Seal Team Six in Grenada. "There was nothing from Six saying the mission was such and such."
Lee Ellen Butcher is Ken Butcher's widow. Ken was a Navy SEAL lost at sea during the Grenada invasion. Ken and I served together with Underwater Demolition Team Eleven at the Amphibious Base in Coronado. before Ken volunteered for SEAL Team Six on the East Coast. I interviewed Lee Butcher in San Diego two years after Ken's death:
Ken Butcher. "I hear his voice sometimes. I mean I’ll get a phone call from someone who sounds like him."
I met Ken during a Team party at the Oakwood apartments in Coronado. We talked about my work, mostly. I had two jobs then. During the day I did shows with sea lions and beluga whales at Sea World, at night I was what I guess you'd call a mermaid in the aquarium at the Reef Lounge in Mission Valley.
When I told Ken about being a mermaid, he laughed and told me he was a frogman. He said if a mermaid kissed a frogman, he'd turn into a handsome prince. I said I think you’ve got your fairy tales mixed up, but I kissed him anyway.
(She laughs an easy, natural laugh. She is a pretty girl with short, dark hair and wide-set eyes that look directly at you. She has the trim body of an athlete.)
Ken used to visit me during the shows at Sea World. He would come early and stay all day, watching every show. Sometimes we did as many as eight shows, which were too many for us and the animals. But Ken didn't seem to mind; we spent my breaks together.
Ken always wanted to get in the tank but we couldn't let him. He got along great with the girls. He liked all the attention, and he was, you know, kinda little for a frogman, so the girls thought he was real cute. Ken had a tough body, but he wasn't a muscle guy.
We were a tight group. I didn’t like doing all the shows for low pay, but we had a lot of camaraderie.
Ken and I didn't sport dive together; we did have a Zodiac, though, and we used to ski all the time. We loved the water. We would have dived, but after working all day at Sea World, I didn't much feel like diving on my days off I didn't like the cold either; but cold never bothered Ken. He was a regular little fireball.
Where did you learn to dive?
In the Keys. I'm from Chicago, so I love warm weather and clear water. I stayed in the Keys quite awhile. I was a scuba instructor in Key Largo before I came to San Diego.
Ken didn’t do much sport diving in San Diego either. He was diving all the time m UDT Eleven, and he liked parachuting better. That's one of the reasons he volunteered for SEAL Team Six. But he liked Team Eleven, especially the trips they took to Kwajalein in the South Pacific.
Where they parachuted into the ocean to recover the missile nose cones?
Yeah, the missiles they fired from that Air Force base up north. He went to Kwajalein a couple of times. Oh, God! I remember the first time. I met him at the airport when he got back. He was so excited. He brought me all kinds of stuff — T-shirts, wicker baskets, shells — he was always bringing me shells. Let me show you the shells. They're in the bathrooms.
(She has arranged them on glass shelves, and they are beautiful: scarlet periwinkles, maculated conchs, what appears to be a rare micro conch, cowries of various sizes and colors. a miter with swirling colors like a butterscotch sundae.)
Ken really liked UDT; he had a lot of friends in the Teams out here. I got to know most of them while we were dating. I used to go to the kegs on Gator Beach that the Teams would tap after the Friday monster mashes: you know, run to I.B. and back, swim across the bay and back, do surf passage, break your head coming in on the rocks at the Del.
I know. Why did Ken leave Eleven, go to Six?
You know Ken. Always volunteering for everything. He was on the jump team, and Six needed the best jumpers Also, he loved his platoon officer in Eleven, Bill Davis; and Bill was going to Six, so Ken went with him. He really respected Davis, and he didn't feel that way about all his officers, especially some he had in Six.
He had to be recommended for Six — they only took the best. He was excited when they accepted him. He told me. “We're gonna be the best! It's gonna be like the old Teams.'’
I said, “Well, if that’s what you want, go for it."
We got married over Christmas in 1980, just before he went to the East Coast, where Six was commissioned at Little Creek, Virginia, before they went to Dam Neck. Ken was a plank owner, which made him proud. There's his plaque on the wall.
I didn't go back with him right away. I was going to San Diego City College and wanted to finish the year. I joined him in June. I didn’t like Virginia. It rained all the time. I like warm, dry weather. But we lived in Virginia Beach, so at least we were near the ocean.
I didn't get to see Ken much. They were gone when I arrived in June; and the first two years I was out there, I hardly ever saw him. But when I did’ see him, I was glad I was there.
When he left, he couldn’t tell me where he was going or when he would return... of course!
(She laughs, but now it is different — harsh, humorless.)
I guess it wasn’t so bad as a WESTPAC cruise, which lasted such a long tune and they couldn't call. I mean, when they're on a WESTPAC, you write them a letter, and a month later you get one back. SEAL Six wasn’t that bad. He wasn't gone so long at one time, and he could usually call.
