World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Lew Burke, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Randy Stange
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
The Marriott Hotel, Overland Park, KS., September 10, 2005
The 398th has been interviewing its members as part of the Timeless Voices of Aviation project. More information about the project and a current list of video interviews can be found at 398th Timeless Voices Interviews. In addition to the video interviews, some of the interviews have been transcribed to text.
Lew Burke, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
RS: Interviewer, Randy Stange
LB: 398th Pilot, Lew Burke
RS: We are doing this interview at the Marriott Overland Park Kansas reunion. This is Lewis Burke and I am Randy Stange. It’s September 10th two thousand and five. Lew, can we start out by you stating your name and where you reside?
LB: Okay, I’m Lew Burke and I live in Virginia.
RS: What caused you to go into the Army Air Corp Lew? Were you drafted?
LB: No, I was not drafted. I grew up in Arlington across the river from Washington. I did build model airplanes when I was a youngster. Where the Pentagon is now there were two airports. The Hoover airport and the Washington airport and as the planes got larger they combined the two. The only problem was a road running between the two airports. So they would have a flagman out there to stop traffic when a larger plane like a DC-3 or an old Ford Tri-Motor was either going to take off or land. So on Sunday’s that was very cheap entertainment for my father and mother to take me down to the airport and watch some planes land on Hoover and Washington airports. When they built the Pentagon they took them both away and later built National, as you know.
RS: You remember when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
LB: Yah, I remember when Pearl Harbor came. I was a watching, I was listening to a Redskin football game. I don’t remember who they were playing but they were probably losing again. I was sitting in a little community called Ballston in Arlington where the streetcar tracks ran. We were sitting in a car, four of us I guess, listening to the football game, and that’s when an announcer came on and indicated that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Of course I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was at that time. That’s where I was when Pearl Harbor was bombed. We may have been having some, even though we weren’t adults we may have been having some adult beverages while we were listening the game, but that’s where I heard about Pearl Harbor.
LB: I [was] eighteen at the time of Pearl Harbor. At that time you might not get drafted, so I wasn’t completely worried about getting drafted. I did want to enlist. But my folks wouldn’t permit it. I was an only child and my mother was very protective. So I couldn’t enlist. Later I convinced them that if they would let me enlist, I could then choose the branch of service that I wanted to be in and if they didn’t, I was going to get drafted anyway. So in October of nineteen forty-two I did go into Washington D.C. and enlisted in the Aviation Air Corp. I was working for the telephone company at that time. The C&P [Chesapeake and Potomac] telephone company. I could have probably avoided the draft but I didn’t tell my parents that. So I went in and enlisted in October of forty-two. I was called on the telephone on January the twenty-ninth of nineteen forty-three and told to report to Union Station and that I was going en-train to Florida the next night at nine o’clock. I had heard Florida was warm so when I got there I just had a little jacket and my clothes thinking that I’d be issued a uniform and so forth. Got on the train and took three days to get there. I think it was the second day that they finally put some sort of a dining car on the train and we got fed. Prior to that we would hop off the train wherever it would stop and there was a station to buy oranges or candy or whatever we could get.
I almost froze to death on the first part of the trip because I only had a light jacket. I thought they would issue me a uniform right away which was part of my stupidity. It took us three days to get there and the clothing that I had was pretty dirty by that time. They still didn’t issue any uniforms for about a week later and they had us out drilling in the dust in Miami Beach. Every step you took a cloud of dust came up because they used the parks for drilling. So by the time they issued the uniform my clothing looked like a camouflage. It was all brown. So I, needless to say, even though I’d been taught to be very frugal, I threw those clothes away.
RS: So you ended up doing your Basic in Florida.
