Local family remembers loved one lost in WWII who will be remembered on the Military Wall of Honor

PRINCE GEORGE – Billy Butterworth left home a bright-eyed young man who had recently graduated from Hopewell High School, excited about the future with goals to serve his country and eventually start a family.

He never came back.

William F. Butterworth, Jr. was a Fireman Second Class in the U.S. Navy and was just 19 when he was killed in action on October 25, 1944.

“It rocked everyone,” said his sister, Evelyn Bannerman, who now resides with her husband, Glenn, in North Carolina. In describing the family receiving the news about his death, she said, “It was hard to lose your big brother. He was the one we looked up to.”

The family received word via telegram.

“It was later that we found out how he went down with the ship,” she said of Billy’s service on the USS Samuel B. Roberts. His actions and those of his shipmates may have helped win the war and ultimately result in the freedom that is still enjoyed today.

After engaging Japanese war ships and defending American aircraft carriers, the Roberts in the Leyte Gulf was sunk along with three other American ships, but the Japanese retreated because of the strong American resistance.

Though the military hero perished at war while only a teenager, he will forever be remembered through the War Memorial Project that began through the Prince George Regional Heritage Center.

That project continues as its coordinator and volunteer, WadeLanning, reaches out to families of those in both Hopewell and Prince George who died at war from the War of 1812, Civil War and those still fighting abroad.

The news of the attack came late for the Butterworth family as Billy’s mother, Mildred, read a local newspaper article that the Roberts was one of the ships lost in the naval Battle of the Philippines. Billy’s father, William Butterworth Sr., contacted the Red Cross to investigate since they had not been informed. It wasn’t until the next day, Sunday, Nov. 19, that the official telegram arrived. As it turned out, Lanning explained, the government previously tried to deliver the telegram to the Butterworth family’s old address on 21st Avenue instead of their new residence on 15th Avenue, thus delaying the notification.

The telegram read as follows:

“The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son William Frank Butterworth, Jr., Fireman Second Class USNR is missing following action in the service of his country. The Department appreciates your great anxiety, but details not now available and delay in receipt thereof must necessarily be expected.”

Not many World War II veterans remain to share their stories, and those who knew those fallen in service to their country also are becoming part of history, Lanning explained. He said their stories must be told.

And through his hard work and the support of many others, those stories are not becoming distant memories, but are being engraved in historical documents of this area.

The Military Wall of Honor, which is featured at displays and on the Heritage Center’s website, recognizes those from Prince George and Hopewell who died while serving their country in military duty starting with the War of 1812, by preserving their picture, gravesite picture or memorial picture where available. Consisting of more than 150 individuals, the wall is based on names listed on the Prince George War Memorial Monument, the Hopewell War Memorial Monument and the Library of Virginia military death records, as well as other resources.

Lanning has spent countless hours researching the lives of those who served and lost their lives while reaching out to families of the fallen where he gains much of the information.

When possible, the wall includes photographs, medals, descriptions of military service, and the circumstances of their death.

Lanning said was able to gain great detail about Billy Butterworth through old newspaper articles and talking with family members.

Upon graduating from high school in June 1943 at age 17, Billy took a job with the Old Dominion Water Corporation in Hopewell. That summer he decided he wanted to join the Navy, and since he was still 17, his father had to sign for him to join, enlisting on Aug. 4, 1943. Upon enlisting, Billy went to the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois for boot-camp training.

It was quite a shock for the Butterworth family to get news of their son’s death. Bannerman recalled he hadn’t been out in the ocean that long before the battle, and many others survived the Roberts demise.

Bannerman was at home in her senior year at Hopewell High when the dreadful news arrived. She said it was hardest on her mother, Mildred. But Bannerman remembered support as the community came together as a whole, since many other families were suffering the same fate.

Bannerman’s husband went to school with Billy, and though he wasn’t close to his sister at that time, the two later became sweethearts.

When asked how they thought Billy would feel about their relationship, they both said, “Oh, he would be very pleased.”

Glenn Bannerman joked, “Well, I hope he would be happy.”

Glenn Bannerman recalls being in the Boy Scouts with his fellow Hopewellian and how Billy was an all-around great person. He, too, served in the Navy during World War II, but returned home to share his experiences and also reconnect with his great friend’s family.

When he returned, Glenn Bannerman went back to school and graduated from Hopewell explaining many of his fellow servicemen did the same.

“There was a great lot of us, and I think it was good,” Glenn Bannerman noted. “We had the best basketball team and other teams.”

He wishes Billy could have been by his side, saying, “He was a fine young man, very friendly and outgoing and well loved by the neighborhood where we were in the area around 15th Avenue. He was just a great companion and good friend.”

Evelyn Bannerman still misses her big brother while she continues to have fond memories of him including his kindness and strength.

While “Billy Boy,” as he was referred to, will always be remembered by his family and friends, his legacy also lives on through the War Memorial Project and even a book written about the Roberts and the Battle off Samar.

“It makes you feel good that at least he’s being honored for what he did,” Evelyn Bannerman said of her brother. “I think he would be happy.”

By Adrienne Wallace, Hopewell Herald & Prince George Post

Adrienne Wallace is editor of the Hopewell Herald & Prince George Post, a sister publication of The Progress-Index.