Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Žanis Butkus

One of the most decorated soldiers on the Eastern Front, Žanis Butkus born on 29 July 1906 in Augstkalne, Latvia, to Fricis and Anna Butkus. After leaving school, he worked on his parent’s farm. In 1927, he joined the Latvian Army and remained in the military until 1929. Butkus was a marksman who placed second with a combat rifle in the World Shooting Championship of 1937. In 1932 he married a Latvian girl, Velta, with whom he had four daughters.

When Stalin annexed Latvia into Soviet Union, Butkus joined the partisans to fight against the Soviet forces. He lost his wife and two daughters during the “Ghastly Year” in the deportation of June 14, 1941 while he himself was in the forest. As a nationalist partisan leader, after that deportation he made life insecure for the NKVD forces and other Reds, and stopped further deportations in his neighborhood.

After the Germans invaded Latvia, Butkus and his small partisan joined the invader and captured about a hundred Reds. He later served as a corporal in a Latvian auxiliary formation, the 26th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, in March 1942. The 26th served first in Byelorussia and then at Lake Ilmen where it occupied a long front line and made the Reds nervous by daring reconnaissance. For example, Butkus and warrant officer Miervaldis Ādamsons (nicknamed “Marokas Baigais” “The Dreadful Moroccan” - because he had served in the French Foreign Legion in Morocco) led a group across the frozen lake at night on March 8, 1943, entered the Red camp, captured three prisoners, and discovered large hidden stores of artillery shells for a planned Soviet attack. The German airplanes blew up the ammunition depots the next day.

In other occasion, during fighting on the Wolchov Front in August 1943, Zanis Butkus - now a sergeant - led a storm troop into the enemy lines and proceeded to capture a string of communist bunkers without loss. He returned to the German lines with many prisoners and much booty. Butkus was given an officer's commission on the spot.

Butkus was later transferred to the Latvian Waffen-SS unit, the 2. Lettische SS-Freiwilligen-Brigade. As a Legions-Untersturmführer, he was awarded Deutschen Kreuz in Gold on 28 June 1944. After a successful heavy fighting Dalgi area where he lead his men to recaptured their former position and taken six guns and many weapons and ammunition from enemy, Butkus was awarded the Knight's Cross on 21 September 1944.

Žanis Butkus, after taking part in 59 close combat engagements, ended the war as a Waffen-Hauptsturmführer and a battalion commander of the 19.Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr. 2). He later emigrated to the United States with two of his daughters.

In 1981, the Office of Special Investigations - a division in the US Justice Department whose sole purpose was to find, prosecute, denaturalize and to deport accused Nazi war criminals living in the United States - investigated Butkus because his former Schutzmannschaft battalion was involved primarily with non-conventional warfare, typically against civilians. Butkus defended himself, told that he "fought only armed Russians and armed partisans." His case had discontinued because the OSI only wanted his testimony for another target.

Žanis Butkus died on 15 May, 1999, in Palmer, Alaska.

copyright© 2010 by Nino Oktorino