LB: I did my Basic in Florida. I lived in a hotel. We didn’t have any room service but I lived in a hotel. I think it was the Henry and I think that was up around Fifth and Washington. Of course being there in February I was kind of happy with the Army. Here I am in Miami Beach in Florida and I’d never gotten there any other way. We stayed and did about a month of Basic Training. I think they figured that they taught us about all they could get us to learn about close order drills, so they shipped me off to a college training attachment in Buckhannon, West Virginia. So I left Florida in eighty degree weather and ended up in Buckhannon, West Virginia in a six inch snow storm. They housed us in the former girls dormitory, unfortunately the girls left first. That was where their design was, I guess, to smarten us up enough to go out and get shot at. I stayed there, I think until July and then went to Nashville which was an assessment center and they put us through lots of tests, a lot more close order drills, and a lot of P.T. [physical training.] They finally determined in my case that I was going to train as a pilot. I think the way they did that is they had these round and square holes, and they had these round and square pegs. If you could get a round peg in a round hole or a square peg in a square hole then you became a bombardier or a navigator. And if you could get a round peg in a square hole then they made you a pilot because they couldn’t figure out anything else to do with anybody that dumb.
RS: Let me take that paper from you Lew. So after your officers’ training when did you go to your Basic flight training?
LB: Well we went from Nashville to Maxwell Field for Pre-Flight which meant we learned the Morse code, took other tests, and so forth they gave us as well as other training. Then I went from there to Camden, Arkansas in early January where we flew PT-19’s. PT-19 was a low wing model plane, nice looking airplane. We all soloed in approximately ten hours of training some a little earlier some a little later I guess. I had an instructor that probably caused my right leg to have more arthritis then my left because when we would be on the down wind leg he would be slapping that stick up against my knee telling me to keep the wing up. I got even with him one day when we took off on a short runway which faced a house. I held the throttle back a little bit and we didn’t take off quite as quick as we should have. We almost rolled the wheels up the house. I could see him rising up in the seat because he thought we were going to hit the house. But I eased the throttle up a little bit and we made it. But see, I was kind of stupid and I guess you can say you have to be a little stupid just to decide to do that. And Mrs. Burke’s little boy was pretty stupid.
RS: So where did you go after Basic?
LB: Well after Primary I went to Malden, Missouri, and by the way, Camden is located, where I went for Primary, is located in south Arkansas just across the border from Louisiana. It’s really not near anything. I went to Basic Training and flew the BT-13, Vultee Vibrator, at Malden, Missouri, which was in the south corner of Missouri, which hangs down into Arkansas like a boot heel. That’s where I took Basic Flight Training and that was near the Mississippi so we didn’t get lost. If you couldn’t see the Mississippi River you should have had a "Seeing Eye" dog and not been in an airplane anyway.
To back pedal a little bit Camden had a sawmill, I mean a pulp mill, and they put out a lot of smoke and that’s why you never got lost in Primary training. Well now we are up in Malden and the Mississippi is just a few miles away so we didn’t get lost there. I went from there up to Arkansas to Blytheville, Arkansas which was sort of in the northeast corner also near the Mississippi so I didn’t get lost there. I flew the AT-9 for about half of my Advanced training in Blytheville. I didn’t realize that it was a dangerous airplane. In fact they took it away from us about half way through training and gave us AT-10’s. But I learned recently that the AT-9 was a very dangerous airplane to fly. The reason they were training some of the cadets in the AT-9 was that they envisioned them flying the more complicated twin engine planes like the P-38 and the B-26. The B-26 was supposedly a really tough airplane to fly. But, I didn’t realize the AT-9 was dangerous. I do know that it had windows in the top because the glide path was so steep you had to look out the top windows to see the runway. So it was a tough airplane to fly. But I didn’t know that. Again I guess I was just kind of dumb.
LB: Well from there I graduated and received my wings, my little gold bar, five day leave and was told that we were, there were I think twenty-two of us from Blytheville, that [we] were on orders to go a cold, wet, and windy climate. Don’t know where that was going to be. But, anyway we end up going from there to Greensborough, North Carolina, where we waited a while, and then to Camp Killmore, where we waited a while, and then we got on a ship, the Mauritania, and docked in Liverpool. So then I knew where the cold, wet, and windy climate was. And from there we went to Stone which was a Replacement Depot. From Stone they put us in a truck. Now we don’t know anything except that we graduated and we’re pilots and we are Second Lieutenants.
RS: And you had no multi-engine training?
