My friend Jack Burke passed away but before he left he lived one heck of a life! I've been trying to figure out what to write but I've decided to share what my friends Bill Getz and Burt Newmark shared with me:
"In military terms, Jack has been "promoted" and given orders for a "permanent change of station, (PCS)" issued by the Great Commander-in-Chief in the Sky," where he will take-up his new duties. It is a happy event for Jack as he is reunited with family and friends, free of all pain, loneliness and stress - and in his new assignment will be able to fly anywhere, anytime without being cramped in a ball turret. We all will be "promoted," and get our PCS Orders someday, and we should look upon it as another great adventure, not a tragedy. In the meantime, we have a lot of living to do, hopefully contributing to the betterment of our neighbors on earth."
An old Indian legend:
"At the instant of first dawn, a warrior can leap into the sun, through a crack between the earth and the sky, and pass from the world into forever."
I think Jack got his PCS Orders and jumped through the crack between the earth and sky.
Here's the interview I did with Jack:
I first met Jack Burke two years ago at Moffett Field when the Collings Foundation brought their B-17, B-24, and B-25 on their tour. I saw him again last year when the Collings Foundation returned. He had some really amazing stories that I loved to hear. I tried very hard to track him down and finally did! I’m very lucky to get to sit down with him and do this interview. I hope you like it!
Jack Burke and me at Moffett Field under a B-17 wing
“No one flying in the Air Corps was drafted to fly. So if you were in the air, you had volunteered to be there. When I asked to be a gunner, the CO was madder then hell because I was in an air depot group in Alabama and he had to process the paperwork. If you volunteered for combat, to be a gunner, they had to push through your orders. His orders were closed because we were shipping out overseas and he had to open up his orders and push them through. After I’d volunteered to be a gunner, I got sent to Tyndall Field in Florida for 8 weeks of gunnery school. I wanted to be a gunner because when I joined the service, they sent me to aviation school to be an aircraft engine specialist at the Embry-Riddle school of aviation. When I finished school, they sent me to work at an air depot group in Mobile Alabama, where I’d fix airplanes at the depot. When I was stationed there, I asked some guys with a B-17 if I could fly in it. They said sure and they flew me over to New Orleans. This was the first time I’d ever been in an airplane. When I got back I said ‘I want to be a gunner!’ They didn’t know what to do with me, so they gave me a pilot’s physical and I passed. I was a private first class when I volunteered. I became a sergeant when I finished gunnery school.”
"We had to go down to Galveston Texas but on the way down, our pilot Liddle said that he had a girlfriend in Oklahoma City and how could we go see her. So as flight engineer I said lets turn a mag off one of the engines and about an hour later we turned it back on and nothing happened and it was running real good. This was number three engine. So I said lets turn both mags off and let the engine windmill for an hour. When we turned it back on it was backfiring and spitting and sputtering so we radioed Oklahoma City for an emergency landing with an engine out. We told the crew chief to take his time fixing the airplane. So we had about three days going around and having a good time while he was out seeing his girlfriend. The family invited us to dinner the night before we left and so the six of us enlisted men got a cab and got part way out there because the gas rationing would only let him go so far. So the cab driver leaves us off and he said it’s about 10-12 blocks over to the house so we could walk over. As we’re going by we pass a trolley barn. I’d worked for the a trolley company so I stole the trolley and we all piled into it and drove it as far as we could go to the girlfriends house, dropped the trolley off and walked over to the house. So about a day later Liddle runs into the barracks saying, ‘what did you guys do?’ He shows us a headline that says “Missing Trolley found in Middle of Street with Engine Running!” It was a big mystery how the trolley had gotten there from the barn!"
