In previous Thought of the Day emails, you have heard my Dad and me talk about an incredible organization, Honor Flight Tri-State. Its purpose is to take Veterans over the age of 65 on one final mission – to see the war memorials erected in their honor and in memory of their fallen comrades. These flights are life-changing. Many Veterans call their flight the best experience of their lives. So many returned home from war – particularly Vietnam – without any fanfare or a simple “thank you.” Honor Flights are a chance to thank and honor the service and valor of these heroic men and women in uniform.
On November 17th, Honor Flight Tri-State will hold a special event at Lunken Airport to raise funds for its 2019 flights. Tickets are $50 – click here for more info. Come meet and hear the stories of WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam Veterans who have participated in an Honor Flight and help support future Honor Flights for so many more Veterans. One story of an Honor Flight hero, featuring Cincinnatian and WWII Veteran, Ed Burke, is below.
WWII: Normandy Invasion, St. Lo, Battle of the Bulge
This story is one of many featured in the Legacy of Courage book series by Cheryl Popp and Peter Bronson. Shared with permission.
‘The only thing that kept me going was prayer’
More than seventy years have passed, but Ed Burke still cannot speak about what he saw at Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion. The words die in his throat, choked by scars and pain. “I still sort of break up when I talk about that,” he said, dipping his head to wipe reddened eyes. “I get emotional.”
One young man who died there still reminds him that death in battle is random and indifferent: 1st Lieutenant Joseph Phillipson.
“We had just landed and took turns leading. He was my youngest platoon commander, and it was his turn. He was a good-looking kid from California. We were going through hedgerows and one of the men stepped on a Bouncing Betty mine. It killed Joe and his staff sergeant. But another man with them survived. It just blew his shirt off and he wasn’t touched. Somehow he was protected.”
Almost seventy years later, Burke returned to Normandy and visited the cemetery where Phillipson was buried. He found the California boy’s cross along with others that marked the graves of men under his command.
Capt. Burke has the distinction of being the only company commander in the 821st Tank Destroyer Battalion who made it through from D-Day to the end of the war without being killed, wounded, captured or sent to the hospital with battle fatigue. He fought in some of the most vicious battles in Europe, earning ten combat decorations for valor. He clutched the ground under tanks and jeeps as enemy bullets tore through steel and artillery shook the earth. He had to issue the orders and watch his men die.
But nothing was harder than writing letters home to their mothers and fathers. “It was terrible, terrible. Especially if I knew the guy. That was just a terrible letter to write.”
Unlike so many veterans who were followed home by nightmares, he came home and never lost a wink of sleep. “I had no problem whatsoever,” he said. “I was so overjoyed to get home in one piece. The only thing that kept me going was prayer. There are no atheists in foxholes or Tank Destroyers. Prayer was the only thing that brought me home. My family, friends and future wife, Betty Lou Hudepohl, were praying for me.”
They were nearly married before he shipped out, “But I didn’t know if I would come back,” he said. So they waited.
Five days after he came home they had a wedding. Within five more days he was enrolled in law school at the University of Cincinnati—doing what so many veterans did in those years: He left death and war behind as far and as fast as possible, and got on with the business of life.
Most men who served in World War II enlisted or were drafted when the U.S. entered the war after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But Burke started to plan for his service as early as 1938. As a student at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, he began to notice that, “All the worldwide news was about Hitler and his invasion (of Czechoslovakia). I thought I’d better get some training.”
He aimed for something reasonably protected. “I thought I’d get in the artillery and be ten miles back from the front lines, where I’d be safe.”
Instead he wound up commanding Tank Destroyers that not only fought in the front lines, but often attacked ahead of the infantry. Burke took his ROTC commission from Xavier University in 1942. The day after his graduation he was on a train to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then off to Texas.
“We were getting a terrible beating in North Africa. We were completely outmatched by the Germans’ Tiger and Panther tanks. They decided we needed something to combat those tanks so in August of 1942 they opened the Tank Destroyer School at Camp Hood, Texas.”
Their motto and mission was to “SEEK, STRIKE and DESTROY” enemy tanks.
“One of the Tank Destroyer battalions needed a man, so they grabbed me and I went to Europe with the 29th Infantry. Our motto was ‘Let’s Go.’”
