Why I Should have been Awarded
the Distinguished Flying Cross

By Lew Burke, Co-Pilot, 603rd Squadron

The short answer is “I’m alive, ain’t I?” Here is the long answer.

Prior to enlisting in the Army Aviation Corps I had never even touched an airplane. I did see them take off and land when my Father would sometimes take my Mother and I down to the Hoover Airport in Arlington where the Pentagon is now located. There was also a Washington Airport across the road from the Hoover. As larger planes began to appear the runway was re-routed in a straight line across the road to make it long enough to handle the huge Ford Tri-Motors and DC-3’s. A flagman would halt auto traffic during a landing or take off. I also built model airplanes and flew them until the frequent crashes destroyed the balsa wood and tissue paper construction beyond another glued-up repair. God knows how many rubber bands kids during that era used up to turn the props on our home made models.

Being 18 at the time of Pearl Harbor I was too young to enlist without my parent’s consent, which they would not give. I obtained a job with the C&P Telephone Company (for a reason having nothing to do with the war.) I later found that I could probably have avoided the draft, but that was not my intent. However, by October of 1942 I was able to convince my parents that the draft would get me soon and if they would give their consent I could enlist in the branch of the service of my own choosing. I am sure they didn’t think I was going to go up in one of those dangerous flying machines.

I did go across the Potomac River to Washington, D. C. and enlist in the U. S. Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. I was really surprised that I passed the test. Of the 150 questions, I think I answered 3 more correctly than the minimum required. Although I enlisted in October, I was not called up until January 29, 1943. (Since this was 4 days short of the February 2nd date when the Telephone Company had hired me, I did not qualify for the one-week vacation pay I would have received.) That was just the first inconvenience the Army had in store for me.

My orders by telephone were to report to the Union Station in Washington D, C. by 9:00 P. M. on the 29th where I would en-train for Florida. The trip would have been faster by covered wagon. It took three nights and part of three days. On the second day they managed to put a semi-dining car on and feed us for the first time. Before that we would jump off the train if it stopped where there were any kind of candy or fruit and buy enough to keep from fainting from starvation. I had only the clothes on my back and one really thin jacket as I had naively thought the Army would be giving me a uniform by the next day. In addition to almost starving, I damn near froze to death for the first 35 or 40 hours. (It was almost a week later that they did finally give us uniforms. My previously white shirt become my first camouflage clothing. It was dirt colored.)

Our basic training took place on Miami Beach with thousands of other Army recruits. We lived in hotels but there sure was no room service. My hotel was the Henry, which was more of a motel and was located around Fifth and Washington Streets as I remember. The mess hall was just a couple of blocks away and often served pelican disguised as chicken. Kool Aid must have become a rich company. We had it twice every day.

We learned close order drill in one of the parks, which had become a sea of dust two or three inches deep. When we marched on it a brown haze would envelop us. It gave us all colds as any person with a cold would expectorate on the ground and the germs would then penetrate everyone else’s nostrils.

After about one month, the Army came to the conclusion that we had learned as much as we probably ever would about how to about face or do a column right, so they took us off the warm beach and shipped us to Buchannon, West Virginia to smarten us up a mite. We arrived in a six-inch snow at West Virginia Wesleyan, a Methodist College in the middle of nowhere. We were assigned six and eight to a double room in the former girl’s dorm. Unfortunately for us and maybe the girls, they had been evicted. (We did find them even if the Dean of Women had tried to hide the girls by scattering them around the small town in “rooming” houses, but maybe I should not go into that except to relate one incident.) On the first weekend, one of the two squadrons was given overnight passes and it turned out that reports reaching the Dean of Women caused her to appeal, or maybe demand from the Captain in charge that no more overnight passes be given. In the typical wisdom of the U. S. Army the Captain ordered that no more overnight passes be given to any of the Aviation Students as we were called except for those who were married. Now I ask you, who should have been kept from the sins of the flesh if it wasn’t the married and experienced men whose wives were away keeping the home fires burning? By the way, Buchannon only had one beer joint, which paid off their mortgage on the Monday after our first Saturday night out. I managed to get a Saturday night pass whenever I wanted to, even though I was not married. I moved into a small former storage closet that did have one window and had it all to myself. It was next door to the room the Squadron Student Officers inhabited and the walls were far from sound proof. By just mentioned various activities I overheard obliged them to approve a pass for me. No, it wasn’t exactly black mail; it was just practicing to be devious in case I ever became a POW.