LB: No. So we end up getting on, nine of us ended up on a truck one day, and we are driving through a gate, and there is an M.P. So we asked him what kind of airplanes [were] there. He said, “B-17’s.” Then we knew at least what kind of airplane was going to be around but we had no idea we were going to fly it. We’d never, in my case I had never seen one except in the air. So, [lo] and behold they decided we’re going to be replacement co-pilots. One of the things they did was break up an existing crew and make the co-pilot a pilot, and assign one of us as a co-pilot for both the former pilot and [one to] the new co-pilot.
RS: What date did you arrive in England? Do you know?
LB: I don’t remember the date I [arrived]. I remember the date of my first mission. It was November the ninth of nineteen forty-four and I flew to Metz, with Jack Brandstetter. That time was my transition training. I found out later transition training usually involved about three months of flying in the airplane you were going to go to combat in whether it was a gunner position, or bombardier, navigator, pilot, whatever. My transition was eight hours in the, in the right seat and two landings. And that was my transition into flying a B-17. I flew my fist mission with Jack Brandstetter, and at a [398th] Reunion some, I don’t know ten years ago or so, I happened to be telling some of the people there that I had never had transition in a B-17, [and] that my transition consisted of the eight hours and the two landings. And Jack Brandstetter said, “You what!” I told him and he says, “Well I didn’t know that.” He says, “I am so lucky to be alive.”, and he is because I was pretty dumb. But the funny thing is he didn’t realize. You know, apparently I flew as good of a formation as was expected. And he didn’t realize I didn’t have the transition or that I didn’t know anything about a B-17. And when the war ended I knew probably not much more about a B-17.
RS: How many missions, did you fly?
LB: I flew twenty-nine missions. My first mission was as I say, November the ninth, to Metz, France. It’s the only target I ever bombed in France. All the rest were in Germany except two that were in Czechoslovakia. The last one was the last mission of the group and my last mission obviously was to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia to bomb the Skoda Works which I guess somebody thought it would be better if we devastated or demolished it then have the Russians capture it. They were destined to capture it. And the only bad thing about that was, well not the only thing, but one of the bad things was that Eisenhower had them broadcast on the radio the night before we were going to bomb the Skoda Works in Pilsen. And telling the people not to go to work. Well, you know the Germans heard that broadcast! And the Germans must have taken every flak gun they had in the whole area and put them around Pilsen, because it was black when we went over. There were all kinds of flak. And then, for whatever reason we did a three-sixty and a second pass across. We lost two planes. But that was the last mission I flew.
RS: Any interesting things happen on any of your combat missions you want to share?
LB: Well, we were lucky I guess in that the fighter opposition was practically non-existent [by] then although we did get hit twice. Flak was a lot worse because they had developed radar, the Germans. There was one mission where we were shot up some and one of the bullets lodged in the hinge of the elevator. Just like putting a rivet in which meant you could not operate the elevator. So we flew back to an emergency field in England which was forty-seven football fields long. I remember that. That’s how I remember it was forty-seven hundred yards long, and wide enough to take off at least a Piper Cub. And we put the plane down on that runway. We flew it back by giving it more power to go up and less power to go down, no elevator control at all, and in fact even the cables for the trim tab which might have helped us a little had been severed so we couldn’t use that either. The trim tab would not have moved the elevators but we could of used it as a small elevator if it had been usable. We came down on that runway and finally got flying down the runway. We chopped the engines and it hit and bounced about thirty feet in the air. Since I have real quick reflexes I beat the pilot to the throttles and slapped some power to it so it wouldn’t pancake in. We bounced a little bit down the runway and got out of the plane so, that was kind of interesting. I wrote the pilot up for the DFC, (Distinguished Flying Cross) and he actually got it. Most of what I wrote really was factual. We always kidded each other, before Joe [Alwood] passed away a few weeks ago [July 2005], about whom really deserved the DFC. We always said that Joe had written me up, but what he’d said was I was there too. So we’ve had a lot of humor about it over the years.
RS: Want to read your little thing for the camera?
LB: It’s too long that’s forty some minutes.
