Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Edward L. Burnham [7/22/2003]

Gary Swanson:

With Americans Remembered, I am interviewing Edward L. Burnham at his home in Kansas City, Missouri on July 22, 2003. Colonel Burnham had a total of 37 years of military service. We are going to speak mainly today of his service in World War II, and the Army Corps as a member of the 8th Air Force, 95th Bomb Group, and the 334th Squadron. He flew as co-pilot on a B-17 for 35 missions. He's the holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. He's a European Theater with four battle stars, Victory Medal and an American Theater Medal and a number of other medals and ribbons for his service. He was born on August 29th, 1919, and he served in the military beginning October 1942, on active duty in World War II until February of 1946. Then he finally retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1979. Ed, where did you grow up as a kid?

Edward L. Burnham:

I grew up on a farm in Eastern Connecticut. In a little village, North Windham, Connecticut.

Gary Swanson:

Eastern Connecticut. Now, where would that be from Hartford or New Haven or --

Edward L. Burnham:

About 35 miles east of Hartford, near stores where the University of Connecticut is today. Not far from the Rhode Island border.

Gary Swanson:

And so you're a farm boy, eh?

Edward L. Burnham:

Grew up on a farm.

Gary Swanson:

Well, tell me about your mom and dad and brothers and sisters.

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, I had no sisters, but I had three brothers, two older than me and one younger, and we all grew up as kids on the farm during the depression years really. My father was a hard worker, but the farm was tough to deal during the depression days, so he ended up working for the State Highway in Connecticut as we were growing up as kids.

Gary Swanson:

So he was working for the State Highway Department and farming while you were growing up on the farm?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah. And farming in Connecticut, you know, you didn't have the big fields like you have out here in Missouri and Kansas, but, so it was difficult. He could, my father got into raising broilers, and that went well for a while, but he had a bad year, disease set in, just wiped out overnight.

Gary Swanson:

And your mom was a normal housewife?

Edward L. Burnham:

She was a hard working housewife. Yeah. And we, in the early days didn't have electricity on the farm, but eventually did. So she did -- imagine, bringing up all those kids and washing and ironing all those clothes without electricity, or indoor plumbing and most of the time.

Gary Swanson:

That was a tough life back then, wasn't it?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's the way everybody lived in those days.

Gary Swanson:

Yes. There and here, all over the country, actually in the rural communities. How did you -- what did you do after you got out of high school?

Edward L. Burnham:

I took the college course in high school and got a scholarship, and went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Majored in languages and was sort of interested in a teaching career. But I was, was not yet 21 when I graduated from college. So I was pretty young and when I went around looking for jobs, people thought I was there to enroll in the school instead of seeking a job. So I ended up, it's difficult to get a job in 1940 when I graduated from college, because we were on the edge of going to war and everybody was, people were being called, drafted and so forth. So I just happened to be in the lumberyard one day getting some supplies for the farm, and the owner of the yard who knew my family asked me what I was doing. And, I, when he found out I wasn't doing anything, he said, "Well, if you want a job you can come to work here." So I started the following Monday at $20 a week which wasn't bad.

Gary Swanson:

Now, you're a college graduate at this point and what did you study? Were you in education?

Edward L. Burnham:

I had majored in languages and ended up, modern language, and I had really in the back of mind teaching, but I had in fact, I had enrolled in some summer courses, teaching courses, but once I got into the lumber company as a salesman, I enjoyed that and it was really working out just fine.

Gary Swanson:

You got hooked on business then?

Edward L. Burnham:

The interesting thing was in those days we had volunteer fire departments and the lumberyard was in the city Willimantic, with which was the same town that I lived in, but we were in an outlying village and we were members of a volunteer fire department. All my brothers and, um, that night after I had gotten the job, the alarm went off and the fire was in Willimantic. When we got to fire, it was the lumberyard burning down.

Gary Swanson:

Your lumberyard?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah, the one I was going to go to work for. So, but, as it turned out they had an alternate yard down near the railroad tracks so they were still in business. And I ended up going to work for them. So I learned the business from the ground up.

Gary Swanson:

Were you the first -- you had three brothers, so there were four boys in the family. Were you the first to go into the service?

Edward L. Burnham:

No. I, my brother, who was two years older than I, was one of the first members of the family to go. He was drafted early. And then my oldest brother was called up and he was married at the time and I expected to be called up, and I wasn't, and I didn't understand why. And I finally checked with the local draft board, and they had me down as 4-F. And a physical that I had taken showed that I had a heart murmur and a sugar problem. Well, I went on a diet to correct the sugar problem, and just couldn't stand it that my brothers were in the service, and I wasn't. So I one day, one Saturday went to Hartford and signed up in the Aviation Cadet program. They gave me a physical and I passed it and I was called up. That was in, was in '42, and I was called up that October, I think, and went first to basic training. It was the Army in those days, the Army Air Corp and then from basic training we shipped to college training detachment in Massachusetts. Only there for about a month, because they realized I was a college graduate and didn't need that part of the program. Went to classification in Nashville and there I put down, your choice, I put down navigator which I had no idea about flying, but I figured I had enough, I was good enough at math, I could be a navigator. As it turned out they didn't have any requirements for navigators right at that particular moment, but they did for pilots, and it was either pilot training, or back in the Army. So I went to pilot training, went to primary in Orangeburg, South Carolina. A civilian training school where we flew the Stearman, the open cockpit plane, where I really learned to fly. And then from there to basic which was a single engine plane, and then I went to advance twin-engine training in Turner Field over in Georgia. That's where I received my commission and wings and in January of '44, Class of '44A went home for leave, and then reported to Salt Lake City where all of the class of '44A pilots ended up for assignment. And didn't, was there for over a month and everyone else was leaving. But there were a few of us about my size, 5 foot 5 and it was, they needed pilots for four engine, the B-17, the B-24. So they figured that we were all too small to do that, so they shipped us to air bases in Kansas, where we were going to be flying twin engine planes, towing targets for the B-29s. As it turned out I went to Hays, Kansas, the airfield there, and we were flying, we were gonna tow targets, but they were flying B-17s to do that, the Flying Fortress. Well, we didn't tow targets, but we did fly around the country getting parts, the 29s, going through a lot of modifications, and bringing in supplies for those fliers and the captain of the squadron, there were two of us doing this, suggested to both of us that there wasn't much of a career for us there. And that he would recommend us for, for phase training in the B-17, since we'd been flying it and, um, which he did, but when the orders came through, I and my friend, we both get shipped to Colorado Springs, and assigned to B-24s as co-pilots in the third phase of combat training. Well, after flying the 17 and the, then flying the 24, it was, the difficulty was the greatest flying the 24, the 17 was a much easier plane to fly. So naturally we, the two of us, were both unhappy about all this and they eventually, it got straightened out, and we were then sent to Sioux City, where we were put on combat crews on B-17s.