We received what the powers that be called an orientation flight while at Buchannon. Civilian pilots did it at the local cow pasture in piper cubs. By their looks they had not been careful to look where they were stepping when walking through the cow pasture. Since the pasture was between two large mountains the grass strip pointed in only one direction. On the first flight of my life in the first plane I ever climbed into the engine cut out about three minutes after take off. The pilot did a dead stick landing on the strip, got out fiddled with the engine, got back in and took off again. We flew up and down between the mountains and landed some minutes later. Now any sensible person would have deserted on the spot. But not Mrs. Burke’s little boy Lewis. Boy, was I dumb.

Some of my fellow Aviation Students had some college background and they were able to ship out in three or four months. Me, I was in the next to last batch to be smartened up enough to proceed toward possibly getting killed in action. In August we shipped out to the assessment center in Nashville where, if you could put a round peg in a round hole you were qualified to be a navigator or bombardier. If you could manage to get a square peg in a round hole you were off to train as a pilot, as they could not think what else to do with anyone who was that much of a misfit.

Seeing the TV show much later where Andy Griffith met with the Army psychiatrist always reminded me of my encounter in Nashville with the so-called psychiatrist. In my opinion Andy’s and my experience were equally comical.

From there we went to Pre-flight at Maxwell Field. I never saw an airplane there as they kept us away from them. We were too busy getting more smartened up mentally and hardened up physically. Do you know that the original Burma Road was out back of the barracks at Maxwell? Anyway, that is where I finally became able to run with the best of them, even though when I enlisted I could hardly run around the block.

When we became proficient enough to be able to tell which side of a radio beacon we would be on by the Morse code for the letter being broadcast, we should have departed for Primary Flight Training. Being the Army, we had to wait about three more weeks as the flying schools were backed up. The cadets ahead of us were probably not as smart as my class (44-G), because we managed to complete each flying phase in the time allotted.

Primary flight training for my group was at Camden, Arkansas. Camden is near the Louisiana border and not far from Texas. It isn’t near anything else except a lot of pinewoods, which supported the large paper mill in town. The paper mill smelled like a gross or more of rotten eggs. But we loved it. The smoke from it could be seen for miles. None of us got lost. I don’t think that can be said for other cadets who trained at other fields. Some of us had some lost weekends brought on by Saturday night visits to the local roadhouse named the Rendezvous Club. I don’t know where all the girls came from but the place was full of them. Along about closing time some of them actually appeared to be real beauties. At least that’s what the big boys told me. I was too young and timid to know any thing about that.

We flew PT-19’s, which were very sharp looking monoplanes. My instructor banged my knee with the stick to teach me to keep the wing up when on the downwind leg. He did this so often that I think that is why I now have arthritis more in the right knee than the left. By the time I soloed and was able to fly another five or six hours I was the hottest pilot in the whole world. Well, at least I thought so. I taught myself acrobatics so early that when the instructor started to do it I had to intentionally split S out of a barrel roll so he wouldn’t think I had already figured out how to reverse controls when I was inverted so as not to split S. I won’t admit to any unauthorized flight performances such as dropping down in a field and heading straight for a house where some guys were working on a car in the front yard. This sort of thing could probably cause them to run in the house and dive through the back windows as the PT-19 practically rolled the wheels up the roof. Nor would I admit to a time that two guys were running a hand car down the railroad track and a PT-19 dropped down on the far side of a woods and came out at exactly the same time as the hand car passed in front of it. It may have been the kind of thing that would cause the two guys to jump off the handcar into the ditch, but as I have said I wouldn’t be able to confirm that it happened. To the surprise of everyone and the relief of my instructor, I passed all my check flights and headed for Basic Flight training with the rest of the class.

Basic was in Malden, Missouri, which was even further from nowhere than Camden. It is in the boot heel that sticks down into Arkansas and is bounded on the East by the Mississippi River. Another reason not too many of us got lost looking for the field. Hell, if you couldn’t see the Mississippi River you shouldn’t be walking around without a white cane and a Seeing Eye dog. We lived in the only real tarpaper shacks I ever saw close up. We flew the BT-13, called the “Vultee Vibrator but not always affectionately.” (It had been somewhat built by the Vultee Aircraft Company. Yes, it really did vibrate.) Now we began some instrument training along with being able to change the pitch of the prop. This made me an even hotter pilot. Well, at least I thought so and that’s what counts. We did some formation training and I really excelled at this. If you are young and dumb enough you can stick your wing in between the wing and elevator of the plane next to you and keep it there without freaking out and qualifying for a medical discharge. I was very young and very dumb. You know that stupidity is sometimes mistaken for courage.

Social life at Malden was getting into town on Saturday afternoon and getting blotto as fast as possible in the only beer joint in this three block long excuse for a town. I don’t remember what happed on Sundays.

