U.S. and French World War I Hero (1891-1947)
We know that Sgt. Butler met his future wife here in Salisbury, and that he returned to live in Georgetown in 1919 after his service in WWI.
Sergeant William Alexander Butler was born on February 3, 1891 in White Plains, Charles County, Maryland, to Mamie Swan and John L. Butler.1 By the 1910’s, Butler had made his way out of Charles County where he would wed his future bride, Ms. Jennie Robinson, of Salisbury, Maryland, who he would marry on April 16, 1912 in Washington, D.C.2 By 1916, Butler and his wife had relocated from Washington, D.C. to New York City, living at 129 West 132nd Street in Harlem, where he worked as a Pullman Porter and Elevator operator.3
On September 27th, 1916, at the age of 25, William Butler enlisted as a private in the Colored 15th Infantry National Guard. Shortly thereafter he was transferred to Company L in the famed 369th infantry of the 93rd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, United States Army, known as the “old fifteenth.”4
On August 1st, 1917, he was promoted to Sergeant, just before he was deployed on December 8, 1917 when he first arrived in France.
In April of 1918 Butler arrived at the trenches. On April 12, 19185, near Maison-de-Champagne, France, Butler broke up a German raiding party which had succeeded in entering trenches and capturing some of his men. With an automatic rifle he killed four of the raiding party and captured or put to flight the remainder of the invaders.6 Following the incident, Butler escaped after only receiving a number of injuries relating to injuries relating to and was formally discharged on March 28th, 1919, after returning from theater.7 Less than a month after his return, Butler sought treatment for anemia and bronchitis, as a result of the consistent gassing while in the War.
Butler’s group would become known by the French and the Germans “Harlem HellFighters,” for their record breaking victories in Europe during World War I. None of the 369th Infantry was ever caught in battle, and they captured over 400 German soldiers. Butler's unit would make history during the war as France's first Infantry to cross the Rhine River. Since the 369th was not part of an American brigade or division, it was the first and longest service of any American regiment part of a foreign army.8
On July 9, 1918, the President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, presented Sergeant Butler with the Distinguished Service Cross.9 The following year the nation of France presented Sergeant Butler with the French Croix de Guerre in April of 1919. As a result of being wounded in battle Sergeant Butler also received the Purple Heart.10 Butler’s heroism was praised in newspapers throughout the nation. The Afro-American of Baltimore said: "Trenton, New Jersey, may have her Needham Roberts, but it takes Salisbury, Maryland, to produce a William Butler. Roberts had his comrade, Henry Johnson, to help him in repulsing a raiding party of Germans, but Butler took care of a German lieutenant and squad of Boches all by himself.”11
“‘Bill Butler, a slight, good-natured colored youth, who until two years ago was a jack-of-all-trades in a little Maryland town, yesterday came into his own as a hero among heroes. More than 5,000 men and women arose to their feet in City College stadium and cheered themselves hoarse while representatives of two Governments pinned their highest medals upon the breast of the nervous youth. Sergeant Butler was one of a list of twenty-three members of the famous 15th Regiment upon whom both France and the United States conferred medals of honor because of extraordinary heroism on European battlefields. But by common consent his name comes first on the list, a list that was made up only after a careful comparison of the deeds of gallantry that finally resulted in the breaking of the Hun lines.” (New York Tribune, April 28, 1919).
Butler returned to Salisbury in February of 1919 and was honored on February 10th at a special reception at the John Wesley M.E. Church (now the Chipman Cultural Center), as reported by The Wicomico News. Rev. Charles W. Pullett of Whites Chapel M.E. Church presided. The welcoming address was made by Rev. James M. Dickerson, pastor of the John Wesley church. The newspaper article reported that Butler had been presented “with a South Bend solid gold watch as a token of respect and appreciation of his gallantry from Governor Ritchie by the people of this, his adopted home.”12
In 1920, one year following his return from war he and his wife Jeanie were living at 403 Water Street, with his mother-in-law Mrs. Lucy Robinson, and his niece Susie Gale in Salisbury, where he returned to work as a grocery store merchant.13 Those were huge accomplishments for someone who was African American at the time of continuous racial strife and in the middle of The Great Depression in the United States.
Butler, unfortunately, died of an apparent suicide in Washington, D.C., in November of 1947. He was 56 years old. Butler never got the recognition he deserved for being a war hero, but the more his name and story come out, the more that will change.
Chicago Style citation will appear here