Were you close to the wives and girlfriends of the other men in Six?
Not the whole Team. The Team didn't socialize much; plus, everyone was gone at different times. It wasn’t like. okay, we’re all gonna do this deployment. and then we’re all gonna be back. They were all doing different things; so very rarely, maybe a few times a year, we got together as a Team. But the wives in Ken's little boat crew were pretty tight, 'cause we had nothing in common with anybody else in Virginia Beach.
Ken's first captain, the guy who started Six up. was so great with the wives. He would get us together a lot and talk to us. listen to our problems, and help us with the Navy.
When Six moved into their new area in Dam Neck, the captain had an open-house for wives, kids, and close relatives — but no girlfriends. He showed us the buildings, the equipment, how the guys did things. He showed us where they worked out and kept their stuff in these cages.
They had a computer room and what looked like a lecture room with tables lined up, you know, probably a room where they went over what they were gonna do.
And they had a couple of rooms we couldn't enter. I noticed they had little key punches, and I thought, hmmm, better get out my key punch ... must be something good in this one.
And they showed us the weapons, which I don’t know anything about. I’d look at them and go. God! I don’t even want to touch it! Those things looked, you know, really nasty.
So the first captain kept m touch with the wives while their husbands were away?
Yeah, he really did. Then he left, and a new captain came to Six who didn't do anything for us. He didn't even introduce himself to me when he was telling me about Ken being dead. I said, "Who are you?" After he told me he was the captain, I said, "Well, that's real nice. What's your name?’’
He didn't introduce himself, which is unfortunate, ’cause I told Ken, now that rtie old captain's gone. I’m not even gonna know who... if you die. who's gonna tell me? I don't even know ... 'cause they didn't have any wives' meetings, he didn't even introduce himself or anything.
Did you know Ken was going to Grenada?
No! I just knew something big was going on because they called him three times in one week, and he had to go in each time He’d say. "I gotta go." I’d say. "Is this it? You know, one of these times is gonna be the real thing."
Then that Saturday. I can’t even tell you the date, I don't recall, except we had the whole day planned out. It was gonna be great. But Friday night they called him in again, and I thought, it's okay, they're just getting their timing down, get it faster and stuff. I was relieved when he came back after two hours.
Then they called him in again Saturday morning, and he hadn’t returned by afternoon. I called my girlfriend and said let's have some drinks. She said to leave Ken a note, but I said, "He's gone!" But later I found out they were just sitting over there waiting; one of the other wives went over to pick up the car and saw Ken. I thought, shoot! I should have just drove in there, maybe with some excuse. just drive m there to see if I could find him. I wish I’d done that. You know, I would have told him... I would have talked to him at least. So anyway. I guess that Sunday’s when they did it.
Then I started listening and watching the news. Man. did I watch the news! I had CNN on 25 hours a day.
My girlfriend Cookie thought they had gone to protect the president, because she heard about a threat on his life. I said, "No, that's not it. I think they’re in the Carib, 'cause I heard a carrier’s been diverted from the Med. The Independence is going to the Carib. to the southern islands, instead of relieving the Nunitz in the Med."
I told Cookie. "The Navy's rerouted the Independence to this little island where there’s an evacuation going on. That's where they are." So on Wednesday, I found out on the news we'd invaded the small island of Grenada. I'd never even heard of Grenada!
Did you talk with any of the other wives or girlfriends?
No, just Cookie. She's my only, you know, the rest of them I really didn't talk to that much. She and I still hoped maybe they were in Georgia and they'll be home tomorrow. But I thought, no, they would be home by now. ’Cause each night you get home, you hope to see the car, and the car was never there.
Were you working?
Yes, and I was going to school, Old Dominion But you start looking for the car each day they’re gone. Man. do you look for that car and watch the news. And you... I always think the worst... you know ... you get prepared for the worst.
Thursday morning Cookie called me, which I thought was weird, and she sounded really depressed and said, "What are you doing?" and I said, "I’m gonna go to school and then work," and she said, "Oh, well, okay." And I thought, that’s real weird.
Then when they called me out of class. I knew. I thought, there's only one reason they'd call me out of class. But I thought, maybe I’m wrong; maybe he’s just hurt. Then I thought, no. if he was hurt bad, they wouldn’t come to school to tell me — they’d just call like they did when he broke both his ankles.
Then I saw Cookie and the captain, and I knew the worst had happened.
What did they tell you about it?