Gary Swanson:

Ed, you said when you originally signed up that you thought you'd be a navigator because you were good at math, and you hadn't thought much about flying, how did you take to flying? I mean was it pretty natural for you? Was it difficult for you?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, it really wasn't natural, and I had some questions about whether I would be able to get through it or not, especially the first part of it. I had a young civilian instructor who wasn't any older than I was, but he was a good pilot and he had confidence in me, more so than I had in myself. But I think it was when I first soloed the plane, we went to an auxiliary field, he got out and he said okay, you know, take off and then come back and land and I got off okay. And I think that first landing I made quite a few bounces, but once I had some confidence that I could do it, after that it was okay, and went onto basic and advanced and didn't think anymore about it.

Gary Swanson:

Did you like to fly once you found out you could?

Edward L. Burnham:

Oh, yes, yeah, very much so and it was more exciting part of Army life in those days. Ah, not the combat part of it which was going to come up, but the early part of the flying was, yeah, it was something that everybody looked forward to.

Gary Swanson:

And I bet you since you had by your own admission not too much confidence when you went into it, I'm sure you not only learned a lot about yourself, but got a lot more confidence and everything that you did as a result of your mastery of the plane, would that be a correct assumption?

Edward L. Burnham:

I think that's a good assumption because once I had made the initial solo flight, I knew that I could do this. And I'd gotten through check ride with an army major, gave me my first check ride, and that was a little bit scary, because for an aviation cadet, a major was like being in the presence of a general in those days.

Gary Swanson:

And they washed a lot of people out, particularly from a, in a primary, right, or --

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah, washout rate in a primary. I think my instructor in that class had five of us, and only two of us were able to get through it.

Gary Swanson:

So you felt pretty good when you had gotten your wings and then you got this additional training, they said boy, your going to be a B-17 pilot, and then you, ah, where did you pick out your -- where was your crew formed?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, the crew was brought together in Sioux City and they were, they had gotten together before I got there, I was a replacement for them. Their original co-pilot took sick. They had to have a replacement, and that's how I ended up on this particular crew. They were already in phase training, but because I'd had some previous flying experience, it worked out well. The training that we got.

Gary Swanson:

Did you get pretty tight with that crew? I mean, you were the last man to come. The rest of them knew each other, it didn't take long for them to know you?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's right because the crew was always, very close, we flew together. Whatever we did, we did together and there were four officers, the pilot, the co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, and then the enlisted men who were all sergeants. We had a radio operator, an engineer, these were all gunners as well, and then the waist gunner, the tail gunner, the lower ball turret gunner and the engineer was the top turret gunner, who was behind the pilot and the co-pilot. Yeah, then of course, we picked up, after we finished that, we picked up the plane in Carney, Nebraska and flew overseas with it to England and that was quite an experience.

Gary Swanson:

Did you take the northern route, the southern route?

Edward L. Burnham:

We took the northern route, we, we left Carney, Nebraska we were headed for, I think it was --

Gary Swanson:

Gander?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, before that, were going to, before we left the states we were going to go to Grenier Field in New Hampshire. And I grew up on a farm in Connecticut and the pilot, I was the co-pilot, the pilot had grown up on a farm in Iowa, so on our way back east, we went by both those farms and made a low pass.

Gary Swanson:

Low pass and dipped your wings?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yes. And that was quite a thrill, but then we went up to Goose Bay, and then we didn't go into Greenland, we went to Iceland. And then from Iceland we went to Ireland, where we landed and turned the plane in. We had to make modifications. And the crew, we all went and got a boat across the, what's that sea between Ireland and England? That's our only boat ride and then went, joined the 95th Bomb Group and flew our first mission, I think the first of September in '44. Our first mission --

Gary Swanson:

The first of September 1944, was it a milk run?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- well, it should have been. It was to a place called Sindelfingen in Germany and we were a green crew, of course, of course, and we couldn't release the bombs, so we were embarrassed, and we brought the bomb load back on our first mission. So it was kind of a disappointing day.

Gary Swanson:

I mean the plane didn't respond when you --

Edward L. Burnham:

The plane was okay, but for some reason there was a malfunction. We couldn't release the bombs and we had to come back and land with those bombs on board.

Gary Swanson:

Which, of course, made it a tougher round trip because you had all that weight and --

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah.

Gary Swanson:

-- burning fuel, so it was a rather inauspicious debut, I guess, heh?

Edward L. Burnham:

I think we were all pretty disappointed with that, but our second mission was a unique mission. It was the Freedom Fighters in Poland, in Warsaw, had an uprising and they were going to throw the Germans out of Warsaw. And the Russians were not far from Warsaw, but they weren't about to help these Poles because of politics. At the time the Russians had an idea of setting up their own government in Poland. The Polish government had gone in London in exile, so approval was given. We, the United States, had a deal with Russia. We had three fields over there where we could land after flying a mission over Germany. A shuttle mission, it was called, we would drop our bombs, go on and land in Russia. The next day hit a target in Germany, landed in Italy. The next day in Italy hit Germany again, landed in Italy. The next day leave Italy, hit Germany again and land back at our base in England. But this was going to be a shuttle mission where the first leg we would drop supplies to the Freedom Fighters in Warsaw, Poland and go onto the field. It was in Ukraine, Poltava, and then the next day go on and do the target in Germany to Italy. Well, what happened was we were pretty low level. We were around 12 to 15 thousand feet over Warsaw when we dropped these supplies. Our normal bombing altitude was 28, 29 thousand feet. So we were, the Germans, of course, were right there shooting at us. We were pretty good targets. Some of the planes were damaged. We had some damage, not a lot, but one of our canisters got hooked up in the parachute, extended, but it still caught in the bomb bay so the engineer had to go back there and cut that loose. We were flying over the target, sloped down with this parachute.

