In October 1967, James Butler began a 13-month journey that would send him on nearly 1,000 missions as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
Flying an average of nearly three times every day, Butler, a Plant High School graduate, earned 56 medals, including a Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a plethora of other honors resupplying Marines under fire and evacuating the wounded.
After he left the Marines as a captain, he earned his law degree from the University of Florida in 1972 and a decade later started his own law firm. He also became known as a volunteer who helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.
On Dec. 23, surrounded by family, Butler died after spending the past year in declining health, said Karen Butler, his wife of 49 years.
He was 76.
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Of his 988 missions, Butler talked about two during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times in October 2017.
He recalled spending 45 straight days flying in and out of Khe Sahn, the besieged base where some 5,000 Marines held off 20,000 North Vietnamese Army troops for 11 weeks.
"They were getting shot up pretty bad," Butler recalled. "We were bringing in new troops and inserting recon teams around Khe Sahn to see where the bad guys were and how many of them there were."
Butler recalled another mission that stood out. It was later in 1968 and he was trying to reach a compound where Australian and South Vietnamese soldiers were getting shot up and couldn’t get relief for three days.
"I made three passes and they shot the spars out on my rotor blade," Butler said. "An Aussie gets on the radio and says, ‘Come back, you nearly made it.’ So I went in and the medic jumped off and started carrying casualties into the aircraft."
For Butler, the 35 minutes on the ground was an eternity.
"They were walking in mortars, shooting us up with 50 calibers," he said.
He tried to fight back, but the barrel of one of the helicopter’s machine guns burned off, so he had to replace it and keep firing.
"We repelled them while the medic ran through the zone."
Unlike a lot of troops, Butler said, he returned to a rousing welcome in Tampa. He got the same reception at the University of Florida, where he attended law school. Back in Tampa with his degree, he received lots of job offers.
"For me, it was very, very good when I got back. Everyone treated me just super."
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Butler graduated from Plant High School in 1960 where he was student council president, homecoming king, voted “Best All Around” in his class, and was a first-string fullback on the football team, according to his obituary. Those achievements resulted in him being inducted to the Plant High School Hall of Fame.
Before joining the Marines, he graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor of science degree in 1964. He was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 as a second lieutenant and was quickly promoted to captain.
A lawyer since 1973, Butler participated in hundreds of jury trials, winning several verdicts in excess of $10 million, according to his law firm’s website.
But more than winning plaudits as a trial attorney, Butler became known as a dedicated volunteer for the National Kidney Foundation, helping the organization raise more than $300,000 through golf tournaments and the Am Surfing contests held on Cocoa Beach.
He also sponsored and hosted the annual Marine Corps Birthday Luncheon and was a member of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida, Lodge No. 25, and the Egypt Temple Shrine.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman .
Born: Dec. 9, 1942
Died: Dec. 23, 2018
Survivors: wife, Karen; son, James Thomas Butler Jr.; siblings John Butler and Marynell Palmer; nephews Johnny C. Butler, Bart Butler, Matthew Butler and niece, Denise Zentler; daughter-in-law Tamara Butler; grandchildren James Reed, Mila and Gracie Edna Butler.
Funeral: 11 a.m. Jan. 4 at Village Presbyterian Church, 13115 S Village Drive, Tampa, followed by a celebration of life.