In order to save at least some of the planes for the next class, we were sent to Advanced Flight Training. This took us back to Arkansas but to a much larger town. Blytheville was its name. It was seven blocks long. It was located in the Northeastern part of the State and again the Mississippi River was nearby. Still didn’t get lost!

Here we flew the Curtis AT-9 Jeep or Fledgling. It is the only plane I ever knew about that took off at 120 mph, climbed at 120, cruised at 120, let down at 120 and landed at 120. When landing your glide path was so steep they had put windows in the roof so you could see the beginning of the runway. I was told that to do a dead stick landing you needed to simulate a dive-bombing of the end of the runway. This plane really taught me to fly. They took them away from us about half way through Advanced and gave us AT-10’s. In comparison this was like changing from a Corvette to a Yugo.

Recently I found the following description of the AT-9 on the USAF Museum Internet site.

“The AT-9 advanced trainer was used to bridge the gap between single-engine trainers and twin-engine combat aircraft. The AT-9 was not easy to fly or land, which made it particularly suitable for teaching new pilots to cope with the demanding flight characteristics of a new generation of high-performance, multi-engine aircraft such as the Martin B-26 and Lockheed P-38. Seven hundred ninety-one AT-9’s were built before production ended in February 1943.” The plane was almost 10 feet high, had two Lycoming 295 horsepower engines and cost just under $35,000 to build. (You would pay more for a decent car today.)

On the last night before graduation it was discovered that some of us had not done a night cross-country flight. So I was assigned to fly from Blytheville to Little Rock, then to Memphis and back to Blytheville. I was assigned another cadet as co-pilot. The leg to Little Rock was just boring, but the leg to Memphis took on a different edge. As we approached Memphis lightning was lighting up the sky to the South, showing some of the tallest clouds I had seen up to that time at night in the air. When we reached the North edge of Memphis, the lightening was striking the South side of the city. I was glad I was able to actually say I turned back North at my destination even if it was the very outlying suburbs. Yea, I admit I was dumb back then, but I wasn’t stupid enough to fly into a raging thunderstorm just to “follow my flight plan.” By the way, the cadet assigned as co-pilot went to sleep about ten minutes North of Memphis even though you could easily see the storm ahead. Another example of my reputation as a superb pilot, I guess. I did wake him up to help with the landing back at the field.

On the day of graduation there was an air show. Part of it consisted of a flight of nine AT-10’s in formation boxes of threes. I was the only cadet that flew with another cadet as co-pilot. The others had instructors. I think I really must have been damn good at formation flying. This fact must have triggered the next phase in my service to Uncle Sam.

Following the ceremony declaring us Officers and Gentlemen with the coveted pilot wings, 22 of us were issued orders for a five-day leave, then overseas to a “cold, wet and windy” climate. That could describe several parts of the globe, but as we learned weeks later, it was England. Of course when we returned from the five-day leave, we hung around Blytheville for days just eating and as a pastime drinking to excess. From Blytheville we shipped to Greensboro, North Carolina. We hung around there for days and then shipped out to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. In addition to other items we were accumulating as new pilots we were then issued the big old forty-five caliber automatic with shoulder holster. This began to look like we were going where we might not be liked by some of our fellow men.

About two weeks later we were hauled down to the docks and made to walk up the gangplank of the Mauritania along with what looked like half the U. S. Army. As Officers we had staterooms, eight to a double room. In the daytime we had to go up on the top deck and stay until the evening mess. After the evening mess we were expected to stay in our rooms but we didn’t. There were some Red Cross girls and some nurses on the ship. They were all assigned to one section of the ship. An MP was stationed at each end of that corridor. They were both equipped with a real sub-machine gun and no one was going to get to wish any of the girls good night.

Needless to say, the Colonel in charge of the troops was hated by all with a passion. Some of the 120 of the contingent heading for the “cold, wet and windy” climate came up with a uniquely devilish plan to get the Colonel’s goat. About twenty hundred hours a brand new Second Lieutenant showed up at the sick bay requesting a prophylactic treatment.

(For anyone reading this without a military background, it was a standing order that if a solder had sexual intercourse he was to report with all possible haste to an aid center for the above referenced treatment.) In about five minutes the first second Louie was followed by another with the same request. Five or six minutes after that another reported. By this time the Colonel had been alerted and he was hopping around like a chicken with its head cut off. Since the officers reporting for treatment could not by right be requested to divulge any details he had to use his imagination to find the alleged female source of this phenomena. All lifeboats were searched as was every other nook and cranny. Of course nothing was found because this was all a hoax, but there were 120 smirking new pilots on the top deck the next morning.

