32nd Fighter Squadron the Wolfhounds
Canal Zone – Soesterberg / Camp New Amsterdam – Ramstein
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Hall of Fame
Veterans recall one heck of a life
Ben and Butchie Ryan
Together, Ben and Butchie Ryan have spent 67 adventurous years that have taken them from Venezuela to Alaska and many points in between.
Ben, 90, flew P-39s with a fighter squadron that protected the Panama Canal during World War II. He survived a midair collision when he bailed out of his plane in the nick of time, landed in the Panama Canal and was rescued by a nearby fisherman.
Butchie, 91, was an Army nurse on a hospital ship headed to Okinawa when the ship broke down in the Panama Canal. During the down time, a friend of hers arranged a blind date with Ben.
“We’ve had a very good life,” Ben said as he and Butchie sat side by side in their room at the Montana Falls.
When Columbia Falls students visited them recently to gather stories for an annual Veterans Day essay contest, the Ryans were among the veterans interviewed.
Ben moved with his family to Three Forks in 1931 where his father drilled a wildcat well that turned up dry. He recalls the intrigue when two airplanes landed on the airfield at the edge of town in about 1932. It was a small boy’s dream and perhaps foreshadowed his long life to come.
“Because I was the smallest boy, the pilot of the twin Lockheed boosted me up on his shoulder to retrieve the mail pouch from the nose baggage compartment,” he said. “This was a one-time event for Three Forks.”
The family moved to Livingston in 1936 as his father drilled more wildcat wells. Ben worked in the oil patch for a short time after graduating from high school and before heading to Stanford University to study geology and petroleum engineering. While at Stanford, he enlisted in the Army Reserve the week after the attack on Pearl Harbor for training as an aviation cadet and was called to active duty in May 1943. He earned his wings a year later.
“The Army, for publicity reasons, flew my mother, then a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) corporal, out from Los Angeles to pin on my wings,” Ben recalled. “I was surprised to see her on stage and I was the first graduate to get my wings, ahead of all the others ...Apparently, this was written up in the L.A. papers and afterwards I received several letters from young ladies whom I had never met.”
Ben joined the 32nd Fighter Squadron in September 1944, flying on patrol from the Panama Canal Zone. The P-39 was a joy to fly, he said, save for Columbus Day in 1945 when he was filling in for another pilot on a mission to intercept a “VIP” plane and escort it to the canal.
As their mission was ending, another squadron was landing.
“I didn’t have time to think. I just reacted,” he said. He managed to get himself out of the plummeting plane. As he popped his parachute, he watched the plane descend until he could see only the circle of foam where it splashed into the
The Army gave the native fisherman who plucked Ben out of the water a $50 reward. The next day Ben was back in a P-38 for a formation flight.
Butchie was a nurse at heart. The Hazelton, Penn., native had worked as a nurse in New York City hospitals before she joined the Army.
Butchie had a girlfriend who lived in Panama and worked as a private-sector nurse; she was dating Ben’s roommate. It was inevitable that Ben and Butchie wound up on a blind date, a gathering at the officers club.
After Ben got out of the service, he came to Denver and married Butchie on June 8, 1946.
Ben went back to Stanford to finish his degree in petroleum engineering and was hired by Richfield Oil Co. as a geologist in 1949. The Ryans then bounced around, spending three years in California, then four years in Wyoming, four years in Venezuela, a year in Los Angeles and five years in Alaska.
Ever the engineer, Ben built his own sawmill and they processed most of their own lumber for the house.
While Ben was taking a winter walk in the early 1970s he noticed the flat benches extending to the northeast and southwest of their home that could be linked together by filling in the low drainage area between them. That’s when it dawned on him the property could be reshaped into an airstrip.
“Butchie was a big help in the plane’s construction and was not a bit hesitant to go up with me,” he recollected.
The Ryans donated the airstrip (known as Ryan Field), their airplanes and more recently their home to the foundation.
The Ryans have been constant companions in love and life, never afraid to try their hand at things. They’ve both got competitive spirits, too, as was evident during their many years of hunting in Alaska and the Lower 48.
But, Ben noted with a sly smile, “I got two Dalls and a Stone sheep, so I’m even with her.”