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Interview with George Butenkoff [11/5/2010]

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Today is November 5th, 2010. We are interviewing George Butenkoff, born on?

George Butenkoff:

May 5th, 1932.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Jacqueline Nadeau is conducting this interview for the Veterans History Project through Central Connecticut State University. George participated in the Korean war in the Army and his rank was?

George Butenkoff:

PFC, proud fouled-up civilian.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

So I'm going to start with some general questions to help jog your memory.

George Butenkoff:

Sure.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

George Butenkoff:

I was drafted.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Where were you living at the time?

George Butenkoff:

I was living in Westwood, New Jersey. Actually, I was on the ship just before that, the Council Grove. All the draft boards made a big effort of drafting the Merchant seamen after the Korean war ended on July 27, '53.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

How old were you when you joined?

George Butenkoff:

When I started in the Merchant Marine, I was 16. When I got drafted, I was 21, five years later, after.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Were you able to pick your branch of service?

George Butenkoff:

No, no, not at all. In fact, they really scared me, because my draft board was in Hackensack, and then they took us down in buses to Newark. They were taking so many people at the time that I was processed in the Marine room, and I was scared to death that I would have to spend two years in the Marines instead of the Army.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Do you recall your first days in the service?

George Butenkoff:

Oh, yes, very definitely I recall my first days. It was quite a -- I thought I didn't have, wouldn't have a problem, since I -- as I say, I shipped out when I was 16. I was used to being away from home. I was used to being on my own. But all of a sudden when I got drafted it was an entirely different world. The KP, I did not like. Even to this day I don't do kitchen duty in the Lions Club or any of those. And on top of that, there's nothing like -- I remember cutting grass one blade at a time with a bayonet. To me, that wasn't particularly enjoyable. Although basic wasn't too bad. I spent eight weeks of basic at Camp Pickett and half -- it was a medical corps training school. So half the company were conscientious objectors. They pulled the KP while we were out on the range. Fortunately, I volunteered to be a driver, a truck driver. So most of the time I was driving an ambulance or a truck or a jeep on guard duty. So I sort of lucked out on basic.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Do you remember what kind of training you went through and how that was for you?

George Butenkoff:

I remember the rifle range, but I was used to shooting a rifle anyway. It was -- bivouac was a pain in the neck. You were out in the field in a pup tent. Although, as I say, I was pretty lucky. I was driving the truck, so I was able to get back in the barracks and I had a lot of freedom even on the bivouac. But I got through it, and unfortunately I was assigned to Fort Eustis to transportation. They were going to send me to harborcraft school. Before class even started, the head honcho there interviewed me and he realized that I had a Merchant Marine background, so he asked me if I wanted to be an instructor. And I became an instructor. The only thing, when I -- I couldn't teach the class I was supposed to graduate with. And I stayed there for the rest of my tour of duty in Fort Eustis.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Where is Fort Eustis located?

George Butenkoff:

In Virginia, right outside Williamsburg. We called it Fort Useless.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

In the Korean War, do you remember exactly where you went during this time?

George Butenkoff:

