BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Not quite ready to head to college, Don Butler had just graduated from high school in Mays Lick when he and his older brother met a group of U.S. Marine Corps recruiters at a bar in a Greyhound bus station in Cincinnati.
After an evening chatting with the recruiters, Don and his brother, Natie Butler, went back to Natie’s home, where they talked about Don enlisting.
Butler turned 18 on June 30, 1964, and he headed straight to the federal building in Cincinnati where he talked to recruiters again and decided to enlist.
“For some reason I signed up on the spot. I enlisted on my birthday,” Butler said. “Ten days later, I took the oath of office.”
On Oct. 6, 1964, he began boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. He completed boot camp and then went to Camp Pendleton, California, for basic infantry training. Less than one year after signing up to become a Marine, he deployed to the Vietnam theater in March 1965.
Butler was stationed aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier the USS Bon Homme Richard for about 12 months. He was assigned primarily security duties, guarding advanced weapons systems on board the ship and incarcerated Navy personnel in the ship’s brig. He was given other assignments by his commanding officers.
Ship life typically meant 30 to 40 days at sea, with long hours and an occasional stop in Japan or the Philippines. It was isolated as the ship cruised the South China Sea.
In 1965, the Vietnam War efforts were picking up significantly.
“The Navy pilots flew mission after mission after mission,” Butler said.
He and some and the other Marines on the ship forged a close bond with the pilots, some of whom never made it back. For those, they held burial at sea services.
“All gave some, some gave all,” he said, referring to the popular saying widely attributed to the late Howard William Osterkamp, a Korean War veteran.
After one year aboard the ship, Butler returned to the United States in March 1966 on a 30-day leave. He reported to Camp Pendleton, where he received advanced infantry training, requalified at the rifle range and was assigned to prepare troops at Camp Pendleton for deployment to Vietnam. Training officers focused on escape and evasion techniques needed for jungle warfare.
“We were learning the war we were fighting in the jungles needed that special training,” he said.
He remembers seeing an old friend during that time from Mason County who was receiving advanced infantry training. The young man was killed in action Dec. 11, 1966.
“You don’t forget things like that,” Butler said.
After Butler completed that assignment, he was transferred to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C. With less than a year left to serve, he was sent back to the USS Bon Homme Richard, where he was once again assigned security detail.
Before his January 1967 deployment, Butler married his sweetheart, Becky, in October 1966. The two remain married and have five children.
“When we were ready to deploy I put her on a plane … to return home to be with her family in Ohio. She was expecting our first child,” he said. “When our son was born, I received a message from our chaplain through the American Red Cross five days after he was born that simply said, ‘Mother and baby boy are doing fine.'”
It would be three and a half months before he got to hold his son, Don Jr., who is now a chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, where he has spent the last 23 years serving the military.
During Butler’s last deployment, he applied to college and was accepted to Morehead State University, where he attended school on the GI Bill. He worked his way through college, earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and finally a doctorate.
Butler taught at Western Kentucky University, became the first director of the Bowling Green-Warren County Community Education Program and in 2005 retired from Community Action of Southern Kentucky.
Butler is a member of American Legion Post 23, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1298 and a volunteer with the Marine Corps League Toys for Tots program.
“Now my focus is helping veterans,” he said. He is the third vice commander at the American Legion Post 23, where he is heavily involved in the youth services programs.