Gary Swanson:

Looked down and see the anti-aircraft?

Edward L. Burnham:

Anyway, we got, we got to Poltava, but we were a new crew, so we were left there the next day. We didn't get to go back. We were going to fly back one of the damaged planes when it was fixed, and that ended up to be quite an ordeal, because we were by ourselves and we couldn't just fly to Italy from Poltava. We had to go round about. We went from Poltava to Tehran in Iran and to Cairo, Egypt and then across to Tripoli and Libya and up across the Mediterranean. We landed at an island in the Mediterranean and then we landed at Marseille, which had just been liberated. That was in September of '44 and then to Paris, which had also just been liberated. We stopped at each of these places and had a chance to go around, look around and just spend a day. And then ended up back in England about two weeks later. We thought we're a new crew, we thought hey, this is great, maybe the war will be over by the time we get back. But, of course, it wasn't. Then we went on from there, and we flew a lot. We finished our missions. I think in, a, in like a, in March of '45. So we did the 35, we got in a lot during the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Once the weather cleared and we could fly, we were flying missions almost everyday. Normally we might fly one or two a week, and then after you flew a few you'd get, the crew would get a pass, and we could go to London for a few days.

Gary Swanson:

Did it ever get, Ed, I mean, you flew all your missions in about five, six months. Thirty-five missions and more at the end, like you said, almost every day, did, mentally, did it ever get routine for you?

Edward L. Burnham:

No. It never did because and, and people asked were you scared? I guess we probably were but, we were really well trained and we were busy, like, the pilot and I switching off flying and everyone else had a job to do, so there was something to occupy their minds. And even though they knew the dangers, the casualties, the number of planes were shot down was enormous. But we put that out of your minds really, didn't think about it, and we ended up as a crew, all intact, all finished together, which was quite unusual.

Gary Swanson:

Let's take a look at your crew.

Edward L. Burnham:

This is the crew.

Gary Swanson:

Just put it out here in front of me, and I will zoom in on it.

Edward L. Burnham:

And you see that, that was taken in front of the B-17.

Gary Swanson:

Turn it just a little bit to the side so we don't get the glare, a little bit more. That's beautiful. Okay. And?

Edward L. Burnham:

That was taken over in England.

Gary Swanson:

Taken in England.

Edward L. Burnham:

At the air base.

Gary Swanson:

And you're the debonair, the gay debonair guy with the --

Edward L. Burnham:

White scarf.

Gary Swanson:

With the white scarf in the front row.

Edward L. Burnham:

That's right.

Gary Swanson:

And you all flew the same 35 missions and you all returned home safely?

Edward L. Burnham:

We sure did.

Gary Swanson:

That's wonderful. Okay. Did, did you take, did you see fighter, German Fighters on many of the missions?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yes, we did. I would say, on, we were probably hit by German Fighters on eight or nine missions. At the time we were flying, we were getting pretty good fighter escort, B-51s that would rendezvous with us, and be with us for a while on the way to the target. And, of course, they couldn't hang around long because their fuel supply was limited and, but that was a big help. I can remember at least one occasion when these bombers flew in formation, very tight formation, just wave, after wave, after wave, and when the German Fighters would come in, they would come in on one group, scatter, reassemble, and then hit the next group. But I can remember on this one very clear day we had the, we could see our 51 escorts on both sides. We were flying pretty near where we were going to be at the target when the German Fighters hit, and these 51s just jettisoned their spare tanks and there was this huge air battle and here is our bomb group formation just flying, there was nothing we could do but just fly right straight on. And, of course, as the German Fighters made passes at us, we had pretty good fire power back because we were arranged in such a fashion, in formation, that all of our guns could be on whatever plane was coming in on us.

Gary Swanson:

To the best of your knowledge, did you have any German fighter kills out of your plane?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, none that we really would get complete credit for because the battle was, it was real hard to tell who really got credit for shooting, but the other part of it was the German flak, the anti-aircraft. Now, on clear days it was very accurate. Many of the days we flew we would have cloud cover, and on those days we would drop tinfoil, and that would mess up the German radar. And you would see patterns of anti-aircraft fire all around, but not in your formation because they were picking up foil. But when we were in the open, they were very accurate and that again, was something that if you were on the bomb run and we were flying on the lead plane where the bomb side was, then we all dropped on the lead plane when the lead plane dropped bombs. So it was a pattern, it was not much, you couldn't do any evasive actions.

Gary Swanson:

No deviation.

Edward L. Burnham:

And so we were vulnerable then from anti-aircraft, and then as we left the target, dropped our bombs and left the target. If there were German fighters around, we were vulnerable then because our fighter escort would have left.

Gary Swanson:

And they were smart enough to know that our boys had to go home because they didn't have enough fuel.

Edward L. Burnham:

But they would experience the same problems with fuel themselves. They couldn't spend too much time flying around, and then they were getting younger and younger crews, I think, because their casualties were mounting.

Gary Swanson:

So sometimes one pass, maybe, or a couple of passes and they were gone?

Edward L. Burnham:

That would be it, yeah.

Gary Swanson:

What was the longest round trip that you took, maybe to Berlin, or?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, I think --

Gary Swanson:

Maybe to Czechoslovakia?

Edward L. Burnham:

The one, the mission where we landed in Russia was a long flight. We had some missions that were around eleven hours, and Berlin would probably not be that long, but we went into the oil refineries, which were --

Gary Swanson:

Romania?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- in Romania, which were pretty long round trip. Yeah, I was looking at my logbook the other day, and I think there were several missions that were eleven hours or more.