Oh, yeah. The first trip I made to Korea -- in fact, it was just about this time we were, I was on the Coeur d'Alene Victory. We loaded Quonset huts in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. And that was the only ship I was on where we ran aground, coming out of Quonset Point. Then we had to spend some time waiting for the tide to come in and make sure that we didn't breach the hull. So we had to sound our tanks. We arrived in Pusan, Korea, December 4, 1950 just when the chinks were coming over the Yellow River. So needless to say, they didn't want the Quonset huts. We spent about two or three days in Pusan, and then we went to Kobay (ph) picked up some radar sets. Then we went to Yokohama, and they were trying to unload us. They were working 24/7 to get us into the evacuation up at the reservoir at _____ but then they blew the port up on Christmas Day of 1950. And things slowed down. They loaded us up with a lot of landing mats for the provisional runways. On the way to Korea, we stopped at Mugi and picked up two of the biggest fire rescue trucks I have ever seen on deck. We came into Puson and started unloading. And then they realized our deep-sea suction valve was jammed open so they couldn't use us on the shuttle. So then they sent us back to Oakland Army Base in California. I still remember coming underneath the Golden Gate. I was the 12th, the floor watcher, running in the fog; and all of a sudden a bridge appeared right over my head. That was a good sight. Then I went back again in '52. I was on the Mary Adams. That was about the best trip I ever made. I had good watch partners. Except, the ordinary seaman, he liked to listen to country western music. He used to play Tex Ritter, Who Shit In My Saddle. To this day I don't like country music. But my watch partner had a Polaroid. Boy, I'll tell you, a Polaroid, in 1952 in Japan, you couldn't beat it. You started to fight those Japanese women, they couldn't believe that you could get instantaneous pictures. Then that trip, we came in to Okinawa Naha, unloaded some of the PX supplies, went up to Puson, then to Yokohama. Then we reloaded again, went over -- with general cargo -- over to Puson. After we unloaded, they shifted us over to Masan, and I have never seen so many empty shell cases in my life. They had mountains, hundred-foot mountains of shell cases, 155, 105s, 88, you name it, they had it. We took a full load of empty shell cases and went to Kure, Japan, which is just outside of Hiroshima. Bunkered up. Then we left for Baltimore, and it took us 55 days to get to Baltimore on the Liberty ship. But I had a chance to finish War and Peace on that trip. But that was the best ship I was ever on.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

What was it like going to this part of the world? Was it your first time traveling to --

George Butenkoff:

No. As I say, I was in the Merchant Marine previously. I had never been in Korea. Japan was good. When we got to Korea, though, on the first trip they established martial law. And I still remember, even in the seamen's club there in Puson, there was a big sign: Please check your weapons at the door. The Merchant Marine, now that I look back on it, the Merchant Marine was used for one purpose: we could deliver cargo about 25, 30 percent cheaper than the military could. We were unarmed in a combat zone. They used to pay us $2.50 a day for mine-area bonus. We'd also get, once we got into Korean waters, we would receive bonus on our base pay. Then if you carried over a hundred tons of ammunition, you got another 10 percent. But it was still a very effective way during World War II and the Korean War; and even now, all the auxiliary ships in the Navy are all manned by Merchant seamen, because you don't get the benefits. There was no workmen's comp on the ship if you got hurt. In fact, the old saying was: Do you want a doctor or a lawyer? The only way you could get compensated is to actually sue the company.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

What was your daily job assignments like?

George Butenkoff:

Well, when they -- I started out as an ordinary seaman. And then I had to wait to turn 19. Then I became an able-bodied seaman. You were basically on four/off eight. It is all according to if there was a lot of work on the ship then -- like on the 4:00-to-8:00 watch, you'd grab breakfast, hit the sack for an hour, and then 9:00 o'clock you'd turn two, 12:00 o'clock you are back in the sack trying to grab another nap, 1:00 o'clock you turn two again, then the 4:00-to-8:00 you are back on watch. What you do is between -- after 5:00 and before 8:00 you rotate. They have three men on watch, two able-bodied seamen and an ordinary seaman. And everybody takes an hour and 20 minutes. You take an hour and 20 minutes at the wheel, an hour and 20 minutes on lookout. That's between sunset and sunrise. And then the other 20 minutes is on standby, you make coffee or call the watch or whatever else has to be done.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Going into Korea being a Merchant Marine, did you see any combat while you were there?

George Butenkoff:

No, we didn't see any combat. Although in a way when we were there in 1950, it was a different world, particularly. Nobody knew what was going on when the Chinese crossed the Yellow you could see the seamen on deck whenever a jet flew over -- even though we had air superiority, you could hear all the eyeballs clicking. You could tell they were watching the airplane. But no, we didn't see any combat. Although, the other guys I sailed with, they participated in the invasion in China, a lot of Merchant ships, they participated in the evacuation at Honan, where they pulled the troops off the beach. In fact, one watch partner I had, he was in Honan, and he was telling me how they were evacuating the Korean refugees, and they looked down the hold and they still had JP 4 lifting 55-gallon drums down the hold. The gooks were cooking on top of the JP 4 barrels, which was a little bit dangerous practice. But no, we never saw it -- I never saw any combat in Korea.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Were you ever awarded medals or any citations while you were in the service?