They, well, after I stopped crying, the captain came over and said Ken did a very good job and be very proud of him. The mission was accomplished, you know, that he wouldn’t be pronounced dead until midnight because of exposure. See. four days in that water temperature, lost at sea. And I said, "Who are you?" And he introduced himself, and I went. "You shoulda met me before." You know, maybe he did, probably still doesn't talk to the wives but.... So anyway then:.. it took me. I would say, a year before ... well, I tried to get to Grenada about five times, 'cause I wanted to see where he died But I couldn’t get to Grenada because they were still having some kind of problem down there, so I got on this island close to Grenada where I could look over at it. Grenada is a very little island.
Did they ever tell you more about how he died other than that he had drowned?
The President wrote, and Lehman, the Secretary of the Navy, wrote letters of regret, but there was nothing from Six saying the mission was such and such. But they said it was successful, which it was, overall, if
the mission was to get Americans off the island and secure it. They could have lost a lot more. When Ken's friends told me what happened, I thought, God, we’re lucky they didn't lose more than four, the way they did it.
How did they do it?
Didn't do it very well I think they did it very sloppy You know what I'm saying? What I heard was that they had the Air Force dropping 'em off from a C-130, even though they were Navy; they had the Marines, they had the Army There was a lot of miscommumcation and misintelligence. I didn’t get all the details.
One of the guys I talked to who made the jump is out of the Navy now. He said he was lucky he survived, that someone rescued him, pulled him up. He said they just wore too much equipment, they just weighed themselves down. I thought, God. now that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard He said, "As we jumped out, I started getting rid of everything, and I was still weighed down " If you could find him. he'd tell you the details — especially if you fed him a few beers. Anyway, he’s out of the Navy so no one can hurt him.
Another thing I heard was that they thought they were making a day jump. They were thinking, hey, it’s morning, let's go. But the bigwigs up in DC. were. I'm sure, they were trying to figure out what they were doing; and by the time they got it figured out, the poor guys were sitting there, and the sun had gone down. They weren't prepared for a night jump.
I still don’t know why those guys carried their guns and that ammo. But the guys that died, like Ken. I know they’re the type who would not want to give up their gun or ammo, whatever. If it had been me, I’d have thought, hey! If I drown, this stuff is not gonna do me any good. I don't know why they didn't put that stuff in the boat. Why wear all that junk?
And you know they have those tiny vests. They couldn't hold a person up, much less a gun and ammo. The civilians have these humungus buoyancy compensators, and you put on all that junk, and even the BCs wouldn’t hold you up.
The French even have a BC with a little air bottle you can breath from. Matter of fact. SEALs have a bigger jacket we use with the Draeger rebreathers
Yeah. I can't imagine, I mean,
I don't know the particulars, if they had wetsuits or anything, but you can imagine how much a gun and ammo weighs. And if they wear these little vests, they might as well be wearing nothing. You sit in the water and nothing would happen. I’ve done enough scuba diving to know it doesn't take much weight to pull you down, and it takes a lot of air to hold you up. You’d have to have a rubber raft around you to hold up all that stuff. I just don’t know why they didn’t stick everything in the boat.
I suspect the officer in charge. He's a new officer and didn't have that much experience. And I suspect him. You know, Ken never talked about him. They had a great officer for two years or so. then he left and they got this new guy. Ken never even mentioned his name!
You never met him?
Never met him, and Ken never talked about him. He never, never said doodley about him, so I knew Ken didn't like him. Ken never talked about the new captain either. Ken liked the old captain a lot, and I was upset when he left. I said, "Well, something's gonna happen, because this new guy doesn’t know what he's doing, doesn’t know the guys." And then it wasn't even two months and this thing happened, and everything I said came true.
I have to suspect the officer in charge had something to do with what happened. I mean, I have no idea what, but I imagine that guy has a lot of guilt feelings and thinks, well, I could have done things differently, you know.
Who were the men lost with Ken?
Lundberg. Morris, and Shamberger. Shamberger was the chief, and he was real experienced; so even if the officer made decisions, you know... you can’t blame the officer because senior chief... unless the officer didn’t listen to the senior chief. If I know those guys well enough, they said. "Let’s go for it! We don't care!” So you really can't put all the blame on the officer in charge, because more than likely, they all discussed it anyway.
I've also heard they didn't get good information on the sea state.
Yeah, they got everything wrong. Everything was wrong.
Had you heard they may not have had to jump — especially at night — that it was a test to see if they could rendezvous with a ship at sea?
Well, the new captain told me I was to tell everybody he died in training. So I called his sister on Long Island — I didn't want to call his mother — and said, "I've got some bad news for you — it's Ken." She went. "WHAT!" I said, "It’s Ken, you know, he died." She goes. "WHAT! Ohhh, those bastards, they killed him!”
I said he died in a training accident. She goes, "He didn’t die in Grenada?" "Oh, no. he wasn't in Grenada!" I said, "Cary, we have to tell people he was killed in training. They said you have to tell his mother he died in training.”