Tracked Tank Destroyers looked like the mass-produced, under-gunned, thin-armored Sherman Tanks. They were built on the body of a Sherman Tank, but with bigger guns designed to penetrate the thicker armor of German tanks. “Our regular tanks had 75 mm guns. We had 76 mm and 90 mm guns. A Sherman Tank lobbed a shot. The Tank Destroyer gun was more like a rifle; it fired a projectile more on a straight line. But the Germans had the 88s, which were the supreme weapon, and their tank armor was four inches thick. Ours was two inches.”
At first, Burke’s crews had towed Tank Destroyers, which were cannons on two wheels that had to be pulled by a truck—the kind of artillery pieces often seen at public parks, veterans memorials, VFW posts and American Legion halls. Soldiers who manned the towed guns had no protection from small arms fire and could easily be overrun or captured by a squad of enemy infantry. The heavy towed guns often got stuck in the mud, making them so immobile and ineffective they were replaced by the tracked, tank-like M-10 Wolverine, the improved M-18 Hellcat and the M-36 that was armed with a 90 mm cannon.
At the Battle of the Bulge, M-18s and M-36s were credited with killing thirty heavy German Panther and Tiger tanks.
The M-10s and M-18s were far from perfect, however. They had open-topped turrets. “That was good for standing up and fine for looking out, but if their infantry tossed a hand grenade in there, we’ve had it,” Burke said. “The other stupid thing was we had a narrower track than the Tiger and Panther tanks. They could go over moist ground that we would sink into. They had a better gun, more armor and wider tracks. A Tiger could knock out our tanks from two thousand yards away. We had to get within a couple of hundred yards and our rounds could still bounce off. But we out-produced them. When ours were destroyed we got a replacement in two weeks.”
Burke finds it hard to talk about his landing at Omaha Beach, but it was described in the 29th Infantry Division’s history:
Landing craft hung up on underwater obstacles, hit mines, blew up. German automatic weapons poured deadly cross-fire on the men climbing from the boats. Some threw away their helmets, rifles and leaped into the water in an effort to save themselves.
Those blasted into the water tugged at their equipment, tried to reach shore. Some drowned. Others were hit while struggling to reach the beach. Gaining the beach, some turned back and splashed into the water up to their necks for protection. Concertina and double apron fence crisscrossed the flat beach. Mines were buried in the sand. Mortar fire was deadly; 88s, set in the side of the cliff, were zeroed in on the landings.
“Hell, men,” said Gen. Cota, Asst. Div. Commander, to the men crouching on the sand. “We’re getting killed here on the beach. We might as well go a little farther in and get killed there!” Small groups crept forward a few yards, then on further until they reached the protecting cover of the cliff.
After the landing, Capt. Burke and his Tank Destroyer company of 175 to 200 men fought their first battles as they moved three or four miles inland. “We fought our way through seven or eight villages leading up to St. Lo. We did not get the M-10s that had 76 mm and 90 mm. We were still using towed Tank Destroyers when we went into St. Lo.”
St. Lo was a key crossroads, and had been so heavily bombed during the D-Day invasion it was called the “City of Ruins.” During the attack, part of the 29th Infantry Division became trapped and surrounded, running out of ammunition, food and medical supplies, earning the name “The Lost Battalion.”
The battle began on July 9. “We finally captured St. Lo on July 30, and all that time we were in artillery range,” Burke said.
From the 29th Division history:
Hedgerows—high earthen walls topped with brush, trees and briar—lined every field and orchard of the picturesque Normandy countryside. Behind these barriers the Germans huddled and waited.
This was the battleground facing the 29th Infantry Division after it labored from the Omaha beachhead. The fighting was tough and brutal, a battle of cunning and sheer guts, of bayonets and hand grenades, of men making quick dashes across open fields, hiding from a watchful enemy.
Advances were measured in hedgerows—four one day, five the next. The enemy employed every conceivable delaying tactic. The few soft spots in the Nazi defenses were difficult to locate. As the offensive halted at night, the men would dig, mole-like, into the sides of the earthen walls. Hot chow, mail and The Stars and Stripes would be brought up from the rear. The bitter fighting would be resumed next morning.
Burke fought with the 29th Infantry through a series of battles in small French towns and finally reached the banks of the Roer River, across from the town of Julich, which was named for Julius Caesar and the ancient Roman fortification there. While the U.S. assault was delayed by the German breakout at the Battle of the Bulge, Burke was sent to scout behind enemy lines for the eventual attack across the river that would capture Julich and pave the way across the Rhine and deep into Germany.
