Vernon Butka, an 83-year-old Mesa retiree, is afraid younger generations of Americans never will fully appreciate the importance of June 6, 1944.
On that day — D-Day — Allied forces crossed the English Channel and invaded Nazi- occupied France, one of the most important events of World War II.
A 5,000-vessel armada transported more than 150,000 men and nearly 30,000 vehicles to a 50-mile stretch of beach along the Normandy coast. More than 300 planes dropped 13,000 bombs in advance of the invasion.
Butka, a bomber pilot, flew one of those planes, a B-24 Liberator nicknamed "Old Granddad."
He flew two missions in support of the massive invasion that involved forces from the United States, England, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Poland and other Allied countries.
Butka and his crew, based in Attleborough, England, made bombing runs on consecutive days to help destroy Nazi fortifications before Allied ground troops reached them.
Allied troops secured the beaches and several coastal towns, but more than 9,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in fierce fighting on June 6 alone.
"History tells us that we didn’t do it good enough, and we had masses of our men killed trying to get up onto the shore," Butka said. "They should have had us bomb a week and just annihilate that whole coast so that our guys could get up there."
The skies over France were deadly as well. The 10-man B-24 crews were ordered to fly at 10,000 feet, rather than their normal 18,000 to 20,000 feet, to increase chances of hitting their targets.
Antiaircraft flak filled the air. Explosions below the airplanes were particularly dangerous because the concussions thundered up and out, Butka said. "As low as we were, they could even use the smallest of antiaircraft fire," he said.
Remarkably, "Old Granddad," one of the oldest B-24s in use, went through its D-Day missions without a scratch.
Butka, 22 at the time, kept his attention focused closely on conditions in the air, so he was largely unaware of the fighting below. Despite the aerial chaos, fear was never a factor.
"You were briefed and they brainwashed you ’til you’re the best pilot in the world and all that stuff. You knew you had to do it. And there’s another thing — back then, you were patriotic," he said.
The reasons for the war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany clearly were just, he said, and Americans were eager to enlist — no matter the risk.
Pilots never knew about their upcoming missions until moments before take-off. Furthermore, their instructions were limited to their particular roles, so Butka didn’t realize the scope and scale of the invasion until he read about it later in British newspapers.
The D-Day bombing runs marked the first of 31 combat missions for the farm kid from Montana.
Months later, on a mission over Cologne, France, his plane was peppered with enemy fire that left 1,600 holes. "There wasn’t a single one of our men hit in that plane. We were as lucky as all get out. Nor did it even hit a vital part," he said.
Other pilots weren’t as fortunate. Of the 33 men in Butka’s graduating class in the Army Air Corps’ advanced flight school program in Blytheville, Ark., in 1942, only three returned from the war.
"Not all classes had that high loss, but we just happened to be one of the classes that was hit hard," he said.
Butka earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and three Air Medals for meritorious service, though he insists he was no great hero. He came home in 1945 and like many World War II veterans, went back to the life he left.
He retuned to the farm in Montana, started a family and eventually moved to Washington state, working as an auto mechanic.
He met his current wife, Eunice, at his sister’s 50th high school reunion in Sydney, Mont., in 1988 and moved with her to Mesa to retire.
For decades, the significance of D-Day and World War II seemed to have faded into the background of American consciousness, Butka said. That appears to be changing, though, on the 61st anniversary of the battle.
"Now, when we are actually in war, there’s more discussion and so on about it," he said.
Arizona State University history professor Brooks Simpson said he differs somewhat with Butka’s assessment. The significance of June 6, 1944, indeed has withstood the test of time, he said. "Is it important to remember the sacrifices of American military personal during D-Day and what they achieved? Of course, the answer to that is yes," Simpson said.
He noted that there were several high-profile commemorations on the 50th anniversary in 1994 and on other anniversaries as well.
"A great number of people actually do recall that," Simpson said. "D-Day stands out as one of the events of people’s memories of the second world war."