Army of Mom

So this is how liberty dies ... with thunderous applause.

11.11.2004

One of the greatest generation - WWII vet speaks at local Veterans' Day event

Today, I was fortunate enough to spend 30 minutes freezing my keester off and attend a Veteran's Day event on our downtown square. The 30-mph northerly winds made the temps feel much colder than they were and I hadn't planned on attending, so all I had was a lightweight coat. But, I figured if these vets, currently military and the featured speaker - an 86-year-old WWII vet - could get out there and weather it (pun intended), so could I.

I'm grateful that I did it, too. Retired Master Sgt. George Burlage spoke with great humor - if you can imagine it - of his more than six years as a POW held by the Japanese. At his conclusion, there was a 21-gun salute by a local VFW chapter and the ROTC units from the two local high schools participated, as well. I missed the introductions and first 10 minutes, but was glad I came. Below is his picture from a story in the newspaper today.


Below is the story from the local paper:

Retired U.S. Marine George Burlage of Denton remembers the creeping feeling of inevitable defeat during the early days of World War II. His poorly equipped battalion stationed in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese less than five months after Pearl Harbor, leading to his 40 months as a prisoner of war.

"They continuously shelled us night and day," he said. "All we had was old-style rifles to repel the landing. They hit us that night, and by noon the next day, we were through. They just overwhelmed us."

Burlage will talk about his wartime experiences at a Veterans’ Day ceremony on the Courthouse on the Square lawn at 11 a.m. today. The public is invited.

Burlage, 86, joined the Marines in 1939 and was stationed on Corregidor in the Philippines for two years. He was scheduled to be rotated back to the United States when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The Japanese immediately attacked the Philippines, and on April 9, 1942, the troops at Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. The American forces on Corregidor held out for almost a month before surrendering on May 6. After the surrender, Burlage said the Americans were kept on the island for two weeks before being moved to a large POW camp on the mainland and eventually put to work building two airfields. They were forced to work barefoot, dressed only in "G-strings" and straw hats, using nothing but wheelbarrows, hand tools and shovels, said.

"We would work all day to try to hack down a 100-year-old mango tree," he said. The prisoners were rousted at daylight and fed some watered-down rice. They were given more rice in the field at noon and then marched back at dark and fed rice again.

"The same thing: rice, rice, rice all day," Burlage said. "There wasn’t much of it, but it was rice."

Because of the inadequate diet, he contracted dengue fever and came back with beriberi, he said. Two main groups of workers on each end of the field worked toward the middle, he said. The POWs sabotaged the project by banging on the survey stakes to throw off the levelness of the field, he said. The POWs were put to work with small concrete mixers to pave the runway a few yards at a time, and they sabotaged the cement by altering the mixture, he said.

"It was more like a veneer instead of a good pavement," he said. "It looked good, but it wasn’t strong."

At the ceremony opening the field, a transport plane landed on the runway carrying a Japanese general to speak at the dedication.

"It was a beautiful landing, but as it went along, it started sinking into the runway," Burlage said.

The field was never used, he said. American bombers hit it before an investigation into the sabotage began, and the POWs were loaded onto a small coal ship and taken to Japan by way of Formosa.

"I’m not exaggerating: They put us standing up, shoulder to shoulder, back to breast, and you could not move," he said. "The officers that were there complained, and they were told they were being taken out to the breakwater to be put on a big ship. That wasn’t true."

Only the strong POWs survived, he said. The others died of thirst or gave up.

"Their bodies were pulled up and thrown over in the China Sea, and we had room to sit down after a while," he said.

The convoy was hit by American submarines the third day out, but the ship the POWs were on wasn’t hit. They were on the ship for 38 days, he said, but they were fed only a ration of rice about seven or eight days of that, he said.

"I remember at the very last, we were rationing out the water by tablespoonfuls, mess kit tablespoonfuls," Burlage said.

The ship landed in Formosa, and the POWs were marched to a schoolhouse to be housed while waiting for a ship to Japan.

"We were so weak — we walked out, staggered out, crawled out," he said.

They could only walk 100 yards at a time, he said. After a couple of weeks, they were shipped to Japan. In Japan, he was put to work as a driller in a lead mine, and treatment improved, he said, even though it was cold. Burlage said the POWs in Japan knew a date had been set for their execution: Nov. 2, 1945, before the American invasion of the Japanese mainland. The dropping of the two atomic bombs that ended the war saved their lives, he said.

Death rates among POWs held by Japan were 40 percent, the highest of any war the United States has fought. At just over 6 feet tall, Burlage weighed 195 pounds when the war started. He weighed almost 100 pounds when it ended. Burlage credits good luck and being in the right place at the right time for his survival. "I was lucky. I was always doing a lot of thinking," he said. "It seems like I was always a step ahead of them."

He was sent home in September 1945, and he married in 1950. His wife, Willie Mae, died in 1995. He has a daughter and two granddaughters. After his enlistment expired, Burlage rejoined the Marines and worked as a combat correspondent during the Korean War for Leatherneck magazine. After he retired in 1959, he attended North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in political science while working for the Denton Record-Chronicle from 1960 to 1963. He went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration as a public information officer in 1963, and retired 20 years later.

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The story, itself, is not very well written in my opinion. But, this man's story is incredible. He spoke very matter of factly about these things in his speech and I'm glad to have heard him.

5 Comments:

  • At 1:51 PM, November 11, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Damn, wish I could have made it to this.

    Army of Dad

     
  • At 2:06 PM, November 11, 2004, Blogger Army of Mom said…

    I thought about you and how you would have appreciated being there. That is one reason I sat out in the cold and attended. If you couldn't be there - I'd be there for you.

     
  • At 4:22 PM, November 11, 2004, Blogger Uzz said…

    It is pretty frustrating for me sometimes...my dad fought in both WWII and the Korean War...he stormed the beaches at Normandy, fought at the Battle of the Bulge, was taken as a POW by the Nazis in Belgium, was liberated several months later and then had to go help liberate concentration camps in Germany. You would think that would be enough, but after the U.S. nuked Japan, he was sent to Nagasaki to help in the clean up of that...he rarely spoke of his military life...it was too much for him...but after he was forced to retire from the military after 25 years, he never recovered and died in 1968 when I was a year and half old. I have talked to his brothers (two were in the Bataan Death March), but I would love to have been able to hear stories from my own father...but I salute him for what he did as part of the greatest generation!

    Uzz

     
  • At 8:54 AM, November 12, 2004, Blogger Astrosmith said…

    Wow that guy was really lucky. Just over six feet tall? There was a guy at the church I went to as a kid who was in the Bataan Death March. He said the japs heaped more abuse on the taller Americans, because they hated that their captives were taller than themselves.

    Reading this story reminds me of parts of Cryptonomicon. I guess Neal Stephenson got his ideas from men like this.

     
  • At 9:20 AM, November 12, 2004, Blogger Army of Mom said…

    It is amazing what the human spirit and physical body can endure and overcome. I was in awe of this man and he was so good natured, it just amazed me. I can't imagine giving up six years of my life. Really think about that ... and six of what should be your best years 19-25 or so? Wow. These men should be revered for having the fortitude to survive, if nothing else!

     

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