"Another time was in Kirksville Missouri. What happened was we were going on a night flight up to Milwaukee and back again. When we got part way up to Milwaukee and O'Phelan says, ‘I live in Milwaukee’ and so does Homdrum. So what we did in the middle of the night, O’Phelan, our bombardier, picked out the tap room he hung out at with his friends. So what Liddle did was fly down right at telephone pole height going like hell right over this tap room. We had our landing lights on so no one could catch our tail numbers. Then we circled around and went to the college where Homdrum had a girlfriend and buzzed the dormitories. What happened was after we’d done all the buzzing we came back somehow or other we got lost and we’re running out of gas. So Liddle says to everybody to get ready for a crash. The engines started quitting on us and he spots this little CAA field and he brings in on the tarmac runway. We stop at the end and we all get out and walk up to this little shack and we woke up the night watchman. You should have seen the look on his face with ten guys standing in front of him with parachutes on and a B-17 at the end of the field. He called us a cab and we all went into town and called the outfit. What happened was we couldn’t any more gas because we needed 100 octane gas. So they had to have a plane fly in from Nebraska. A bomber came and we hooked up hoses and transferred gas back and forth. We discovered we had 1000 gallons of gas left because they had installed the Tokyo tanks and they had never made a note that it was full. We had gas all along and the crew chief caught hell for not making a note in the manifest."
"So what happens now we’re giving a tour to all the girls in town who’d come out to see the B-17 and the crew. This was a small runway so se had to lock the brakes and rev up the engines to maximum power and then let the brakes go and shoot down the runway to get off."
"That’s when we went overseas before out training was complete. They could court martial Liddle for it or send us overseas. They were done with us."
"Liddle was originally a fighter pilot but he wanted to get into P-38’s so he had to ask for a multiple engine transfer and they put him into B-17’s and they wouldn’t let him out. That’s why he flew the plane like it was a P-38. That’s why we stuck with him because he wanted to put some excitement into things. He was a hot pilot."
"Another thing that happened in training was when we were up in South Dakota and they wanted to do air to air live firing practice and they were going to tow a target so we could get practice. So we go up there and everybody gets ready to fire their guns. Liddle say go ahead and fire and as soon as we open up, all of a sudden the plane jerked and went down. The firing of the guns opened up the life raft compartment and made it pop out and it hit the tail and tore the icing boot off the horizontal stabilizer. They tried to blame us for it but the handle inside the radio room was still safety wired but the outside panel was missing. What happened was a crew chief problem because they never locked the Zeus fasteners down. The vibration of the guns opened up the door and out popped the raft. I read a year later about this strange thing that happened in South Dakota where a farmer out in the wild badlands found a life raft floating down!"
"Liddle would take the B-17 on a training mission and we’d be so low, we’d be below the telephone poles with all of us in our gunner positions tracking the cows. So that’s how we got a lot of our training because we had to follow the cows. Well they had an argument about what the kind of tree was on the prairie. So they say, ‘what is this Burke’, and they flew the ball turret through the tree! And I said, ‘I don’t know, it was too damn fast!’ Well what happened was when we landed; the crew chief reported us because there was a tree branch stuck in the ball turret! So Liddle got in trouble for that too."
"I landed once in a ball turret. They bet me I wouldn’t do it so what we did was I turned it forward and we landed but man that was something. I watched that runway come up and I stuck my rear end up! I landed facing forward. So when had to do was taxi around to the back and put the ball turret around to the position for landing. So when we pulled up to the parking space I opened up the door and dumped out that way and closed it up quick so no one would report me."
"It was these adventures that made us into a tight crew."
Jack is third from left in the back row
“The 8th Air Force heavy bombardment was made up of bomber groups with so many groups per division and 3 divisions in the 8th Air Force. The first division had a triangle on the tail and the letter in it said what group you were in. We were in 1st division and our group had an “L” in the triangle on the tail. We were 381st Bomb group, 535 sq. based at Ridgewell. The second division had B-24’s and they had a circle on their tail with a letter in it. The third division was B-17’s with a square on the tail and a letter in it. Each group had four squadrons in it, one a maintenance squadron, and they sure did a great job.”
381st Bomb group, 535 Squadron
Jack's plane from most missions was "Phyllis" a B-17G named after the pilot's wife
“Because the casualty rate was so bad, you could be pulled for duty on a day off and sent on a mission in another ship. They’d wake me up at 4AM and tell me I had to fly that day with a new ship. The guys said if you survived your first five missions you had a good chance of making it, because by then you’d figured out how to do it. You and your crew had to work as a team. We lost more new crews due to inexperience than we did older crews.
While we were there, we were averaging 1 in 4 killed or missing.”