The newly graduated pilots debarked at Liverpool on a “cold, wet and windy” day in late September. From there we went by train to a camp named Stone. We found this was a replacement depot, but still no one told us what we were doing there. Of course we stayed several days at Stone. We could go out every night but there were two requirements to leave the base. One was we had to carry our raincoat. The other was that we had to accept a package with two condoms in it. (Talk about wishful thinking!) On about my fourth night out I displayed my raincoat to the MP but refused the package of condoms. When the MP insisted I had to take them I told him that feeling I had a duty to use the two government issue condoms each of the previous nights, I wanted to have time to just drink some beer for a change. He didn’t see the humor so I dropped another package of condoms in the river after I reached town.

Nine of us were loaded in a truck and hauled God knows how far to the gate of a base. When we went through the gate we asked the MP what kind of planes they had there. He answered “B-17’s.” Now we had more info but didn’t know what to make of it. Remember that the last plane we had flown was an AT-10 on August 4, 1944. The hut I was assigned to was located and I entered to find a Navigator sitting on a bunk. From the crutch he was holding and the way his leg was positioned I knew he had been wounded. He verified that and displayed a big ugly flak wound. He said he was shipping home and his was to be my bunk. I began to hang up my cloth es, which again demonstrated that stupidity and not courage was the reason I didn’t desert right then.

Now we come to the reason I should have been awarded the DFC. All replacements prior to this group were already trained in the B-17 at whatever position they were to fly. We did not receive any transition training prior to being assigned as Co-Pilots in the 398th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. According to other info on the web all pilots received several weeks training in the airplane they would see combat in. In my case, my transition training was eight hours in the right seat with a total of two landings before I flew my first combat mission on November 9th, 1944. I flew with a first pilot, Jack Brandstatter, and the target was Metz, France, the only target I ever bombed in France.

I flew a total of 29 missions before the war ended. I flew most of them with a Flight Officer named Joe Alwood. However, if a new crew reported in from the States, that Co-pilot would fly with Joe and I would fly with the new Pilot. Don’t think flying with a new crew on their first mission isn’t hairy. Every one of them tries their damnedest to get killed on the first mission. As was the case on all missions I flew with Joe, we took turns being pilot about every 15 or 20 minutes. We alternated landings the same way. Thus, I became as proficient as a Co-Pilot could get. It was agreed between us that I was better than Joe at formation flying. We do however still argue about who can land best.

On one of the missions Joe and I flew together we were shot up and a bullet lodged in the hinge of one elevator just like a rivet had been pounded in. Also, some of the cables to the elevators had been severed. The elevators were frozen in one position. We flew the plane back by using just the engines for climb or descend. We landed on an emergency field using just the throttles. I think I kept us from pancaking in because I hit the throttles when we bounced about 30 feet in the air, which as any pilot knows is what needs to be done so as to settle the plane down before it stalls and lands on it’s nose. For this bit of flying and being able to walk away from the plane after landing, Joe received the DFC. However, I take credit for a well-written recommendation, most of which really was factual.

I flew my last mission with a Pilot by the name of Norman Williams, but I don’t know why. I had not been assigned to fly that day and had tied one on the night before as I thought the war was over and they hadn’t been able to kill me after all. I protested but to no avail when the CQ woke me with the news that yes, I was to fly that day. After managing to eat a little, all the while being careful not to make any fast moves with my head which would aggravate my hang over, I arrived at briefing. At that time we were told the target was the Skota Works, a munitions factory in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. We could guess they wanted it destroyed so the Russians would not obtain it in working order. Another bit of unique info was that news of our pending mission had been broadcast by radio to the workers warning them not to report for work or they would be killed in the bombing. Don’t you know the damn Germans heard the broadcast, too? They must have moved every last flak gun they had to Pilsen. When we went over the target you could have walked on the black smoke. We had a new Light Colonel who wanted to make Full Bird and he insisted that we 360 at a target if the formation was not tight enough to assure a good bomb pattern. The lead pilot must have been an eager beaver because he ordered a 360-degree turn and another pass over the target. I don’t know what kind of bomb pattern we had but I do know we lost two planes and their crews on that second pass. I was also now definitely sober!

So you can see why I should have received the DFC. As the short answer stated, “I’m alive, ain’t I?”

Lew Burke, Co-pilot, 603 Squadron, 398th BG
Self Appointed Honorary General
Centreville, Virginia


See also:

  1. A Tribute to Joe Alwood, Pilot 603rd Squadron, 398th Bomb Group by Lew Burke from the Co-Pilot’s seat, 603rd Squadron


Personal History Information
  1. Veteran: Lew Burke
  2. Co-pilot, 603rd Squadron
  3. Date of Personal History: June 2005
  4. Author: Lew Burke
  5. Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Lew Burke