George Butenkoff:

The good -- good conduct medal when I was drafted. And then also, in the Merchant Marine they gave us Korean campaign ribbons, which I never wore. It was just a card. But that was about it. I was just happy to get out of the Army. I had to spend 673 days, 11 hours, 5 minutes and 33 seconds in the Army. In fact, I have to admit, the only reason I went to college is I got out in September instead of November. Two good things happened. One, I have to admit, going to college was. And also I met my wife and got married. We just celebrated our 56th anniversary a couple of weeks ago.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Congratulations.

George Butenkoff:

Thank you.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

How did you stay in touch with your family while you were onboard ship?

George Butenkoff:

I just wrote letters. I had some girlfriends, one in every port, and stuff like that. But basically you just wrote letters and told them what ship you were on, and hopefully the next port you'd come to there would be mail there. When I was in the Army, my fiancee would write me just about every day or something like that. But mail to me on the ship wasn't that important. In the Army it was, but on a merchant ship it wasn't that -- not something that you really looked forward to on mail call.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Did you feel a lot of pressure or stress while you were in the service at this time?

George Butenkoff:

In the Merchant Marine I didn't. When I was in the Army, it was an uncomfortable feeling. Particularly the -- first year wasn't bad. I was a harborcraft instructor. In fact, we were carrying this cadre -- we were training the M-boat LCMs for Thule, the DEW line. The oldest students we had, they would take the whole class and send them up to Thule. At the time they were building the DEW line, the ships. There were no piers up there, Thule, Greenland. So they were unloading into the M-boats, and then taking them on the beach, and then putting them on trucks and bringing them up to the DEW line. We had a motto among the instructors, better them than us. But unfortunately, after -- just after I got married, I came back to camp, they changed -- they transferred us in to headquarters company and transportation school, and that was like being with a bunch of zebras, three up, three down, ten idiot sticks. That was just -- Private E2, I didn't even have any sticks. You know, it was pulling the KP and guard duty and the rest of the stuff. That was a miserable year. Then, of course, I was able to move off post when I got married. But then my wife got pregnant so I had to move back and she didn't like the Army doctors. So from February on I had to move back into the barracks, and that was rather stressful. But as I say, I got my early release.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

How did you entertain yourself while you were onboard ship for such long periods of time?

George Butenkoff:

I used to do a lot of reading. I always had a pocket book in my dungaree pocket. If I was off watch or sometimes even on watch, I used to do a lot of reading. At the time the Merchant Marine libraries, the only way that the libraries were on ship were, they were discarded books. And they had the Merchant Marine Seaman's Institute that used to put the library together. So you didn't know what you would run into. Some books, like the sex of a grasshopper at the age of three months or what have you. But hey, it was something to read. There weren't any bookstores around. Sometimes when you would go ashore you would get some pocket books and start reading them. Luckily, as I say, coming back on the Mary Adams they had War and Peace. I always wanted to read that book, and I had a chance to do it. I finished it.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

That's a great accomplishment.

George Butenkoff:

(Laughter.) At that time, as I say, it is all according to what kind of crew you have and what kind of watch partners. On the Mary Adams on the Korean run, that was the best run I was ever on. The worst run I was ever on was the Ensign Mills where we took grain to India, six weeks there, six weeks back, two weeks to unload. We were anchored out. The natives would really mess up the decks every morning. We would have to go out and take the fire hoses and wash down fore and aft. The crew all had dysentery so you couldn't send anybody over to _____. When I finally got back to the states, I found out I had anemia so I had to take liver shots for a week in the Marine hospital. It was just one miserable trip. The crew somehow or other didn't click. We had stowaways and five guys in irons and three days -- it was very interesting, but I wouldn't want to do it again.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Were the stowaways native to the country you went to?