Standing-Lts. P.D.O'Phelan, J.R.Liddle, G.D.Baker and Robert S.(Bud) Matcham
Bailing out over England
“We bailed out over the coast of England at Ashford in Kent when we were coming back from France. We were going into Reims, France, and we lost an engine because flack took the bottom of that engine right off. We turned around with one engine vibrating like the dickens because we couldn’t feather the prop with the hydraulics blown out. We turned around heading over the channel and going like the dickens. About three to four miles off the English coast, I called a fire in the engine. You see, what they’re afraid of with a vibrating engine like that, is that the prop will fall off and fly into the plane. So we hit the jump alarm and we had to jump from the plane, but we were separated. I was the second to last man out because it took me so long to get the ball in position to exit, get out of it, get my parachute on and get out of the plane. I’d never parachute jumped before. They told me what to do and fortunately it worked!”
“That’s the day I joined the “Caterpillar Club.” (When you bail out of a plane to save your life and you use the parachute – made of silk!) Liddle, the pilot, was last to jump and I was just in front of him. We all got separated from everybody and I landed in a plowed field and everything was good. I saw a farmer and I was going to walk up towards him but I saw him coming down with some big shears! I figured he didn’t know if I was a German parachutist or not so I got out into the road and flagged down an English army truck. Of course I’m in my flight suit and have my parachute all rolled up. I asked him to take me to the nearest American outfit. He took me down into the woods and there was a quartermaster’s outfit there. They took me into town to a dance they knew was happening that night and I ended up spending the night with them. The next morning they put me on a train to London. In London I had to change trains and I had a several hour layover. So I checked my parachute, Mae West (life jacket), and chute harness and went looking for a beer. Just as I sat down in a pub to have a beer, two MP’s picked me up for being out of uniform because I was in my flight suit. What happened was the MP’s would pick up any GI for anything, except for the airmen. I didn’t have any paperwork because we left it all with the base chaplain before flying a mission. All I had was my dog tags. So they took me back to the police station. I went right out another door and to another pub! I was cockier than could be! The same MP’s found me again. They told me to stay there and they’d be back in about a half hour when they got off duty. After that, I had an escort for the rest of my time in London! All I remember was they had gone back to the station and got my stuff out of the checkout, took me to my train, opened the door and told some colonel to wake me up when we came to Cambridge!”
Crash landing in England
“We took off in somebody’s plane for a mission to Frankfurt in an old plane that had very little gas in it. It didn’t have the Tokyo tanks in the wings so we had to carry a 500 gallon bomb bay tank to go the distance. We got hit over the target and lost an engine. We had to drop out of formation and dive as fast as we could for cloud cover at maybe 10,000 feet. We were all alone and needed to get into the clouds so the German fighters couldn’t pounce on us since we were crippled. We had to run the remaining engines so hard and so hot that we burned a second engine out over the Netherlands. So now we’re at about 1000 ft over the English Channel with 2 engines and we’re running out of gas. I was out of the ball by now and the pilot says we’ll try for land, so we threw everything out, guns, parachutes, ammo, everything we could. The pilot had been told to pick a field to belly land in that had livestock in it, because most of the countryside was mined in case of a German invasion. He picked a field with sheep in it and we had to duck back down underneath and hit the ground wheels up. Sheep were running everywhere! There was a stream across the field that had a higher bank on the other side. The nose hit the bank and tore two engines off. Then the plane swung around, which broke the tail off. Except for the pilots and bombardier, we were all sitting inside the radio room in the crash position with our heads down between our knees. The tail gunner was sitting in front of me. When we hit, his head came back and crashed into my chest which broke two of my ribs.”
“There’s an evacuation routine for telling which man goes out the hatch first and then who’s second, third etc., but since we looked in the back and saw the tail was missing, we all ran out the hole in the back. This happened at Lydd, 4 miles north of Dungeness. The worst part was waiting for the English artillery outfit to come out and lead us through the mine field! I still remember the English sergeant saying, “Watch yourself there sir, watch yourself!” We had to be led out single file to the road. A truck came and took us up to an RAF fighter field.”
What they had to wear for -50°
A day in a ball turret
“The ball turret had a clutch with a hand crank, and an electric motor. To get in or out of the ball, you had to crank the ball so the guns were pointing straight down. The hatch would be exposed on the top inside the ship and you could get in. Once inside you closed the hatch and then you could activate the electric motor and also charge the guns solenoids. In an emergency, and if you had enough time and you hadn’t lost power, you could point the guns down, open the door, and get out and up into the ship. I kept my parachute outside because it wouldn’t fit in the ball with me. My flak jacket wouldn't fit in there either so I'd give it to a waist gunner to stand on. The real problem was that if flak broke the gears to the turret, you were stuck in the turret and you couldn’t even hand crank it around. There was no way out.”
