight for his country because “there are so many good people in this country.” He’s glad that people look up to him.
Dora Vasquez-Hellner, a retired Army First Sergeant and State Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, says that Butler’s military service opened the door not only for people of color, but women to serve in the Armed Forces.
“It was an experiment that the US military decided to endeavor to hopefully break down discrimination within not just the military but within the United States,” she said. “And what they did was absolutely phenomenal. They broke so many barriers, and as I told Victor today, he is a true trailblazer. He opened many doors for me as well because women in the military especially women who have a different skin tone, still face discrimination on a daily basis. But Brave men like Victor and other Tuskegee Airmen that have allowed us to perform so many unconventional roles.”
Vasquez-Hellner said Rhode Island is rich in military history, and Butler’s story is the type of history that needs to be studied on a daily basis.
Gary Butler described his father as a “God-fearing person who loves his family,” who refused to back down in the face of adversity and discrimination. “He showed me a lot of courage and a lot of strength,” Gary Butler said. “[He] never let those situations change him. And that was what’s important. He never let them affect his life. He never let it affect his attitude, his disposition. It was always go forward and be a good person.”
His father’s birthday cards have piqued the interest of kids who are learning about a part of American history that is slowly disappearing. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, just 240,329 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2021.
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. Butler is listed in their database as a Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen.
“Some kids now learned something that they might not have learned because that might have not been the subject this week or last week in the school,” Butler said. “And to hear them say that they’re so proud of him; they speak it innocently from their heart.”
Bruce Blanco, president of the American Legion Riders Post 1244 from Greenlawn, New York, said they rode their motorcycles three-and-a-half hours to participate in the celebration for Butler. He said they travel all 12 months of the year for events that honor veterans.
“One day isn’t enough to get to know anyone but just what you hear what you read and what you see in our history, he’s a hero,” Blanco said. “And we have to do whatever we can to celebrate his birthday and recognize him as a hero.”
Yvonne Butler said her father originally wanted to join the Canadian Air Force but for personal reasons, joined the US Army Air Service. She said he studied at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Selfridge Field, and ultimately ended up at Walterboro Army Air Field in South Carolina. It was at Walterboro where the Tuskegee Airmen and the James Doolittle’s Raiders trained.
Her dad served there through the end of the war as a mechanic who also test flew the warbirds before pilots used them. He was scheduled to go to Italy but he never served overseas. His tools went ahead of him.
Among the aircraft Butler worked on were the P-39s, P-41s, P-51 range of US aircraft.
“He did not fly after the war. When the war ended, he came home to Providence, Rhode Island, and he started a family,” Yvonne Butler said. “He proceeded to go to Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company where he became a machinist.”
“The path that he took was rewarding. . He was at Brown and Sharpe for 35 years and as the first person of color to become a machinist and, soon after that he started his own business to service machines across the United States,” she said. “He ran that business for over 20 years.”
On Saturday, Richard McDonagh, a retired firefighter and paramedic with the North Attleboro, Massachusetts, fire department played tunes on the bagpipe, including ”Happy Birthday” and “Army Goes Rolling Along.” Mayor Lombardi declared May 21 to be Victor Butler Day in North Providence.
“It’s a feeling that I will never forget,” Butler says. “It makes me feel so good. You didn’t really think that so many people would be interested in me. But now I’ve met so many people from all over the country who managed to get here someway just to meet me. It makes me feel honored.”