Gary Swanson:

Ed, were you intense for all those eleven hours? I can see as your forming with bombers from other airfields in England that you had to be very, very intense, and I can see that obviously, when you got over the channel you had to be -- were you intense all the time?

Edward L. Burnham:

Ah, well you could -

Gary Swanson:

When would you relax or could you?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- I don't think you ever could really relax, but flying formation kept you busy. Just the skill of it and staying, maintaining your spot. So I think you were loose when doing that. And, and the biggest part of what we did, I'd alternate, pilot, co-pilot, taking turns flying for --

Gary Swanson:

How often did you alternate, typically, every --

Edward L. Burnham:

I don't know that we had any time --

Gary Swanson:

-- so many minutes?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- on it. I think we just, whenever we felt that we needed a break. And, so, and then I think obviously, over the bomb runs seemed to take an awfully long period of time to get that many planes over the target. Those were because you are so vulnerable. And then I think on the way back, we didn't run into many problems, once we had gotten out of the area where we bombed the target. And if sometimes the weather was bad, and that could --

Gary Swanson:

Or you could lose an engine, I suppose or something would go wrong with the plane.

Edward L. Burnham:

We had not too many problems with the engines, sometimes with the controls and -- but we had pretty good engines so that was important. And there were always some snafus like, I recall one mission where, we're on the bomb run, and I'm on the intercom with the crew and the bombardier who has got the best seat up front to see what's going on, sees this formation of planes coming directly at us. They are on the wrong, they are on the same target, but going the wrong way, or we were going the wrong way. I think we were going the right way, but anyway, he hollers, "Pull up" so I pull up on the stick, and pretty suddenly, and this plane came charging through and hit the plane behind us, knocked it out of the sky. So moments like that were scary. And you mentioned taking off, yeah, we'd assemble over England, usually taking off in the early morning before dawn and flying, very, we were taking off at like minute intervals and flying very tight, climbing, spiraling, but, you know, these circles kept getting wider in all these airfields. I have a, there's a map up there, and everywhere you look down there's an airfield in East England, so there were a lot of planes lost just from midair collisions.

Gary Swanson:

On a cloudy day, and there were many, and, of course, it was dark probably many times. You were probably about as concerned, just forming the bomb group, that was probably your single biggest concern after you got off the ground?

Edward L. Burnham:

Right. Until we got up above the clouds, if it was cloudy, and we would rendezvous by shooting, each bomb group had different flares. Like, it would be red-red, red-green, or whatever. So you tried to find and assemble with your bomb group -- was sometimes a chore, but eventually everybody got together and headed out, one bomb group after the other. And usually we might split up, several groups with this target, several groups with this target, but we would head out team like mostly, like in one big bomber scream, amazing sight.

Gary Swanson:

How -- to the best of your knowledge, you weren't counting them, and they may not even have told you how many planes were going on that mission, but what's your estimate of the largest number of planes on any one mission?

Edward L. Burnham:

I think maximum, I think we had twelve hundred to two thousand, probably maximum effort we could put in the sky on a mission.

Gary Swanson:

So probably from a flak standpoint, the lead plane, the leads were probably the most vulnerable weren't they? And then after that it was just random, good luck, bad luck?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, because we were flying such tight formation, it's hard to describe, but we were almost, each bomb group that came along was a pretty good target, because these planes were so tight in together, but you'd fly along and this flak would just explode all around you. You'd hear it and some of it would hit and do minor damage and some of it would hit and destroy the plane. It was just, you didn't think about it because you had no way of defending against it.

Gary Swanson:

You had no control over it and you couldn't deviate where you were flying the plane.

Edward L. Burnham:

But, we, we welcomed the cloudy days, although there were problems when you had to fly formation in clouds. That was pretty scary as well.

Gary Swanson:

Ed, did you, when you came back from a mission, did you have flak, did you take flak on almost all the missions? I mean, some damage to the aircraft, might have been minor, but?

Edward L. Burnham:

At some point on the mission, I think almost all of them, there was some degree of flak, yes. Some days when it was -- the weather was particularly clear, and the anti-aircraft was very accurate, would be the toughest. The cloudy days we could evade it by throwing out chaff which would throw off their, their, whatever, radar they had in those days.

Gary Swanson:

Typically, Ed, how long would it take to get over the target, or over the bomb area that was protected by flak?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well --

Gary Swanson:

Two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, sometimes we'd be as long as ten or twelve minutes on the bomb run, that'd be from the initial point to where we dropped our bombs. Sometimes it seemed terribly long. It depended on wind conditions and all sorts of things, but sometimes just getting the bomb group in the right formation so that they could make it.

Gary Swanson:

How many planes in your squadron? How many of your crew in your squadron ultimately came back and how many were lost, do you remember?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, I can't tell you exactly because crews came and went. Some crews went after they first named their missions, others went because they were shot down. And it happened with such frequency that it was, and during time that we were there, you have to go back and look at the whole thing, but the losses were very heavy.

Gary Swanson:

Yeah, you were well aware that when you got back at the end of a mission, or were -- they were packing up somebody's goods in attempt that they had been taken down?

Edward L. Burnham:

As I look back on it, if we were, if conditions existed then such as we have today with the media where everything is reported on instantly as it happens, we never could have succeeded because I don't think the American people would stand for that casualty rate being reported everyday. It wasn't reported. It was reported whenever word went back to the families in that town. But as you see what's happening today, it is reported every minute on the television immediately as it happens. One person being killed, imagine a crew that was nine or ten people.

Gary Swanson:

Exactly. And losing ten or fifteen planes on the mission, you know?

Edward L. Burnham:

Easily.

Gary Swanson:

Branching back just a little bit, you have three brothers, and were all four of you in the service at the same time?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yes. My first brother to go into the service was two years older than I am, he's still alive. And he went in the Army Signal Corp. And then my oldest brother, who is also still alive, they both live back in Connecticut, went in the Army Air Corp. and went through officer training school and was, he had a legal background college and a law degree. So he ended up in that kind of work in the Army Air Force. And then my youngest brother, who went in last, but I think went in, was -- would have gone in on the invasion of Japan had that, should that have taken place. He ended up in Japan but it was after --

Gary Swanson:

In a non-combat role?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- afterwards. It --

Gary Swanson:

Did you ever think, certainly as you've grown older and you've had an opportunity to reflect on it, you probably didn't at that time, but can you imagine the turmoil that must have been going through your mom and dad's mind to know that all four of their sons, certainly more than one, or two of them at a time were in harms way?

