Bill Harvey, left, and Arthur Butler met only briefly during World War II, as Butler’s unit was liberating theprison camp where Harvey was held captive. Now they live on the same floor at Pinecrest Place in Largo.
LARGO – The two men living on the second floor of Pinecrest Place go way back.
In April 1945, Arthur Butler, part of the 30th Field Hospital of the U.S. Army, cut a hole in the fence of a prison camp in Bavaria, Germany. One of those freed was Bill Harvey, a bombardier who had been captured after his B-24 bomber had crashed during a mission in Italy.
The two men saw each other only for a few minutes that day, in passing. For Harvey, who weighed only 118 pounds after almost a year as a prisoner of war, it was a momentous occasion. But Butler’s unit moved on quickly, headed to Austria to attend to even more freed prisoners.
More than six decades later, they met again.
“I think I know you,” Butler said when he saw the retired bombardier a second time.
Butler, 86, had moved to the assisted living floor of Pinecrest Place, at 1150 Eighth Ave. SW. in Largo, five years ago, after a bad fall injured his hip and his head. He can’t read anymore and some of his memories of World War II are fuzzy. But he remembers traveling with his unit to help rout Japanese forces out of the Aleutian Islands. He remembers when they joined “Patton’s Third Army” in Europe and began a campaign through France, Germany and Austria.
“We were fighting almost every day wherever we went,” he said. “We never had a peaceful day.”
And he remembers Harvey, who moved from the fourth to the second floor of Pinecrest after his wife suffered a second stroke. The World War II veterans have since become friends, but it’s still a wonder to both that they live in the same place in Florida, so far from both of their hometowns and far from the war zone where they first met.
“Of all things, we both end up in this place,” Butler said.
“It was funny, because we only met for a short period of time,” Harvey added.
It wasn’t until they began comparing their memories of the war that they realized how they knew each other. Both had joined the U.S. Army in December 1941, right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Butler, who was 18 and living in New York City, went with his three brothers to enlist. He remembered that the line of volunteers wrapped around the block three times.
Harvey was 17. After a series of exams, he went to flight school and then headed to North Africa with the U.S. Army Air Forces.
He was the bombardier on a B-24 bomber called the Maiden U.S.A. Before its last fateful flight, the bomber flew in 11 missions, beginning with a strike on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, in April 5, 1944.
On April 25 of that year, the bomber flew over Varese, Italy and encountered German fighter aircraft called Messerschmitt Bf 109s.
“Our airplane got hit first by 109s. They shot us up so we couldn’t maintain altitude,” Harvey explained.
Things turned from bad to worse as they tried to retreat and ran into more fighter aircraft, Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. Six of Harvey’s fellow crewmembers were killed in the ensuing crash. Harvey survived but was wounded. He initially evaded detection until two Italians turned him in to their police.
“They were great; they fed me fine,” Harvey said. “But then they turned me over to the Gestapo, and everything went downhill from there.”
The Nazi secret police questioned him and held him in solitary confinement at a prison in Italy before shipping him to Stalag Luft III in Poland. When the Russians invaded in February 1945, he was marched to the prison camp in Bavaria.
By that time, Butler’s unit had made it into Germany.
“We were attacking the camp because we heard that there were fellow Americans in it,” Butler recalled.
Harvey heard the battle commotion and went to investigate.
“And this gentleman happened to come up to the fence and cut a hole in it,” he said, looking to Butler. “I went out in the hole in the fence.”
The Germans holding the camp were on their way out anyway, Butler explained.
“They all ran away,” he said.
Harvey immediately was drawn to the mess kitchen of the liberating forces. He tagged along behind Butler’s unit, riding in a captured German car as they headed into Austria, until an officer found and directed him to where they were flying prisoners of war out for treatment in a hospital camp in France.
After the war, Butler was discharged with the rank of company sergeant and returned to his wife, Violet, to whom he was married for “sixty years and one day,” until her death in 1999, he said. They had two sons.
Butler went to work in the construction industry on Long Island, New York. He moved to Florida to work for a different company as its general foreman until his retirement.
Harvey, discharged as a second lieutenant, went to work for an electronics company in Philadelphia. On Aug. 5, 1950, he was recalled to serve and flew 52 missions as a bombardier in the Korean War. Figuring he had the time in already, he accepted a regular commission in the Air Force. He retired in 1964.
He became the associate dean of college of public communications at Boston University. He and his wife, Jeanette, would come down to Florida during spring break, staying at a house they bought in Largo. When he retired from the university, the couple moved down to Florida permanently.
Both men are widowers now and use a walker to get around. But Harvey is still thankful to Butler and his unit for saving him before he was executed.
“You saved me from the pokey,” he told his neighbor. “He’s a good man, a nice friend. I’m glad I got him.”