“I had to go over in advance to find out where I could put my Tank Destroyers to protect our infantry from German tanks and guns. We had a Piper Cub airplane and a friend of mine was the pilot. We would fly up and down the Roer. If we got too high, the German pursuit planes could shoot us down. Too low and their infantry could shoot us down.”
He saw plenty of tank tracks so he knew 40-ton Panzers and 60-ton Tigers were waiting for his 30-ton Tank Destroyers. But airplane reconnaissance had its limits.
Someone had to go across the river into German-held territory and look over the terrain on foot. “Since I was the senior captain of the line companies, I was to lead our M-10s over the tank bridge and make sure we would not get bogged down in marshy ground.”
The Roer was swollen by rains and damage to a dam upriver. Before dawn on the rainy morning of February 23, 1945, Capt. Burke climbed into a tiny rowboat and was taken across the river by two soldiers. “They rowed me across and dropped me off so I could find out how far we could go over there and what the land was like. Our artillery had pounded the area for two weeks and I prayed that all the landmines had been destroyed. My great concern was that I would step on a mine. It was dark and I couldn’t use a flashlight. I was scared to death of that.
“When I got across I found a partially destroyed church that gave me some protection, and I could see where my Tank Destroyers had to go. The church reminded me of the Jesuit fathers and faculty and students at home who prayed for soldiers. I had been praying ever since I started crossing the Roer. I was sure they were praying for me and I gave a sigh of relief. I thought if I could just get us there, I had it made.”
But the Germans had other plans. On his return trip he was about to cross a bridge when he encountered some American soldiers escorting three German prisoners. One of the Germans suddenly dropped a live grenade, killing two of the prisoners and wounding the troops, including a Life Magazine photographer who captured the whole thing on film.
Then as he attempted to cross back on a foot bridge, stepping over the body of a dead American soldier, a German mortar round cut the bridge in half. “I had a heck of a time getting off it. I was halfway across when the mortar hit. My men had to throw me a rope and they pulled me across until I could wade to shore.”
He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The citation said: “Capt. Burke, exposed to intense enemy fire, with utter disregard for his own life, crossed the Roer River to reconnoiter for gun positions for his platoons.”
And again on February 27, during the attack across the river, “Capt. Burke, exposed to intense enemy fire, advanced across open terrain, reconnoitering under direct observation for an enemy self-propelled gun.”
By the time the war was over, he had fought across France and into Germany, and was awarded the Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the French Croix de Guerre and the French Legion of Honor (France’s highest honor), along with other medals and combat badges that fill a case over his fireplace.
“Going into St. Lo and going into Julich were the worst for me personally, because I was alone. When you are with others, you have numbers. When you’re by yourself, you don’t know what could happen. If you step on a mine or get hurt you could bleed to death alone.”
The battles with German tanks were mostly lopsided in favor of the Germans, he said. “They would come with mass attacks of 40 or 50 tanks. We had 36 tanks in a battalion. We had no chance at all. You might get a lucky shot in, but the odds against us were so much greater.”
His Tank Destroyers used air reconnaissance photos to target the enemy. “We knew where their tanks and supply trucks for food, ammunition and men were located. We knew where they were but we couldn’t see them. So we fired to a place on the map. We knew we knocked out a lot of them when we advanced and saw all the damage done.”
In April of 1945, he was part of the mission that liberated the Nordhausen Concentration Camp. “The sight was so horrifying it was difficult to imagine,” he said. “The inmates of the camp were so emaciated that they looked like walking cadavers.”
He found a railroad siding with two empty boxcars. “Their cargo of dead bodies had been stacked up like cordwood, four to five feet high against the back wall of the crematorium. The smell was unbearable.”
When he came home as a major in 1946, he finished law school on the G.I. Bill and practiced real estate law until he was 87. He raised five children, who had 25 grandchildren, including a grandson who won the 2016 Houston Open on the PGA Tour, Jim Herman.
In 2016, he received a letter from the Army informing him that he had outlived his G.I. Life Insurance Policy that he started when he enlisted. “I had a $10,000 policy for $66 a month. They said, ‘Now you will get back what you paid.’ I collected a check from Uncle Sam for nearly $20,000.”
Burke returned to Omaha Beach five times and visited the graves of the men he led in Company A of the 821st Tank Destroyer Battalion. He won’t talk about the Normandy Invasion but says his sleep is untroubled. “All’s well in the world,” he said. “I don’t have ulcers, I cause them.”