Eyewitness to the War in the Pacific
Donated Collection Helps Wright Museum Tell the Personal Side of WWII
(Published October 2007)
A diary, a makeshift rosary, and an altar fashioned out of cocoanut leaves illustrate one soldier’s experience of the Pacific war in 1942.
Eldred L. Butler, PFC, Company K, 182nd Infantry, lived in Salem, Mass., where he enlisted in the Army on February 28, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was deployed to the Pacific, arriving first in Melbourne, Australia. Over the next several months, he’d serve in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, and the Fiji Islands.
Butler kept a diary chronicling his experiences during his first year in the Pacific. A devout Catholic, he regularly attended masses held at an improvised altar made out of locally-available materials. Sunday services occasionally could not be held if no priest was available, as Butler frequently noted in his journal. The diary is part of a recent bequest that was made to the Wright Museum by his family.
At right: Pencil and pastel sketch portrait of Eldred “Al” Butler.
Among the other artifacts in the Butler Collection is a rosary, remarkable for the fact that Butler replaced each bead with the seeds of native South Pacific plants. While the rosary is an extraordinary artifact that illustrates Butler’s religious devotion and innate ingenuity, it raises as many questions as it answers: Why did the prayer beads need replacing in the first place? Did he wear them out—a consequence of the anxiety he must have felt, being in harms way in an alien land? Was it homesickness for the familiar sights and sounds of New England, coupled with a longing for his beloved sweetheart, Natailie? Butler passed away recently, taking the answers to these questions with him.
Butler’s diary, however, is a remarkably illustrative source of information, documenting his own experiences 65 years ago. Butler uses a literary voice that combines a youthful exuberance with a strangely modern sense of irony:
September 13: Sunday. Went to Mass in field. Boys built a very pretty alter [sic].
September 18: Eats and quarters are just fine. Enjoying trip very much. Held rosary on top side last evening. Mess room is Monte Carlo at night.
Sept. 20: Arrived at the New Hebrides at 9AM. …Have been taking quinine for last few days.
Sept. 21: Slept on ground last night. Many rats and bats about. …Living in a coconut grove. Need to wash and shave and haircut badly. Much malaria on this Island. … This is wild country.
Sept. 27: Sunday. No priest. No Mass. Just another day. Ticks. Ants. Bugs. Etc. That’s Tropical Splendor.
Oct. 2: Moved 7 miles north. Did a hell of a days work. …I could sleep on a picket fence.
Oct. 7: On guard today at the entrance post. Just heard the Cards won the series. Feel very pleased about it. [Note: Butler was a Mass. native and devoted Red Sox fan. St. Louis had beaten the N.Y. Yankees for the title in 1942. Butler’s glee goes to show that some things never change. ]
Oct. 11: Millions of flies—Just awful. I wonder how my gal is.
Butler sent his diary back home to Natalie at the end of 1942. In a touching postscript, Natalie added the following passage:
September 24, 1943
Just an addition to your diary. Al, today is the happiest day of my life. Received your telegram, that you have arrived back in the States after 21 months of overseas duty. I realize to-day, that I love you more as each day passes. And I pray each night for you. May you come home soon and be with me for always.
With All My Love,
The Wright Museum is a one-of-a-kind non-profit institution dedicated to preserving and sharing the stories of America’s Greatest Generation. With its vast collection of fully-operational military vehicles and extensive exhibits relating to the American Home Front, the Wright Museum is a member-supported national treasure located right here in New Hampshire. In the words of Senator Bob Dole, “The Wright Museum tells the story of [a] great national achievement, a story that, more than ever, today’s generation of Americans—and especially our young people—need to understand and appreciate.”
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