LB: But ah,…
RS: You’re sure?
See: Why I Should have been Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Lew Burke, Co-Pilot, 603rd
LB: Well let me highlight a couple of things. I wrote this little epical one evening. Don’t really know why, I must have been bored. I had said that I grew up in Arlington, and I talked about the airports. As I said I enlisted, let’s see, Basic Training in Miami Beach, this is one of the things I wrote and this is true. With thousands of other Army recruits we lived in hotels but there was no room service. My hotel was the Henry. 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 everyday. There were a couple of instances while we were at the West Virginia Wesleyan in Buckhannon in the college training detachment.
Soon after we got there one squadron got an over night pass because they managed to stand up straighter at the Saturday review. There were mostly girls left at the college because the guys were in the service. Well, the Dean of Women heard some stories about our activities on that night, well that squadron’s activities, actually my squadron didn’t make it, and she prevailed upon the captain that was in charge to not give us any more overnight passes. But he decided that he would give married men overnight passes. Now who should have an overnight pass with an opportunity to maybe partake of some of the things that you might partake of on an overnight pass but some married guy whose wife is home?
We single guys couldn’t get an overnight pass but I did get an overnight pass because I moved into a little oversized closet that had a window. I had one bunk in there and it happened to be next to the, to the room where some of the student officers were. You couldn’t help but overhear their conversations and I would mention some things to them sometimes if I wanted an overnight pass and I would get one. I really don’t think that I was doing anything really wrong. I think I was just practicing to be devious in case I ever got captured as a POW. But I did get some overnight passes. The first night that we got out there was only one beer joint in Buckhannon. I don’t know how much we spent but I do know that the bartender, the owner, paid off the mortgage on Monday morning. So, we must have drank a little.
Oh, in Nashville with the assessment center they had as part of the testing procedure a psychiatrist. If you’ve ever seen Andy Griffith in “No Time For Sergeants” and his encounter with a psychiatrist, I swear it was very similar to ours. It was hilarious. I guess all of us look for some entertainment when we were off. Either drinking a little, dancing a little, or doing both at the same time. There was a place in Camden called The Rendezvous Club and we would go there. One thing I noticed was that there were a lot of girls there and maybe that is why we went there. I also noticed that they all got prettier at closing time. At Malden there was one beer joint also and that’s all there was. We would hit there as soon as we could on Saturday and I really can’t remember what we did on Sunday there. In Blytheville, it was a little larger town and they had, …..
RS: Okay we are back on the air now. You were talking about Blytheville.
LB: Yea, Blytheville was a little larger town, I think it was four or five blocks long and had [two hotels]. So we had a lot better recreational activities there. In Blytheville and in Advanced [Flight Training] they found out that I hadn’t done a night cross country and this was the night before graduation. So they decided I needed to get out [at] night and fly an AT-10 from Blytheville to Little Rock to Memphis and back to Blytheville. They put a cadet in as my co-pilot. We flew out to Little Rock, Arkansas and we headed sort of south-east towards Memphis. There was a big thunder storm coming up from the south. So we flew into the suburbs of Memphis and then turned north back to Blytheville. I was really dumb but I was smart enough not to fly that plane at night into a thunderstorm. The clouds were way up in the air and lightning was flashing so I had to do that. Then on the graduation day, they had an air show and I was the only cadet that had another cadet as co-pilot in this air show. It consisted of a formation flight of three plane elements. I guess I must have been pretty good at formation because they didn’t, you know, I didn’t have an instructor with me. That’s probably got something to do the fact that I ended up overseas in a bomber group because formation flying was very important in a bomber group. Don’t know much more from the notes I had written so I guess what I am saying is that Mrs. Burke’s little boy wasn’t real smart. But you know there’s probably a real fine line between courage and stupidity. A real fine line and I think I fell off on the stupidity side of that line. But I, I just never really was that scared. I was scared but, not as scared as some people because I was stupid.
RS: After VE day how did you get home?