“There were two .50 cal Browning machine guns in a ball turret. One gun was loaded with 600 rounds and the other with 500 and that was all the ammunition I had for a mission. The later model B-17’s had a box mounted up and outside the ball turret that could be reloaded by the waist gunners if I ran out. The maintenance people would get me the ammunition belts and I would put certain tracer rounds in at every hundred bullets, so I would know where I was in my ammo. After the first hundred, I’d put in two or three blue tracers. Then the next hundred I put in a couple of yellow tracers. After the next hundred I’d put in some red tracers. This way I could tell how much ammo I had left as I was firing.”
“My job was to cover the underside of the plane. So I had to keep the turret going around at an angle pointing down. This was so I could keep an eye on things and also to let the Germans know I was keeping an eye open. Part of my job was to look down and keep an eye out for any B-17’s drifting under us on a bomb run. I had to tell the bombardier to watch out.”
“One of the hazards in a ball turret was from gunners peeing in their pants. We used a fuse can to urinate in and dump it out the chute. When we crashed the plane in February, I stole the relief tube out of the bomb bay and I carried it with me. You could always tell when Burke was going because there would be two feet of hose sticking out of the ball turret! But there were two ball turret guys that had to go in their pants and they sat in the ice for four or five hours and they got gangrene.”
“We wore an electric suit with electric gloves and boots. You had to bring aluminum clips to fix any broken connections and wires. We wore silver and silk gloves and leather gloves over them.
“We’d get up at 4 or 5 AM and always shave because we needed a close fit for our oxygen masks. Then we’d go up for breakfast. There were three messes; one for ground officers, one for enlisted men and finally, the combat mess. They had to feed us really good if we were going in to battle because we might not get back until 3 in the afternoon.
Then we’d down for the briefing. As gunners, we didn’t have to go to briefing. We’d go to our locker room and change into our flight suits. Then we’d take the truck out to the plane and we’d load our guns. We had to wipe our guns down to get the oil off, so the guns wouldn’t freeze up at 30,000 feet. At 50° below zero our guns could freeze up. As a gunner, we had to take care of our own guns so we had to strip them down, clean them, and put them together after every mission. Once we were all set, we’d wait for the pilot to come out to find out where we were going.”
“The group’s photography officer gave me a K-20 camera to take pictures of rail and barge traffic so they could analyze it. So I’m taking pictures all over the place to keep me occupied and give me something to do especially over the target. The plane would be rocking and flak bursting all over the place and I’d much rather be looking down and seeing the target. So I was getting some good pictures and I asked him one time if I could get copies. He said he send them down to London where they develop and analyze them. But a sarge came and told me he was taking all kind of shots himself. So the next time I told him I wouldn’t do it unless I got copies. I kept the pictures and smuggled them back with me, hidden in my gas mask because we weren’t supposed to bring anything back before the invasion.”
“One of the jobs as a ball turret gunner was to count the chutes from planes going down. Missions could last up to 8 hours. I’d climb into the ball at 10,000 feet while climbing over England and climb out on our descent at 10,000 feet. That was when we had to go onto oxygen. So it was most convenient for me to just climb into the ball at that point. I had a little trouble light and I used to read a book down there. No sense sitting there while we were circling and climbing over England while waiting for the groups to form up. It could an hour or more before we’d be ready to start crossing over the channel.”
“The enemy fighters would come at us head on and try to make some cripples. Then they’d swing around and pounce on the cripples that fell out of formation.”
“Another thing the Germans would do is fly captured B-17’s with us. What they would do was to sneak up near us and radio our direction and altitude. Then as soon as the flak or fighters appeared, they’d go off. We wouldn’t shoot at them because we couldn’t be sure if they were Germans or not. They also tried some weird stuff like flying a bomber a few thousand feet above us and it would be dragging a wire with a bomb on it through our formation trying to hit us with the bomb!”
“Our escort fighters would play games with us. We’d get to the rendezvous point where they were to meet us and they wouldn’t be there! They’d be hiding up in the clouds waiting for the German fighters to appear. We’d send out a panic call and then they’d show up.”
