“I saw a 37mm shell the size of a white softball,” recalled Lt. Col. Henry Buttelmann. “The forward and aft warning lights were both on. ‘Okay, pal,’ I thought, ‘reverse, get some altitude and bail out.’” Trailed by a MiG, Buttelmann had to think quick, flying head-on into a thunderstorm after his assailant overshot him. Landing his plane, riddled with bullets, he made it back to base, ready for the next mission.
Flying the F-86 Sabre, 24-year-old Buttelmann became the youngest fighter ace of the Korean War on June 30, 1953, after his 5th aerial victory. Only a few years before, he had been a lifeguard in New York, dreaming about earning his pilot’s license and flying planes. With a fair share of more than he imagined, Buttelmann became an element leader of the 25th Interceptor Fighter Squadron, flying into “MiG Alley.”
Remembering his father’s enthusiasm, Buttelmann’s son Kent told Air Force Times in 2019, “I think my dad was kind of like an adrenaline junkie. It was exciting for him to get in the plane and be behind the stick.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Buttelmann sought the freedom of the skies, longing to fly commercial jets like his neighbor, who introduced him to the idea. Following his dream, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve, and later the Air Force Reserve, receiving his commission after graduation from the Air Force pilot training program in August 1952.
Four months later, Buttelmann deployed to Korea, embarking on his first combat mission in January 1953. Eager to test his mettle, he flew into the heart of enemy aircraft territory, known as “MiG Alley” in North Korea. Relying on gut instinct, skill and cool judgment, he survived many close calls, even successfully landing his aircraft while it was on fire.
After gaining seven aerial victories over a period of 65 missions, Buttelmann returned to the States after the war ended. Between deployments to Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea, he continued his career in the Air Force, longing to fly as he once did overseas.
In April 1965, Buttelmann volunteered for service in Vietnam and was stationed at Takhli Air Base in Thailand. Over a period of four months, he flew 46 missions and was awarded a third Distinguished Flying Cross for valor after defending friendly forces against enemy fighters.
Returning in 1969, Buttelmann volunteered for a 12-month tour. “The risk he took leaving us and never seeing us again was probably the most impactful thing I think he’s ever done. It helped mold me as a man,” his son told the Las Vegas Journal-Review in 2019. Regardless of any risk to himself, Buttelmann continued to fly in harm’s way, protecting his comrades and seeing 232 missions through to success.
Buttelmann retired from the Air Force in 1979 as a lieutenant colonel. For his actions in combat and time in service, he received a Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses (one with a “V” for valor), 25 Air Medals and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Buttelmann died in 2019 and is buried at Lincoln National Cemetery.
We honor his service.
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Writer: Jackson Baker
Editors: Cate Manning, Mary Margaret Brennan
Researcher: John Bergstrom
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