Edward L. Burnham:

My father I think handled it well, I think my mother was devastated by it because I think she, just, it had to be tough on a mother to have all of her kids.

Gary Swanson:

It's wonderful to have all those blue stars in the window, but you sure prayed to God that one of them didn't turn gold. I'm sure of that?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's right.

Gary Swanson:

Well, let's continue on with your missions, you got 35 missions in. What was the worst, if I may put it in those terms, what was your worst mission that you flew?

Edward L. Burnham:

I guess the toughest one --

Gary Swanson:

The toughest one.

Edward L. Burnham:

-- would have to be the mission where we went to the oil refineries in Hamburg, and I think it was on December 31, '44. And it was beautiful clear day, but we got up into very strong winds. We didn't know at the time, but they describe those winds today, we were up in these jet winds, so in addition to flying along at 150 miles an hour, if we were with the wind, we had all of that, we were in this, so we're going twice as fast, so it was good if you're going over the target but I think when we turned on the target, we were going into the wind. So it was like one of these long clear days, and Hamburg was heavily defended with flak because we had gone up the coast of the North Sea and then came in to Hamburg, but, as we were going on the bomb run and the flak was intense, hitting us all over the place, all kinds of hits, and one of the hits knocked my helmet -- over the target on the bomb run we would put a metal helmet on -- and we had flak suits kind of that we would lay in our lap, so to save ourselves. Well, this dumb flak helmet fell down there between the pilot and co-pilot, down there where you crawl into the navigator and bombardier compartment. Well, behind me was the engineer who was manning the turret behind us and he had presence of mind to get down and get my helmet and put it back on my head. And I have to thank God that he did because after we left, dropped our bombings to leave the target, we were hit by fighters. They came in on, they knocked down planes on both sides of us. Almost knocked us out, one of the twenty millimeters hit right in the compartment near me, put a blast, put a big dent in this metal helmet and really kind of knocked me out. But I wasn't damaged physically or anything, but when I came to, which I think was momentarily, but, our cockpit instruments were shattered, our controls, we had, we could hardly control the plane because so many of the controls had been shot up. So the engineers were trying to get back there and fix up those control cables, and we're losing altitude. We had to cut back because until we got the controls, it was all we could do to keep this plane, wanting to nose up, keep it, both the pilot and I are, all we could do pushing to keep it from, and we're going lower and lower and we're reaching the point where we have to make the decision. Are we going to bail out or try to land or head over the water to England? But the engines were running perfectly and the navigator was able to figure out even without instruments where we were and what we needed to do. And everybody was okay and the fighters had left and were not getting much flak, sort of isolated because we're reaching the point where we're going to leave and head out over the channel to England, and we had to land at an axiliary field because we didn't have any brakes. So we just had to roll until the plane would stop. But other than that --

Gary Swanson:

Was the field right over the White Cliffs of Dover?

Edward L. Burnham:

In that vicinity, yes.

Gary Swanson:

One of the first ones you could come to, I guess, huh.

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, it was a field just designed for, if you were in that kind of trouble, you could go to. And we knew about it and we knew that we couldn't successfully land at our base, even the engines were okay but because we didn't have the controls to stop the plane once we landed -- so we put out some flares and landed at this long basin. And I think at the end of the runway we kind of flipped the plane around, spun it around. We were all okay and that was New Year's Eve, so we had to get trucked back to our base. I don't know what time we got back, but it was pretty late.

Gary Swanson:

You missed the party?

Edward L. Burnham:

We missed the New Years Eve party, yes, we did. And the group suffered a lot of losses. We had some planes from another bomb group flying with us because I think, during the course of all these missions, we lost planes and we didn't have enough, the groups would, we had to share planes back and forth and crews. Yeah, that was -- that was the plane that both pilot and I get the DFC and the engineer, we got it for him after World War II, about five years ago we put in for it because he'd been overlooked at the time, should have for all he did, to repair the cables. And the navigator should as well but he's not alive today, so we couldn't do it for him and the bombardier is deceased also.

Gary Swanson:

So you got the DFC for what?

Edward L. Burnham:

That --

Gary Swanson:

One of the gunners?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- it was, I got it for that mission, the pilot got it for that mission, and we got it for the gunner who was the engineer, who had the gun --

Gary Swanson:

Right. Five years ago, yes?

Edward L. Burnham:

-- yeah.

Gary Swanson:

Did you ever have to, I'll call it crash land, did you ever have to crash land any other times?

Edward L. Burnham:

No.

Gary Swanson:

Did you ever lose engines at any time?

Edward L. Burnham:

And we, we, I think on one occasion we might have had to recover, but another engine, but mostly our engines just operated perfectly. Which helps a lot if you have all four of them working. But you could fly the B-17 okay on three and okay on two, one is a problem.

Gary Swanson:

Well, to be able to fly 35 missions, you were charmed. You are lucky to --

Edward L. Burnham:

We were.

Gary Swanson:

Not to have had anybody -- particularly on that last one you mentioned, the whole plane could have taken down with another.

Edward L. Burnham:

You have to believe that there was a higher power looking out for you.

Gary Swanson:

Had something in mind for you?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's right.

Gary Swanson:

That's true, and especially when the entire crew was intact then and every time. It's very rare to find that many missions I think without somebody in the crew getting banged up from taking flak to the side or something.

Edward L. Burnham:

We were, we were lucky as a crew, no doubt about that.

Gary Swanson:

Well, you got your, were there any -- what, what did you do when your weren't flying, I mean early on, now later you were flying about every day, you were supporting the Battle of the Bulge, and I'm sure hitting it hard earlier on, were you flying maybe once, twice a week? What would you do in down time?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, if we, if we were gonna be down for like three days, the crew would go to London, that's typically what everyone did. And we got the train, which was right near where our base was and go on a three-day trip to London which was, I got so I could go all around London without any sweat at all.

