During the last two years of World War II, the intersection of Arthur Avenue and 47th Street in Brookfield was known as “Victory Corner.”
Thirsty war workers from the nearby factories in McCook would pay a visit to Mike Butkovich’s bar at 9220 47th St. – now known as Joe’s Saloon – to grab a Schlitz or two.
Mike Butkovich, who ran the bar, wasn’t there to greet them though. He hadn’t been at the bar since at least January 1944 when the 34-year-old father of four reported for Army basic training at Camp Blanding, Fla., an infantry replacement training center.
The patrons at the bar could also visit the war monument, a 6-foot-tall, four-sided structure made out of wood and copper that sat in what is now the west parking lot of the bar. Back then it was a vacant lot. Mike’s name was on the monument along with all the others.
Built by Joe Saban and George Butkovich Sr., who owned the bar, the monument bore the names of all of the neighborhood boys who were in the service. There were even a few photos on the monument, which was topped by an American flag.
It was about as official a war monument as one could get without appropriating village funds or getting a donation from the VFW and putting it in a village park.
The monument was lovingly landscaped. It sat in the midst of a white gravel star, bordered by decorative rocks and evergreens.
No one in the family is exactly sure when the monument went up outside the bar, but it was definitely in place by May 1944, the date of several photographs taken.
Mike Butkovich was the third Butkovich to enter the service during the war, and family members were surprised by his draft notice. Even a bit angry.
Mike’s sister, Marion Elder, to this day believes Mike was drafted as revenge for the family opening the tavern so close to a rival’s on 47th Street. But he was called and went to do his duty.
“It was a big disaster he was even in the Army,” said Elder, now 88. “He was put in [the Army] because of politics.”
Mike’s youngest child, George, was born in 1943 just months before he headed down to Florida for basic training. While he was away, Mike’s wife, Fran, tended the bar, helped by family members.
Mike trained as an infantryman, but ended his training as a medic.
“[Butkovich] had gone overseas with me and become a medic because he didn’t want to kill anyone,” wrote James Graff in his 1977 memoir “Reflections of a Combat Infantryman.”
The two hadn’t been in Europe very long before Mike was killed on Feb. 26, 1945.
According to Graff, they boarded a troop ship – the Aquatania – on Dec. 20, 1944 and left New York City on Dec. 22 for a week-long journey across the Atlantic. Mike remarked in a letter home that the troop ship was the same one his father, George, had sailed on during a 1928 visit to Europe.
By Jan. 10, Mike and fellow replacements were in Belgium and assigned to the 134th Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 35th Division. The 35th had been fighting since July 1944.
Mike’s unit was sent into the line shortly after arriving in Belgium, but they were pulled back on Jan. 23. A week later they were back on the front line, preparing to attack across the Roer River, heading toward the Rhine.
On Feb. 25, 1945 Mike was west of a small town called Hilfarth, sitting in one of the concrete fortifications along the Siegfried Line, Hitler’s formidable line of fixed defenses, which had held up Allied troops since the fall of 1944. He had a few spare moments and wrote a letter to his sister, Marion.
“We are still in Germany and in the same pillbox but expect to move into the town ahead of us but we got to chase the Krauts out first and some hope it won’t be a tough job. Just pray to the good Lord it won’t last long so we can all get back home.
“God bless you and lots of luck. Your Bro, Mike.”
At 8 p.m. that night, his unit attacked toward Hilfarth, and in the darkness of the early morning of Feb. 26, the attack went sideways.
The unit walked into a mine field. As men stepped on mines, the explosions triggered a hail of mortar shells from the German defenders, who had zeroed in on the mine field.
Medics, including Mike, rushed to help the wounded despite the danger of mines, falling mortars and machine gun fire.
“With full knowledge of the hazards involved, [Butkovich] went into the mine field in the midst of concentrated enemy machine gun and mortar fire and proceeded to administer first aid to the wounded. While so engaged, he was killed by a mine,” reads Mike Butkovich’s Silver Star citation.
Mike’s remains were returned to the U.S., and the family held a funeral service in the living room of the family home at 4619 DuBois Blvd. A photographer snapped a photo of Mike’s four children sitting on the kneeler in front of his flag-draped casket.
“It was really scary,” said Mike’s second-oldest child, Rose, who was 6 years old at the time.
Fran operated the bar for a short time after Mike’s death and remarried in July of 1946. Mike’s brother Joseph took over and ran the bar for the next 50 years; his daughter, Ellen Frantzen, still runs Joe’s Saloon, which still sports the original bar and wood paneling.
The war monument remained outside the bar until the mid-1950s, but over time it suffered from neglect and the weed-like growth of the evergreens, which all but obscured it.
“It was just so overgrown only a kid could squeeze through there,” said George Butkovich, Mike’s youngest son, who remembers the monument as a child. “It eventually just fell apart.”