For his 100th birthday, all retired Sergeant Victor Butler wanted were cards from his family and close friends.
That wasn't a good enough answer for his granddaughter, who started a social media campaign encouraging people to honor the soon-to-be centenarian – one of the last original Tuskegee Airmen still alive here in New England. It turned into a huge celebration, with a parade of politicians and motorcycle passes all stopping by to deliver cards, in addition to the tens of thousands he received in the mail.
Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, along with long snapper Joe Cardona, wanted their gift for the pioneer of civil rights to stand out. They surprised Butler with a customized No. 100 jersey and a football signed by members of the organization.
"We wanted to give you something no one else could give you," Kraft told Butler, presenting him with the special gift.
"It wasn't always easy, but you did what was best for America. We thank you for that."
Butler, like most of the Black soldiers who enlisted in the armed services during World War II, volunteered to join a segregated military and defend a segregated country.
He worked as a mechanic in the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces – the first black unit of aviators and support personnel. Due to Jim Crow laws, standards to serve in the four squadrons were stringent. As a result, an elite group of the brightest, most physically fit, and qualified airmen were assembled.
"Someone like Sergeant Butler is really one of the greatest men of the greatest generation, and that's not to be said lightly," said Cardona, who also serves as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
"His service in World War II was more challenging than many as a black American serving in the Tuskegee Airmen during a place in time when the military was still segregated. To have the opportunity to celebrate a man like that -- it meant more than most people know. It's one of my proudest moments as a Patriot."
The Tuskegee Airmen served primarily as bomber escorts, and Butler worked on and test flew the Bell P-39 Airacobras, North American P-51 Mustangs, and a range of other warbirds that flew 1,578 combat missions and 179 escort missions – losing bombers on just seven occasions, according to the Air Force.
Despite facing racial discrimination, their renowned performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and encouraged the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces, with President Harry S. Truman's executive order in 1948.
"Every single service member is impacted by the service of the men of that unit, of those squadrons," Cardona emphasized.
"The accomplishments they had in the European theater during World War II really laid the groundwork for disaggregating the military. Now, we serve in a diverse military, and that's a testament to the men that fought in units like the Tuskegee Airmen."
Butler lived a quiet life since his service, starting his own business as a mechanist and a family with four kids back home in Providence. He was overwhelmed by the number of people who reached out to celebrate with him, calling it a feeling he'll never forget to see the parade of people who came from all over the country to bring a gift or perform "Happy Birthday" on the bagpipes.
"Today has been quite a day for my dad," said his son, Gary Butler, of what has now been deemed Victor Butler Day in North Providence by Mayor Charles Lombardi. "Mr. Kraft coming down and personally taking the time and honor my father was quite an event."
Knowing the impact of Butler's service, Cardona wasn't as shocked as Butler to see the turnout for a man who only asked for cards.
"I wasn't surprised to see different veteran organizations from up and down the eastern seaboard make the trip to see him," Cardona said.
"We take care of our own. Especially a man with the humility of Victor Butler."