Where Jack was for 28 missions over Europe
“On our mission to Oschersleber we ran out of ammo – almost everyone in our formation did. We got a “Battle Star” for that mission. It was our third mission. January 11th to Oschersleber was so bad that of 21 planes that flew in our group, 10 didn’t come back. Many times we’d see planes going down and we didn’t know if we’d be next.”
“It was an all out effort to hit the ball bearing works but what happened was the weather closed down over the target and they issued a recall signal to the third division, second division, fighters, etc. but they sent the wrong recall signal to the first division – ours – and we went in and that’s where we got pounded. No escort fighters, no nothing. They found out about the mistake and sent fighters out to help us get back. We were an inexperienced crew to start with and we were very lucky to have made it. 120 planes flew that day and 60 never returned. The 60 that returned were all shot up. The Air Force did a cover up to hide the terrible losses.”
“My last mission was a mistake and I shouldn’t have flown it. What happened was when I’d finished 27 missions as a ball turret gunner, I was done. When Doolittle took over, he wanted to raise the number flown before you go home to 30. So what he did was, if you’d had done 20, you had to do 25, if you had done 19, you had to do 26, if you had done 18, you did 27 – and I had done 18 when Doolittle took over, so I had to do 27 missions.
However they hadn’t taken me off the toggleer list. You see, all of us were cross trained in another's job so then if someone got hurt, there was someone else who could take over. I was cross trained as a toggleer. They still had me listed there! So I got up and went to the briefing. What the toggleer did was you watched the lead planes. When they opened their bomb bay doors, you opened yours. When they dropped their bombs, you dropped yours. This was saturation bombing. So I go meet the crew and it was their first mission! Talk about trouble! And I’d just done 27 and I wasn’t supposed to be there! I meet the pilot and he says, “How many missions you got sergeant?” I say 27. This was his second! My crew came out to see me and they said what the hell are you doing?! I said I’m going to fly. We had to go to Stettin Poland. Fortunately we had to go up over the North Sea and around that way where there wasn’t much flak. For me it was completely different. Here I was sitting up front and the whole world was in front of me – and I could stretch my legs out!
When we got back the CO saw me and he said, “What the hell are you doing flying - that was a mistake!”
“After one mission, another crew asked me to come over and look at their ball turret guy because they couldn’t get him out. He was stuck in there and they didn’t know how to open the ball turret. So I went over and opened the door and his head was missing. A 20mm came through his ball turret and took his head off. I didn’t know he was dead until I opened the door.
One time on a mission I noticed my back was as cold as hell. When we landed, I saw a slit in the door behind my back. A piece of flak had made a slice through the armor plate in the door I was up against. I’ve also had the window broken twice from flak.”
Jack's Tail Gunner has his head in a 20mm hole from a German fighter. He got a purple heart from pieces of flak in his back and leg.
After the war
“When I got back to the states, I took my 30 days off, and then I went and got my physical in Atlantic City. I went up to the camp and was going to leave to go back overseas with Mac, our waist gunner. We decided we wanted to do another tour of duty. They called me up and told me to go to the hospital instead of overseas. They looked at me and said I better get in bed. You see, when I had crashed and broken the two ribs, they had punctured my lung and left a big scar. When they x-rayed me, they didn’t know what the hell it was. So they put me in the hospital for observation and shipped me to Santa Fe New Mexico for four months. I was bored to death, so I’d go AWOL (Absent With Out Leave) all the time and was dating a nurse. She told me to get the doctor mad at me. So he comes by and I called him a quack and said I’d get better treatment at home. Two weeks later I was out of there. He sent me to the Veterans Hospital in Massachusetts to discharge me from the service.”
“I ended up working in the computer industry and now I work at Computer Recycling Center fixing up computers.”
The Collings Foundation will be back next year at Moffett Field so come on down and look for Jack. He usually is sitting in a chair under the wing of a B-17 with a crowd of people listening to his amazing stories.
A lot more information about the 381st can be found at these excellent sites here:
Here are the missions Jack flew in 1943-44
All aerial photos were taken by Jack Burke while on missions over Europe. He snuck the camera on board and had a friend develop the photos. He also had to smuggle them home with him!
Evan Isenstein-Brand 9/29/08