Sitting 34 feet above Finthen Army Airfield in Germany, Dwight Butler heard the distress call.
It was a chilly afternoon on Dec. 19, 1962. Butler was 30, assigned to the air traffic control tower. He looked up at the approaching CH-34 helicopter and saw fuel spew from the rear. It back-fired – and exploded in flames.
In no time, he left his controls and raced downstairs to spray the cockpit with foam, saving the pilot, co-pilot and crew chief.
That day, Butler was recommended for a Soldier's Medal, given for a non-combat act of heroism.
It took 46 years, but Sunday he got it during a quiet ceremony at the Army Reserve's 108th Training Command off Central Avenue.
“I was only 500 yards from the fire and I knew we had fire-fighting equipment for emergencies down below,” Butler said after the ceremony. “Fire and magnesium burn quickly, so I knew someone had to get foam on those flames, and fast.”
Sunday, with young reservists at attention, Maj. Gen. James Mallory presided over the ceremony.
“We all know it sometimes takes time for the Army to process paperwork,” Mallory said. “This one's probably a record. But good things come to those who wait.”
With that, Mallory pinned the long-awaited medal to the lapel of Butler's double-breasted coat.
During the ceremony, the gathering welcomed back seven Army reservists from Iraq, and celebrated the retirement of two officers.
Yet Butler, now 76 and living in Charlotte, was the show's star.
He grew up on Lakewood Avenue on Charlotte's westside and joined the Army in 1950.
After paratrooper training, he made two drops during the Korean War, and decided he'd make the military a career.
By 1962, he was at Finthen near Mintz, Germany. He was midway through his shift when the pilot called in that his CH-34 had taken a hard landing during training and broken a landing strut.
He wanted someone to lay down a cradle for the helicopter to land softly. After it erupted in flames, Butler jumped onto a Jeep with the fire extinguisher and raced to the flames.
As he sprayed the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot escaped unharmed. The crew chief was still missing.
So Butler kept spraying and searched for the chief. He tore off the cargo door with his bare hands. Flames burned his hands and arms – and singed his eyebrows.
Finally the chief popped out through the cockpit.
It was the pilot, Lt. Col. George Patterson, who recommended Butler for the medal.
Days later, Butler got word that his mother, Lillian Butler, was dying of cancer and he flew home to Charlotte.
After that, as most military people do, he moved around the world as assignments changed – from Charlotte to Italy, back to Germany. His ramblings included three tours in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970.
He retired in 1975 a master sergeant, and went to work with the Corps of Engineers that involved more globe-trotting.
“The government just couldn't find me to give me my medal,” he said. “It feels good to get it – but I didn't lose any sleep over not having it.”
Butler learned Sunday the medal boosted his Army retirement by $150 a month.
“That'll get me two tanks of gas,” he mused. “But I'm happy; the medal gives me satisfaction that maybe I did something good for those men.”