George Butenkoff:

No. What happened is, we stopped in Ceuta, which is Spanish Morocco, right opposite Gibraltar. I still remember we left there -- we bunkered up and were heading to India, and all of a sudden, one of the ABs as we were cleaning up, he says: Hey, there are a couple of guys back there in the gun shack and I don't think they are part of the crew. And so we went back and there were two stowaways. And then we got to Aden, which is now Yemen. We had to bunker up and the old man thought he was going to be real cute and he stuck 'em ashore. But as we came back from India, there they were, lo and behold, on the dock waiting for us. The officials put them up in the fanciest hotel in town and stuck the old man with the bill. But that was the only time I saw the stowaways on the ship.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Did you travel anywhere else while you were in the service?

George Butenkoff:

Oh, yeah. Not in the Army; in the Merchant Marine. I was able to get to Chile. I had a couple of interesting trips. I went to Chile. I went to Okinawa, Persian Gulf, India. We were up in the Persian -- in fact, I broke my finger in Iran. I was on the ship and we went from Baltimore to the West Coast. We had an oil spill there. Then we went down to Chile, unloaded, and we got orders to go up to Cuba, and we had to switch from what they call bunker C, which is about the closest thing the target can get. Then we had two weeks to clean the tanks and pick up molasses in Cuba. Actually, there aren't too many people who have had the chance to go to Iran and Cuba.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

That's true. Any favorite places that you went to?

George Butenkoff:

Yeah, I sort of liked Santo Domingo. I was on -- for three months, I was on a run ______ from New York to Puerto Rico. We used to hit Mayaguez, San Juan, Ponce; then over to Santo Domingo. Trujillo was in power there. We used to dock right almost in downtown. So at lunchtime we would go up to one of the fanciest hotels in paint-covered dungarees and sit around the pool and drink rum and coke, or what have you, and go back to the ship at 1:00 o'clock in good shape. But that was one of my favorite cities. But three months of that -- then we also used to carry racehorses. Of course, you would get paid overtime for taking care of the racehorses. But I was on there three months. We would pay off with about a hundred hours overtime every two weeks. I lost about 30 pounds trying to keep everybody happy in New York and Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. I got off and got on the ship where I had some more time at sea.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Do you remember any particular humorous or unusual event?

George Butenkoff:

Humorous? We had on the Mary Adams, we used to have this guy, Red Fink. He was a cartoonist. Every morning he would be on the wheel and he would be drawing up a cartoon while he was up at the wheel. The mate would try to take a sneak at the cartoon and he would always push him aside. He wouldn't let him see the cartoon, to see the cartoon until he finished. At 8:00 o'clock he would always put it on the bulletin board. Everybody looked forward to his cartoons every morning. He was able to characterize all the different characters on the ship and the personalities. It was a good trip. He was a good watch partner.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Do you have any photographs?

George Butenkoff:

Oh, yeah. Yeah, I got some photographs. I've got some photographs of me in the Army uniform. How do you want to handle this?

Jaclyn Nadeau:

I'm going to zoom in. You can hold them -- yeah.

George Butenkoff:

That's me in the Army.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

You want to hold it up a little bit higher. There, perfect. And that's you in the Army after you had got drafted?

George Butenkoff:

After I got drafted, yeah. I think, personally -- drafting the guys from Korean, also there were a lot of guys from World War II -- I think they were really used and abused. As I say, the merchant seaman from World War II didn't get the GI bill until '88 even though we were all promised the GI bill. You want some more?

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Sure.

George Butenkoff:

This is me as an instructor in the Army. That is an M-boat that I'm leaning on, the cockpit. As I say, that was tough duty up until ______. As you can see, it's an open cockpit. They had a lot of problems with the strainers. They had two different systems on the diesel engines. Ice slivers would get into the strainers, and they had to open them up in the cold water. That was tough duty. As I say, it was better them than us.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Would you like to move on to your ship?