"And so I... you know his family already knew he must be in Grenada. They knew he was in Grenada same as I did. Someone doesn’t train for three years and then go off and die in training while they’re having an invasion."
The next day this Navy guy goes out to Long Island to talk to them, and Ken's sister tells him, "You want me to believe my brother was killed in training? I don't believe my brother was killed in training, and we’re going to the newspaper." The Butchers called the newspaper, Newsday, right while the guy was sitting there. They said, "Come on out. we’ve got a story for you." So that Navy guy left and must have called DC. and said, "The Butcher family is gonna be on the news!" Then the Navy immediately released to the press that he died in Grenada.
Oh, it was ridiculous! This whole secrecy thing in SEAL Team Six was just ridiculous. I remember there was this SEAL who was limping at a party once, and I said, "Oh, what happened to you?" He goes. "I can't tell ya!" I said, "Well, wouldn’t it be a little less obvious if you said, I hurt myself skiing or something? I mean, you don't say I can’t tell ya!"
It was always like that. You'd ask someone where are you going, and they'd say, "I can't tell ya!" I mean, why couldn't they just say we're going up north, west, south. People don’t care where you're going. They don't care how you hurt yourself. They ask out of courtesy, it's not like they're getting into your business.
It's crazy. I used to tell them, "You guys are being ridiculous." You know, they were so young, and they were being told, "You are elite! You are top secret!" So they go around playing espionage, which draws even more attention.
I used to rag ’em, "Don't tell people it’s a secret, 'cause then they’re gonna want to know the secret, knucklehead."
How old was Ken when he died?
Twenty-six. He was older than a lot of them. Most of them were around 23.
Does Ken's mom still live on Long Island?
Yes. she’s a widow. The Butchers are a large, close family. After Ken's dad died, Ken became, you know, the father figure. He was the oldest. At the memorial service, the Butcher family took up nearly the entire chapel. The other three families took up half a row, but the Butchers... man! We took up the whole thing.
Did you ever make it to Grenada?
Yes. I went with Ken's two sisters and his mother. We were on the first commercial jet to land in Grenada after the invasion. There was a ceremony at the airport.
The medical school paid our way down and for our little stay. The school had a ceremony because they had, like, 1000 students at the time of the invasion, and these students were writing home, saying, "Mom, I got to get out of here."
And the parents were, you know, freaking out. The parents have an association, and they are all very wealthy people who are sending their kids to medical school. These wealthy parents probably started writing their congressmen about Grenada.
Is Ken's family wealthy?
No, but like I said, they’re very close-knit, a very tight, supportive group. The four of us who went down to Grenada drove all around the island, which as I said isn’t very big — it's only about 13 miles long.
We were kinda looking for Ken. You see, since they never recovered his body we always hoped, well. ..
There was this fisherman who said he saw four guys in wetsuits come out of the water, and then two days later he saw four bodies being thrown into the water. So we would like to think they made it, ’cause there was a boat smashed up on the beach. We would like to think the four of them got in that boat, made it to shore, got someplace, and were captured. And they’re, you know, gonna come back.
Do you believe Ken will come back?
No. During the first year, yeah, I did. But then last year...if he was a captive, I don’t think his life would be very happy right now Two years of being held captive? I’d rather have him drowned, I think But at the same time all you want is for him to come back. ’Cause it’s not like they gave you a body so you can look and say. "Yes, he’s dead." Instead they tell you he drowned — we don’t know exactly where, and we can’t tell you how or anything! When they do that, you have a tendency ... you want to believe he’s still alive and that someday you’ll have him again.
But after two years ... Then I thought, what if he's wandering around that island with amnesia9 Well, after we went over the whole island I said, "There's no way he’s on Grenada." They were all white, and Grenada is, you know, all black. They'd really stand out.
I'm sure he probably drowned, but the fact they didn’t find him makes it a little more exciting. Who knows? Maybe someday he'll turn up. I hear his voice sometimes. I mean I’ll get a phone call from someone who sounds like him. Of course, the family talks about him, but... well... he's gone.
I’m glad you’re writing a book about Grenada. People need to know what happened, ’cause if they don’t change how they do business, it’s gonna happen again.
I'd like to give you a picture of Ken, but I don't have many. I have tons of pictures, but Ken took them all — he's a camera buff. But because he took them, he’s not in them. Is there anything else I can give you?
Could you give me a shell?
Sure! I’ll get one from the bathroom.
(She returns with a delicate, dappled cowrie. The cowrie gleams in her palm as she holds it out to me.)
I would like to write a book too. Just a brief history about Ken as a little boy and me as a little girl, how we meet, what we do together, and then his death. The book would be mostly a family matter; it wouldn’t really have much to do with the Teams at all.