Gary Swanson:

How far were you from London, your particular base? And what base was, what was the name of the base?

Edward L. Burnham:

It was located at Horam, in East Anglia. And I'm trying to think, I expect the train ride was three or four hours, I don't really remember. It was excellent train service. And I remember one incident the first, our first trip when we got, when it was stationed, we ended up in London, were going, there was a hotel there that was called the Strand Palace, and being Americans we figure we're going to the palace, so we get this taxi driver in those funny English taxis, and we all piled in and said take us to the palace. Well, of course, he knew we were going to the Strand Palace, but he took us to Buckingham Palace. And then we could, a lot of them got bicycles and would ride around the country side, and we had clubs, an officer's club, the enlisted club.

Gary Swanson:

Had you started running at that time, Ed?

Edward L. Burnham:

No, I had not. And that came later, long after World War II.

Gary Swanson:

But you found plenty of things to do?

Edward L. Burnham:

I think in training, I'm trying to think back when we were in cadet training, what we had as part of the Phys Ed program. We did some running and that's probably the only running I did. I didn't do it in college.

Gary Swanson:

So you got the 35 missions, which is what you had to do to come home, and then you -- what happened then, you got your 35 missions in, were you a little apprehensive before that last mission knowing that it was your last mission?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, yes, we were. But what happened was, I think I told you the story. Our second mission where we went to Russia. Our second leg we didn't do, we went back by ourselves back to England. Well, we had to ask that we be given credit for that long trip as a mission. It was under review. So it was always under review and when we finished our 34 missions, here we are one more to go but we felt we'd done it. And so there was apprehension. I think if we had to fly another mission, we would have been upset, but it was okay.

Gary Swanson:

But they gave you credit. So you did 34 missions and they gave you credit for the one that you had flown, but, of course, that came after you had already flown the last mission, so.

Edward L. Burnham:

So we were waiting in advance. I think if they hadn't, of course, we would have flown that other mission but, we would have done it with some concern. As it was, we didn't have that concern because that was always sitting there, we knew, we felt pretty sure that they were going to credit us that, so we went right through the 34 without thinking about that being the last mission. You know?

Gary Swanson:

Yeah, I understand. So when was the last mission you flew then? You remember the date or close to it?

Edward L. Burnham:

It was, I think it would have to have been in like, March of '46.

Gary Swanson:

March of '46 and?

Edward L. Burnham:

I could check the record.

Gary Swanson:

Well, that's right. You --

Edward L. Burnham:

It was around there. And what happened, the crews would go back to the United States and you'd go back for reassignment. In my case, I was recommended to go back for assignment, four engine plane which would probably mean going to B-29s and going to the Pacific. The navigator and I, we met this Major when we were in Russia. He was stationed there working out the details for the crews that came and went. Pat Wilson was his name. Well, he told us that he was going back to Air Force headquarters and to look him up sometime when we were in London. Well, we did. He had sold this idea to the people at Air Force headquarters that he could organize a squadron to fly their personnel around as the war, as they were moving into various German cities, and that they could quicker gather intelligence on what the German Air Force was doing as we took over those Air Force bases. And so he was looking for pilots and navigators. And he had put together not B-17s but C-47s which was the twin engine cargo plane. And so we found him in London and he arranged for us to join his group, the navigator and I, and he had some other pilots. And we went over -- by then they were in France, outside of Paris, and we joined the outfit there and we're flying. I was flying C-47. And we were taking personnel and picking up equipment throughout Germany as we moved on and took over the country. And then that ended up with his idea which he sold to the higher ups that he could convert some B-17s into cargo planes to get this equipment back to the United States that they had taken from the German Air Force that they wanted to evaluate. So he worked on three B-17s and I ended up flying with him as his co-pilot. He had never flown a B-17 but he was just a born pilot and we made three roundtrips back to the United States before I got separated which was in I think --

Gary Swanson:

February of '46?

Edward L. Burnham:

February '46.

Gary Swanson:

Well, that was a great military --

Edward L. Burnham:

That was a great way to end my active duty.

Gary Swanson:

Yes, it was.

Edward L. Burnham:

We saw a lot of Germany and then the experience of flying back and forth. The last trip we took the southern route. So we had that experience. And spent a lot of time at Wright Field in Patterson, Ohio.

Gary Swanson:

Okay. So you came back and you got separated, you did stay in the reserves in the Air Force, but you got separated. So what have you been going the last 60 years, Ed?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, before I went in the service, after college I went to work for a lumber company in Willimantic, Connecticut. So I went back there and continued working there, and I became active in the Veterans work, the local VFW unit in my hometown. And became active in their work to help Veterans. It fit in with my work at the lumber company because these guys were coming back marrying and building houses. So it all fit together. But what ended up being is I became so interested in that work that eventually I went to work for the VFW and left the lumber company. After about '60, '61.

Gary Swanson:

It had been about 15 years?

Edward L. Burnham:

And I had been at the lumber company before I went in the service, so I had all probably altogether 20 years or so with the lumber company. And I went to work for the VFW first in Connecticut, and then was invited to come out here to Kansas City to national headquarters. And I ended up here first as Director of Youth Activities and their Voice of Democracy Scholarship Program, and I became membership director, and I ended up before I retired, I was Assistant Adjutant General in charge of Administration.

Gary Swanson:

And when did you retire, Ed?

Edward L. Burnham:

I retired in '88.

Gary Swanson:

'88. Have you worked since then or you just kind of taken life easy?

Edward L. Burnham:

I have. I continue to do some volunteer work for the VFW. I serve on the By-Laws Committee. I got interested in playing golf which was good because that gave me something to do, and then I started running at about age 60. I was, I think 69 when I retired. So I'd been running in local races and had the idea I'd like to run a marathon, but I didn't have time to train. So the first thing I did when I retired, I joined a running group and trained for a marathon, and I ran a marathon in October of '89. I was 70 years old, my first marathon and as we're sitting here today, I finished 136 marathons.