George Butenkoff:

Sure. This is the Purdue Victory. There were 440 of these Victories built in World War II. As I mentioned, my first trip to Korea, the Coeur d'Alene Victory. The Victories had, the housing system, they actually had a cable wrapped all the way around the hull. That used to prevent the so-called magnetic mines from being attracted to the ship. When the system was on, the red light would be on on the bridge. But you really weren't too sure whether the system was working or not. We never picked up a mine, so....

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Mm-hmm.

George Butenkoff:

This was the _______. I was a union organizer on city service for six months. On this, we used to run from Braintree to Wilmington, California, two weeks there, two weeks back. We would load in 12 hours, never broke seawatch, four on/eight off. Two weeks back through the canal, into Boston, 24 hours to unload. Never broke seawatch. You ended up with a disease called tankeritis where you go ashore and drink with both hands in the bar. And then after a while, you get a chance to talk to yourself and two other people at the same time. I was on two of these. Just before I got drafted, I was on the Council Grove as a bosun with city service. In fact, six months after I got drafted, I was sitting in camp one day reading the newspaper and lo and behold there was the Council Grove in the paper. She blew up down in Lake Charles, Louisiana and killed 12 guys on the ship. This is the Steel Mariner. I was on her back in 1950. She's a ________. Actually, built in World War I. I was only on her for 16 days. We took her from Yonkers down to Staten Island and scrapped her out. The last one, this is 1951. This is my first trip as an able-bodied seaman. When I was young, I always wanted to be a skipper. So my ambition was to first of all become an able-bodied seaman. Second, a third mate. I couldn't become an able-bodied seaman until I was 19. And I just turned 19 and caught the Ensign Mills on the green run to India. As I said, that was one of the most miserable trips that I've made. In a way, it was sort of funny, because when I started going to college in '55 after the Army, my wife and I took a trip up the Hudson River. There she was, the Ensign Mills laying in a boneyard.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Wow. Did you ever keep any personal diaries or journals while in the service?

George Butenkoff:

No, I never kept any diaries. The only thing, as I said, when I was drafted, in a way I was pretty lucky being in the harborcraft out, because there were other Merchant Seaman guys I sailed with, guys from World War II. Everybody was just counting days. As soon as I heard about the early release and being able to get out in September, I remember I started applying to colleges. I applied to Newark College of Engineering and Rutgers and Cornell, and I took the SATs down there in Williamsburg, and I got accepted. Then they gave us $175 a month if you were married with a child. And my tuition in Newark was $175 a month. But I still remember getting out of the Army. I couldn't get out of the Army until ten days before school started. And that was the Saturday before Labor Day. So I was down in Virginia. So needless to say, Friday I drove back to New York. From New York I went back to camp. Sunday night, got my leave -- my DD 214 and my money. And then I needed one day of Merchant Marine time to get my medical benefits back. So the next day I was down the union hall, and I caught a ship going to Yokohama, but I found out she was going to stop in Norfolk, so I rode her down to Norfolk quick. And I went to school. And I was really concerned that I was going to get stuck with 16- and 17-year-olds in college, and when I walked in the first class over 50 percent of all the students were all Korean War vets. So it was an interesting change of pace.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

So you went to school on the GI bill?

George Butenkoff:

Yeah, $175 a month, and my tuition was 175.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

And I remember you saying you counted pretty much all the days down to the second?

George Butenkoff:

Oh, yeah. Everybody. In fact, the last six months, when I was in the -- I had my own desk as an instructor. I had paperclips, six months of paperclips. I would come in every morning and turn a, throw a paperclip. But everybody had the days down to the last day, everybody was counting. In fact, most of the guys I worked with were all U.S. draftees. The U.S. stood for unwilling soldiers.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Did you make any close friendships while you were in the service?

George Butenkoff:

There were guys I sailed with. Yeah, we used to hang around. But I only saw one guy afterwards that was an instructor. When I graduated from college, I went to work for Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee. We went sailing for a day. But other than that, I really didn't keep track of anybody in the Army. I think everybody was just happy to get the hell out.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Did you join any Veterans organizations?

