1/144th FIELD ARTILLERY REUNION: ‘I WOULD DO IT AGAIN IN A HEARTBEAT’
Bill Butler joined the National Guard in 1953.
A 17-year-old at the time, Mr. Butler is now 84. He recalled his parents offering him a chance to make a little extra money.
He reported to the Santa Maria National Guard unit, which at the time only had 13 other people. Back then, there wasn’t any formal basic training and the group would gather every Tuesday night and one weekend a month for training.
Mr. Butler was described as “the epitome of leadership” by his peers. He was known as a man who would get things done, and some considered him the best non-commissioned officer there was.
He was one of many members of the National Guard’s 1/144th Field Artillery that was recognized Saturday afternoon during a reunion at Bishop Diego High School.
Mr. Butler explained how he controlled his unit and worked alongside the commanders, ensuring that as long as they stayed on task they would have the best unit they could.
Mr. Butler responded to a number of floods, fires and riots over the years.
“I’ve seen it all. I retired in 1995 with 42 years of service, and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Mr. Butler said.
The reunion was organized by Jack Armstrong, a retired firefighter and veteran who served more than 30 years in the armed forces.
Mr. Armstrong said that Saturday’s gathering was the first time the unit has been reunited in many years.
“In Santa Barbara, you have a lot of people who are really pro peace and want to work for peace and demonstrate and do a parade in a moments notice for peace, and yet the people here have done more for the peace of the country and this community, because they were ready to fight a war,” Mr. Armstrong said. “The training and commitment takes courage, and they were willing to do that. One of the reasons I wanted to do this was just to thank them for their efforts.”
Mr. Armstrong disputed a 2014 report by the Holden Foundation and the California Center for Public Policy that stated the Armory, in the 700 block of Canon Perdido, had been rarely used by the National Guard or the community since the late 1960s.
“We did a whole lot of things in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” he said.
Over the last 60 years, some 3,000 men and women have had the opportunity to belong to the Santa Barbara unit, serving an important role in national defense and being available to assist in support with state emergencies. The National Guard has since transferred the 1/144th Field Artillery to the Los Angeles area and the Santa Barbara Unified School District is seeking to purchase the Armory.
About 60 people were in attendance at Saturday’s reunion, including more than 40 members of the 1/144th Field Artillery. Some were joined by their spouses, while others used the reunion as a way to catch up with one another after many years apart. Several veterans sat near the back of the patio of the school and flipped through a photo album.
John McMillin, who was wearing a shirt depicting the American Flag and excerpts from the U.S. Constitution, joined the National Guard in 1969 as a way to avoid the draft.
During the Isla Vista riots in 1970, Mr. McMillin was a manager of the Taco Bell at Embarcadero del Norte and Pardall Road and didn’t take part in the defense against the rioters.
Several months later, another riot broke out. Mr. McMillin recalled meeting a man named Kevin in the morning. Six hours later they were on the steps of the Bank of America and the man, UCSB student Kevin Moran, was shot and killed by a police officer.
“That was a tough thing to deal with,” Mr. McMillin recalled. “I managed to not go into combat. My draft notice arrived one week after I enlisted in the National Guard, but I ended up in combat right here in Isla Vista.”
Eric Lehmann began his remarks by asking the attendees, by a show of hands, how many responded to fires and floods, or riots. Many of the veterans raised their hands, including some for multiple responses.
“That is the contribution that the 144 brought to the community,” Mr. Lehmann said.
“It was an incredible unit in its own unique way,” he added. “And the people that were there that I met were like a cross-section of American 20th century military history.”
Mr. Lehmann overlapped with Army and Navy veterans, as well as some of the last soldiers who served in World War II.
Ed Foster, 71, spent six years in the Army on active duty and upon his release joined the National Guard for a part-time job. He was in the aviation business and flew planes for the National Guard.
He was drafted into the army at 22 and said his schooling and service time helped his personal development.
“Every step of the way in the military you gain something,” Mr. Foster said. “And you gain camaraderie too. There are a lot of guys you end up with and you create lifetime friendships.”
Mr. Foster served in the National Guard from 1973 to 1998. He worked for the Santa Barbara City Fire Department for 26 years and has spent the last 15 years as a fire marshal for the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District.
He recalled responding to mudslides in Malibu, riots in Isla Vista and Los Angeles, and several mudslides and fires in Santa Barbara.
“As they say, you hope for the best and prepare for the worst and that’s what the guard does,’ Mr. Foster said.
Joe Macias, 62, enlisted in the National Guard in 1978 and was commissioned in 1983 through the UCSB ROTC program. He served until the summer of 1990.
He recalled joining the guard to get financial help for school, but enlisting after the Vietnam War was a difficult experience.
“It was not a good time to be a soldier,” Mr. Macias said. “Part of our safety briefing actually included how to avoid civilians throwing soda cans and empty beer bottles, and trying to spit (on us). They were calling us baby killers.”
Through his years in the guard, Mr. Macias witnessed the public’s attitude change when it comes to the armed forces.
“People in vehicles as they passed us on the freeway were actually waving at us,” he said, adding that some women also showed their appreciation in other ways. “Things were really starting to change.
“I only served 13 years, and it was probably the best time of my life,” Mr. Macias said.