BY BRYAN PAINTER, THE OKLAHOMAN
(for Oklahoma Press Association)
WASHINGTON — Retired U.S. Army Col. John R. Burks of Paul Valley will not only talk about the three wars he served in, he embraces the many friends and family who supported him along the way.
Burks is legally blind, but the 91-year-old sees the world clearly with his heart.
Burks, who served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, was among 82 veterans taking Wednesday’s Oklahoma Honor Flights trip to the nation’s capital to visit the country’s war memorials.
In World War II, Burks flew 40 missions as a ball turret gunner in a B-24 bomber. Then in Korea, he was a communications officer and artillery battery commander. In Vietnam, Burks served as a deputy corps artillery commander.
There was that night in World War II when Burks never got to see the second reel of “Saratoga Trunk,” starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Instead the crew loaded bombs and took off from “North Field on Guam” headed “to Iwo.”
In his book, “A Fair Share of War,” the Pauls Valley resident wrote that more than four hours later they were on their bomb run, “caught in the search lights from Japanese anti-aircraft units below and damaged by flak from the accurately placed ground fire.” During the Oklahoma Honor Flights, Burks expounded on that night.
“Through the entire flight, there were the realities of being so isolated at high altitude and one engine out and another one not too healthy out of the four,” Burks said. “It was meaningful to me to see how effectively our ‘Lucky Dog’ crew worked together to get us back. I mean everybody, the pilot, the co-pilot, the engineer, the assistant engineer, everybody was doing the best they could under the circumstances and I appreciate it very much.”
Eventually, the crew got one of the two failed engines working again and they made it back.
Did he ever see the end of “Saratoga Trunk”?
“No, I’m a little superstitious,” he said with a laugh. “My daughter bought me the tape years ago and I’ve never played it because of that fateful mission when I didn’t get to see the end of the movie.”
The trip this week also brought back memories from a day during the Korean War, that Burks said could have been his last.
“We were well into the northern reaches of South Korea,” Burks said. “We were trying to reach the northern rim.”
From his position in the valley, Burks saw hundreds upon hundreds of enemy troops moving south down the ridge lines.
The attack soon began.
Burks and his driver left their vehicle and “dashed into a rice paddy on the west side of the evacuation route to the south.”
“Running toward the incoming rifle fire from the flank, I was attempting to reach the base of the ridge line high ground. Not many battles are won, or survived, in a valley,” he said. “Halfway to my objective, a concussion mortar round landed to my immediate right front. The blast cart-wheeled me into a hole created by an earlier mortar burst. I was upside down, deafened by the blast and held but a single thought.”
Burks and wife Rose Marie were expecting their first child. Burks wasn’t giving up. He regrouped and along the way “picked up a score of enlisted battlefield stragglers.”
Several different forces came to help and Burks and the others reached safety.
“It took a lot of teamwork on everybody’s part,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for that.”
The wheelchair lift of the bus eased Burks to the sidewalk at the World War II Memorial in Washington. As soon as the wheelchair touched down, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David L. Cole leaned in to hug Burks.
In the mid- to late-1960s, Cole was a young captain assigned to Burks at Fort Carson, Colo. But the Burks and Cole families became close. Daily, Cole calls Burks, “sometimes it’s just for two minutes just to see what’s going on, sometimes it’s longer.”
As Cole hugged Burks in Washington, he said, “I love you” and Burks replied, “I love you more.” Then Cole pushed Burks’ wheelchair to the Oklahoma pillar and on toward the “Freedom Wall.” They were joined by one of Burks’ daughters, Lynn Sisney, of Windsor, Colo., as well as Cole’s wife, Connie, and their daughters, Staci and Tiffani. The Coles live in the Washington area.
“We’ve often joked that we believe our families share the same DNA,” Cole said. “We all became one family. He was a tremendous leader and is a tremendous family man.”
Connie Cole said she believes Burks’ influence made her husband a better person, which made him a better husband and father.
“It’s sort of like knocking over dominoes all lined up,” Connie said. “It just passes on in a very good way.”
David Cole joked with Burks at one point that he would push him in the water at the memorial.
Burks was asked if Cole would have done that 40 years ago.
With a big smile, Burks said, “If he had, he wouldn’t be a general.”
Burks married Rose Marie Alexa on July 31, 1949, in Junction City, Kan., near Fort Riley.
“I had just finished officer candidate school,” Burks said as the Oklahoma Honor Flights trip Wednesday included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
Rose Marie died Oct. 31, 2007, and is buried at Arlington. Burks will someday be buried there as well.
On Wednesday, Sisney commented to her father, “There isn’t any prettier place that I’ve ever seen for a final resting place.”
“Or a prettier lady,” Burks added.
Sisney then remarked, “It’s such a place of honor, too.”
Her father replied, “She deserved that honor more than anyone.”