Gary Swanson:

136 marathons? In how many states?

Edward L. Burnham:

I run one or more in every state.

Gary Swanson:

One or more in every state?

Edward L. Burnham:

And D.C. And then I ran several overseas. I ran the Berlin marathon the year the wall came down. I ran a marathon in London. I ran in Warsaw, I did run in Russia, and Siberia. I've done one in Helsinki in Finland. Mexico, a couple, in Cozumel and Cancun. Several in Canada. And Bermuda. I guess that's about it.

Gary Swanson:

Are you through running marathons because I know you still running a lot of 5 and 10Ks?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, because my time now, when I started out running marathons my best time was four hours and eleven minutes. Now, the last one I did was in Olathe, Kansas about two months ago and it took me 7 hours and 40 minutes. So although I'd still like to run marathons, I'm a slow runner now, and I have to find marathons where they can accommodate me with that amount of time. Some will do it by letting you have an early start or they'll make sure that you're okay to finish it by yourself with some kind of --

Gary Swanson:

One person to man the stopwatch at the end to make you official?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, and someone to either, on a cruiser, or a bicycle to make sure that your doing okay as far as traffic, because they let the traffic start up on the roads after a period of time. So I'm signed up to do one in Des Moines, Iowa in October which I'll do and I'd like to do a few more, but I'm not going to do, I've been doing one a month for a long time. So I'm going to slack off a little bit.

Gary Swanson:

Ed, how many races in which you've, have you competed that you have an entry badge for or a medal for? All together, 5K, 10K, 15Ks?

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, as we're sitting here you can see all these medals. The ones on the wall are marathons.

Gary Swanson:

Have you ever counted them though?

Edward L. Burnham:

Marathons, I've counted. That was 136, but all the other runs, it would be hundreds, 5Ks.

Gary Swanson:

If not thousands?

Edward L. Burnham:

It would reach into at least a thousand I think, if I added them all up.

Gary Swanson:

That's fantastic, that's fantastic. And you're now 84 years old, soon, in August?

Edward L. Burnham:

Next month I'll be 84.

Gary Swanson:

Next month you'll be 84 and you're still running. And I should notice that parenthetical here that you're always the champ in the 5 and 10K runs in Kansas City in the over 80 category?

Edward L. Burnham:

Right. If they have an 80 and over category I'm usually the winner. I'm usually the only one.

Gary Swanson:

You're usually the only one (laughing)?

Edward L. Burnham:

Now, if it's 70 and over, it just depends on how many are in the race. I ran one the other day, cross country, 5K, 70 and over. I was the only one in that category. So it depends, but, yeah, if they have an 80 and over category I'll do pretty well winning.

Gary Swanson:

And you're still running mainly for pleasure and keeping fit?

Edward L. Burnham:

And for exercise. I try to run everyday at least three miles, three and a half, four miles.

Gary Swanson:

Did you get your miles in today?

Edward L. Burnham:

I did. I was out at 5 a.m. this morning.

Gary Swanson:

Good.

Edward L. Burnham:

It was cool. But it's been, I didn't run yesterday, I played golf, but the last few days it's been 80 degrees even in the morning.

Gary Swanson:

Ed, you had a wonderful, well, you had a great family growing up. It was tough on the farm in Connecticut, but it was tough everywhere at that time --

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah.

Gary Swanson:

But you had a wonderful life. I'm sure a set of loving parents and three brothers you used to fight with and have a good time with. A great time in the military. You did very very well for yourself. Gave yourself a lot of confidence, accomplished a lot. The same in your civilian career you did very well, and you're still going. Let's, at the last thing I want to do is to show some of the memorabilia you have about here, but tell me about your family. You're not married, so you have no, you're a never married guy so you have no children or grandchildren, but who means the most to you?

Edward L. Burnham:

All of my brothers who were still living and all three of them are back in Connecticut. They all have families who are now grown up and married and raising families of their own. So I have nieces and nephews galore. And great nieces and nephews galore. And going into the next generation.

Gary Swanson:

That is absolutely wonderful. Do you get back to Connecticut often?

Edward L. Burnham:

Frequently. In fact, I'm going there for a race the first week of August. And I go back there, I'd say four, five times a year. I have property back there so I have a reason to go, but then most of the family, the brothers are all there, their families some are there, some are in other parts of the country, but the biggest part of them are still back in Connecticut.

Gary Swanson:

That is absolutely wonderful. Ed, you've got so much memorabilia here. I'd like to take a few minutes to show some of it. Let's see, I'm sure one of your proudest moments is when they pinned that bird on you. So why don't you hold that picture and show us, talk?

Edward L. Burnham:

This was just refinished about a month ago. It had faded totally and the people that did it here in Kansas City refinished that for me. It looks like new.

Gary Swanson:

That's wonderful, that's wonderful.

Edward L. Burnham:

Middle 70's I think.

Gary Swanson:

Okay. Move your head a little bit and we'll zoom in on your medals back there that you have on the wall. We can see them all.

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah, these are the military medals. Starting with the DFC, the Air Medal, the Air Force Reserve Medal. This is the --

Gary Swanson:

Victory Medal maybe?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's the American Theater of Operations, this is a European Theater, where I had the battle stars and this is the Victory Medal, and I was wrong, this is the Air Force Reserve Medal, this is the Air Force Commendation Medal.

Gary Swanson:

Okay.

Edward L. Burnham:

Now this is a medal from Poland, for our efforts in dropping supplies for the Freedom Fliers.

Gary Swanson:

And you've got your Colonel emblem up there and, of course, your original wings.

Edward L. Burnham:

Which have sort of tarnished.

Gary Swanson:

Sort of tarnished, but --

Edward L. Burnham:

That is a B-17.

Gary Swanson:

And there's the Flying Fortress herself?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yes. Now, this is a chart that lists all the bomb groups in the 8th Air Force. It's by numbers and all of the squadrons that were assigned to each one. And they had distinctive markings on the tail. The 95th which I flew had a square B on the tail. You could tell. That was the --

Gary Swanson:

And that gave --

Edward L. Burnham:

-- some of them had letters and triangles or in squares. And if you could see, you could tell which was which.