George Butenkoff:

No, I never. Somehow or other, the American Legion sort of reminds me of guys who still want to play soldier. I went to the Korean War Veterans thing down in South Windsor. They had a loud-mouth sergeant that spoke for about two hours. It wasn't the kind of thing I really enjoyed. Although, I'm on the Veterans Commission in town. In fact, tomorrow we have a Veterans road day race. And right now I'm trying to come up with a list of East Windsor war veterans. I would like to see if we could get a monument in place like some of the other towns. I've got the list now of the war veterans. But some of it is a pain in the neck. But the Labeau (ph) Act -- Gary Labeau (ph) was a conscientious objector and they found out by seeing his DD 214. So he was able to get an act passed in the legislature that the only one that could see his DD 214 were the Veterans themselves. So it's been somewhat of a pain in the neck, but I think I'm on my way now with this. Once we finish this road race, we are going to come up with a list of veterans and hopefully get enough money for a monument in the center of town.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

That's great. What did you choose to go on and major in while in college?

George Butenkoff:

Oh, I went for electrical engineering. I liked the math. I decided I was going to become an electrical engineer. Once I started, then I got my MBA, which looking back now I think I should have gone from BSEE to JD. I finally got my JD in '41 (sic). I was a professional student. Of course, when I went to school, things were a lot different. As I say, Newark was, full-time was $175 a semester. The MBA I don't know. I think it was 150. Most of the guys in the MBA program -- I call that my Jewish engineering degree -- they were all engineers from Pratt. And in the JD there were also a lot of Pratt patent majors, and they also passed the patent bar. Needless to say, the JD paid for itself, and that was only $125 a semester. I still remember the last semester taking eleven credits. Nowadays you can't get a book for a hundred. I took a course in oceanography up in Nantucket. The book was $140. In fact, I just signed up for another -- I still use the Veterans benefits. I took an electronics course to bring my electrical engineering degree up to date. Now I just signed up. I'm supposed to start in January on this Lee Manufacturing course.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

That's great.

George Butenkoff:

Being over 62, as I say, the electronics course, I think the course was something like $2999, and between the veterans benefits and being over 62, I got it for 299 -- that included the books and calculators and all the rest of the stuff.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Great. Do you think your military experience helped you in your career choices later on in life?

George Butenkoff:

Definitely, yeah. As I say, I don't think I would have went to college if I couldn't have got my early release. The other thing is I got married. That was it, two good things I got out of the Army, 56 years later.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Does your time in the service ever affect your life today?

George Butenkoff:

Well, the only way it affects it, as I say, I get my tuition veterans benefits. I was looking for possibly going for a biomedical engineering degree. I don't know, somehow or other going back to school and being 78, full-time like that for a couple of years just doesn't seem attractive to me. I don't know what the heck I would do as a biomedical engineer anyway. Supposedly there's a high demand for them. But I figured I would go for this Lee Manufacturing.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Is there anything else that you would to add to the interview that we didn't cover?

George Butenkoff:

No, I appreciate -- as I say, looking back on it, I think particularly the World War II Merchant seaman, they were used and abused. I didn't think it was actually fair, but there's nothing you could do. As far as getting drafted, after the Korean War ended for the seaman that sailed in World War II, I didn't think it was fair, but you really didn't have any choice. Once you got your draft notice, the draft boards were after the Merchant seaman. There were seaman that were being picked up by the FBI in Germany that didn't report to the draft board. But I really felt I served my country and contributed a lot more to the war effort being in the Merchant Marine, even with the trips to Korea. And then we had another ship I was on, Council Grove. We took JP 4 fuel from Groton into ?Burma Harbor? for the Air Force. But hey, things happen.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Well, thank you very much for your time.

George Butenkoff:

Hey, my pleasure. I enjoyed it.

Jaclyn Nadeau:

Thank you.

 
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