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Korean War ace, longtime Las Vegas resident Hank Buttelmann dies

Updated September 25, 2019 - 10:02 pm

Lt. Col. Henry “Hank” Buttelmann earned a Congressional Gold Medal and was the youngest “ace” in the Korean War, but he couldn’t stand being saluted by the airmen at Nellis Air Force Base after his retirement from the service.

“He was a great person, very humble,” his wife, Audrey, told the Review-Journal on Tuesday. “He would salute back, but he didn’t like it. He would say, ‘I don’t want them to salute me now.’ ”

The 27-year Air Force veteran, a resident of Las Vegas for more than 30 years, died Sept. 16 in Frankfort, Illinois, where he moved with his wife in 2018. He was 90.

Audrey Buttelmann said her husband of 17 years died peacefully. He had battled dementia in recent years, she said.

Before his death, Buttelmann, a Silver Star recipient, was one of two living American aces from the Korean War. The last is Lt. Gen. Chic Cleveland of Montgomery, Alabama.

Buttelmann earned the title of youngest Korean War ace — a pilot who shoots down five enemy planes — at age 24.

In an interview with Airport Journals in 2009, Buttelmann said he flew 50 missions before encountering a MiG-15 enemy aircraft and decided that he “would do anything to get a MiG.”

Seven ‘kills’ in final weeks of war

It took him until near the end of the war to achieve his goal. On his 55th combat mission on June 19, 1953, he shot down a MiG-15, according to his biography at the Smithsonian Wall of Honor.

Eleven days later, he became the youngest Korean ace when he downed his fifth MiG on June 30. He shot down two more in July to bring his total to seven, just before the cessation of hostilities on July 27, 1953. All told, he logged 65 combat missions during the war.

He later went on to serve two tours in Vietnam, in 1965 and in 1969, where he completed 48 combat missions in an F-105 Thunderchief and 238 in an F-100 Super Sabre.

Buttelmann grew up in Queens, New York, knowing he wanted to be a pilot. His parents were immigrants from Germany, and the first-generation American knew that he had to pay his way to make his dreams come true.

So he worked as a lifeguard at Jones Beach Island to afford flying lessons needed to join the Air Force.

After serving two years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and two years in the Air Force Reserve, he entered the Air Force pilot training program and graduated as a second lieutenant on Aug. 2, 1952.

After completing three months of advanced gunnery training at Nellis, he shipped out to Korea in December 1952 to serve with the 25th Fighter Squadron, 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, flying an F-86 Sabre.

“My dad told me that was the best time of his life, flying in Korea,” his youngest son, Kent, said Tuesday. “… Those were the glory days. He missed it immensely, that’s for sure.”

Kent Buttelmann said his father later volunteered for duty in Vietnam, though he was single and raising two boys while stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

“He felt that was his duty, and he loved flying,” he said.

‘He loved Vegas’

Kent Buttelmann said his father later returned to Las Vegas and was a longtime member and president of the now-defunct F-86 Sabre Pilots Association.

“He loved Vegas; that’s where he got his start in his military career,” he said. “It’s where his younger years were spent; he had an affinity for it.”

He said his father, who flew with the likes of Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn during his time in the service, kept quiet about most of his combat exploits.

But his son remembers one story about a close call during a dogfight with some MiG-15 fighters over Korea. The elder Buttelmann called it his most difficult kill in the 1992 interview.

He had just shot down a MiG when another began firing at him from beneath his plane, where he was unable to get a shot at it. He slowed his jet and kept turning into the MiG until the enemy pilot broke off, and he was able to escape by climbing into a storm system in the area.

“Had he stayed, he would have done all right,” Hank Buttelmann said. “I was extremely fortunate because there were thunderstorms in the area. … I got into the weather and stayed there. That saved me.”

Kent Buttelmann added that his father “landed the plane while it was on fire” when he returned to base.

The key to a fighter pilot’s success, he told his son, is that there has to be “no second thought when you see an enemy plane, and you’ve got to immediately engage.”

Real estate investments

The younger Buttelmann said his father was also smart and frugal, earning his real estate license and investing in homes while still in the service. He often put his boys to work as laborers during renovations.

He was an affectionate father who lovingly called him “Kenter” and would regularly take him and his brother, Kurt, to church on Sundays. They would barbecue by the beach and he taught his sons to surf.

“He loved the water, and for me, being raised in Hawaii was the greatest life experience anybody could have,” Kent Buttelmann, 61, said.

When he took off for Vietnam, his boys stayed with family friends. The sons were concerned for their father, but he had taught them to be independent. They made their own breakfast and washed their own clothes even after he returned home from his tours.

“That’s probably the biggest takeaway from my father; the sacrifices he made not only for his country but to raise two boys by himself and to also serve in the Vietnam War two times,” Kent Buttelmann said.

“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.”

With his sons and his wife, Henry Buttelmann is survived by his eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service has been set for Oct. 11 at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.

This article was updated to correct the award Buttlemann received for his service.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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