Gary Swanson:

And then next to it you've got some flying fortresses in action, don't you?

Edward L. Burnham:

I do, but here is the picture of the 95th Bomb Group in March of '44 before I got there, over Berlin. Now, up here this is a Sioux City B-17. This is where we had our crew training, our combat training. And this is a plane that our crew was in. It was taken.

Gary Swanson:

How about that big one up above, that has a montage there?

Edward L. Burnham:

Now, that was our class of aviation cadets in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In the background you see the Stearman planes that we flew, the open cockpits. This is the whole group. Not all of them finished, but I think that was taken when we got there.

Gary Swanson:

So up above there, then we've got a picture of you. Let me zoom in on you. Is that when you were a cadet? Did you, did you have your wings yet?

Edward L. Burnham:

Up at the top I just got my wings and my commission and that's the first official picture of me as a Second Lieutenant and then around there some family pictures and pictures of me in the Stearman. This is the family farm back in Connecticut.

Gary Swanson:

Okay. Let me, I want to zoom in on you in this Stearman.

Edward L. Burnham:

This is the first plane that we flew in pilot training.

Gary Swanson:

And then the family farm in Connecticut.

Edward L. Burnham:

And here was my mother and father.

Gary Swanson:

Beautiful.

Edward L. Burnham:

And the four brothers.

Gary Swanson:

The family. Mom and dad, oh, that's beautiful.

Edward L. Burnham:

And of course, my mother and father passed away, but my brothers are all living.

Gary Swanson:

And then there you are in the cockpit of a --

Edward L. Burnham:

Of a Stearman.

Gary Swanson:

During training?

Edward L. Burnham:

During training.

Gary Swanson:

And how about the, what's that a corn crib up there?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's back on the farm. That was the hen house. That's a picture of me with my mother and father when I was an aviation cadet. I was up in Massachusetts, and I think I had gotten a weekend off to go.

Gary Swanson:

Okay. And then that top picture. Who are those three boys?

Edward L. Burnham:

Those are my two older brothers and myself. My youngest brother wasn't born then. And that's on the front, by the front stone step by the front door to the farmhouse.

Gary Swanson:

And then we've got the --

Edward L. Burnham:

And the same thing over here.

Gary Swanson:

Yes, and then we've got the Flying Fortress there dropping bombs.

Edward L. Burnham:

And this a the picture of me in the cockpit of the B-17. And the picture above is just back in Massachusetts. We didn't, we just had some orientation, we didn't have any training. That's me as an aviation cadet standing next to the plane. This is an interesting chart. It pinpoints all of the airfields in England that were used by the 8th Air Force Unit. It's bombers, the B-17s, the B-24, the Fighters, the P-38, the P-51. And just to show the scope of how many airfields.

Gary Swanson:

So in the eastern part, most airfields were probably within ten miles of each other, weren't they?

Edward L. Burnham:

Oh, yes, some closer than that. This is East Anglia. If you got up and looked down you could see airfields all over the place.

Gary Swanson:

So, if you made it back over the White cliffs of Dover, you were bound to find the landing strip somewhere?

Edward L. Burnham:

You bet.

Gary Swanson:

Okay. And now I want to go back and get you in that Stearman again. That's a good shot of you.

Edward L. Burnham:

Yeah, this is --

Gary Swanson:

And then I'll shoot, I'll move over to there, yes.

Edward L. Burnham:

-- the instructor would sit in the back. You would sit up front, there I am sitting up front and --

Gary Swanson:

And he was checking you out. And then how about the your Adjutant General?

Edward L. Burnham:

The Adjutant General in Connecticut, General Walsh, is pinning on my, when I received a promotion to Colonel and the one above is the Adjutant General who succeeded him. Just before I retired, he presented me with the Air Force Accommodation Medal in a ceremony back in April.

Gary Swanson:

And you served as the Assistant Adjutant General to the State of Connecticut for years and years?

Edward L. Burnham:

No. I served in the VFW as an Assistant Adjutant General, that was the term of office but, my assignment in the reserve program, I was the Air Force Liaison Officer assigned to the Adjutant General in Connecticut

Gary Swanson:

I see. I had that wrong, but you had an affiliation, a relationship with the State of Connecticut for a long time?

Edward L. Burnham:

Yes.

Gary Swanson:

Well, the last one I'm showing here, I'm sure Ed, was a delight, the Certificate of Retirement showing that you were a Colonel in the United States Air Force and left on the 28th day of August, 1979 after a career of 37, I believe it was years in the Army Air Corp, in the Air Force?

Edward L. Burnham:

That's right.

Gary Swanson:

Well, Ed, it's a great growing up, a great military career, great civilian career. You had a, you're having a wonderful life, an extraordinary runner. And still running races at your age all over the world, but I'm sure one of the highlights of your life was serving in the U.S. military. How did you feel about one's obligation to serve his country and to do what his superiors tell him to do?

Edward L. Burnham:

I, it's something that I think everyone should have an opportunity to do in some capacity or another. When I think back upon it, in World War II, we were all young, very young and we came from all over the country. We came from every background that there is and became a fighting force. In our case, we became a combat crew. And although it was a dangerous life, it's the service part of it, the service to your country, I think is something that everyone in their lifetime ought to have some opportunity to do. It might not be wartime service, it might not be military service, but it might be a service on a school board, which, incidentally, I did back in civilian life in Connecticut, but some sort of service to their fellowman is important for everyone. I think we'd all be better off if we experienced it. And I think today after 9/11, has brought that back to a lot of people that have gotten away from it. I think it's the feeling again in the country that service to country is important.

Gary Swanson:

Well, Ed, you've had an extraordinary life. Actually, in so many ways, you've been a blessed man. I want to thank you very much for this interview, and I want to thank you for your service to our county.

Edward L. Burnham:

Well, thank you. Thank you for doing the interview. I appreciate it.

Gary Swanson:

You're welcome.

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us