LB: Well, after VE Day the whole group came home or I guess the whole group. They took every airplane that was flyable and loaded them up with personnel. Obviously some were at the controls, others were in the waist, in the bomb bay or wherever and flew us back to the States. I was given a thirty day leave and then reported back to Tampa, Florida. I guess, just being a little stupid I volunteered to go to the Pacific. And my volunteering included the fact that they were going to let me fly either single engine or twin engine. You know, they let me volunteer and they let me get what I wanted. But, I didn’t realize what I wanted and what I was going to get was something that I really didn’t want. They were going to send me to the Pacific to fly C-47’s and dump para-hoppers out. Here we had been bombing at twenty-five, twenty-eight thousand feet and getting shot at and now I’m going to be at nine hundred feet going seventy-eight miles per hour and dumping paratroopers out over Japan. Fortunately, President Truman took the bull by the horns and dropped the atomic bomb. Lucky I didn’t end up there because I probably wouldn’t be here now. I did stay in the service a little while because they didn’t have me doing anything and it was real nice. Fly once in a while and then I got out and went back to the telephone company where I’d been before.
RS: And that was the end of your aviation experiences?
LB: Well, I did stay in the Reserve for a while and we flew as often as we wanted. I would go out to Andrew’s Field in Maryland and we flew AT-6’s out there. But, eventually they took those away from us because they, they needed to give then to the Chairborn Troops in the Pentagon to keep their flying skills up. So then the Reserves could, the Reserve Unit I was in anyway consisted of having a meeting about every two weeks and sitting in a room and watching television. So you’d [waste the time] and when the Air Corp became the Air Force you had to sign again to agree to be there. I decided I didn’t want to agree to be there so I became an absolute civilian. No Reserve, no nothing. I guess a lot of things could have happened better for me, I guess there is a lot of things I could have done better, I could have applied myself, I could have done a lot of things but, you know I’m alive so maybe I did the right things.
RS: Did you ever use your G.I. bill?
LB: No. I had a job with the telephone company. I was making what I thought was pretty good money. I thought about it but, I got married. I had a family and I just didn’t know that I needed to go any further scholastically. I did use the G.I. bill for purchasing my first home. That was a little bit of a surprise. I thought now this is free, all you have to do is make the payments. Until you get to the settlement offices to find out that at that time, I believe it was almost three hundred dollars I had to pay for the settlement charges. People now probably understand this and it’s much more than that. I didn’t hardly have that much money. So that was a shock. That was a free program that wasn’t completely free. But I’m not complaining.
RS: When did you start going to the 398th Reunions?
LB: Well, first I went to the Eighth Air Force Reunions. The 398th had their first individual reunion at Rapid City . I didn’t go to that one but, I’ve been to every one since. Can’t really tell you the date but, I have been to every one since the second one.
RS: Anything else you can think of?
LB: No, I can’t think of anything else except to say that a lot of people refer to us as “The Greatest Generation.” I don’t think we were the greatest. I think we were great, but I don’t think we were the greatest. If you stop and think of the things the guys in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War went through I think maybe they were. They would qualify as a greater generation than we did. But, I do tell some of the young folks I run into just, just because I like to harass people that I think my generation was better than theirs.
RS: Laughing. Well thank you for your courage and dedication to the service of the country, Lew.
LB: Thank you.
- Brandstatter's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 6 February 1945
- Why I Should have been Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Lew Burke, Co-Pilot, 603rd
- A Tribute to Joe Alwood, Pilot 603rd Squadron, 398th Bomb Group by Lew Burke from the Co-Pilots seat, 603rd Squadron
- Eulogy for Wally Blackwell by Lew Burke
- Eulogy for Tom (Dudley) Buckley by Lew Burke
- The 8th Air Forces 25 April 1945 mission to Skoda destroyed 75% of the Skoda Works plant. History of the plant can be found at Škoda Works.
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. Lew Burke was the Co-Pilot for various crews but most frequently the Joe Alwood's 603rd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Eddie Ebbert, an interested High School teacher in July 2009 who uses various 398th material as part of his classes.
- The transcription was obtained from a video file.
- Punctuation, grammar and minor word changes may have been made to improve readability.
- Additional information may be shown in brackets [ ].