When Fred Burnham, Jr. considered enlisting, apples were only 24 cents a pound and donuts were only 10 cents a dozen! If that doesn’t put a time line in perspective for you, his father, who had the foresight to suggest Fred enlist, was born in 1875. His father loved to read and had some college education.
In 1937, Fred was a junior in college. “I came through the front door and my dad was in his rocking chair.” He said, “Fred, if I were you, I’d seek something in the military. It would be better to enlist than if they draft you! Sure as I am rocking, we’re going to be fighting the Japanese!” Fred credits his father’s sharp intuition on being a ‘student of the news’.
Fred went into the National Guard in l937. He graduated from college in 1939. The 123rd Field Artillery Band, 33rd Infantry Division, Illinois National Guard and the 222nd Field Artillery Band of the 40th Infantry Division of Utah were called into Federal Service in 1940. Fred became a Warrant Officer in l940. He had played trombone and had experience directing a band in college and because of this experience, Fred was put in charge of the band as Chief Warrant Officer.
“The band was made up of some of the same kids I played in the sandbox with!” Fred played all over the country. Once, he and the band played for Sergeant York, a World War I famous soldier. They played for parades, ceremonies, drills, concerts and several bond drives, including one with a well-known opera singer, Lucy Monroe, at Memphis, Tennessee. We lined up all the jeeps in a big V formation and a dot—dot–dash at the bottom point. Her manager came by and said we want the Star Spangled done in A Flat. So I had to tell everyone to change it from B Flat to A Flat, and she had trouble singing it, which made quite a splash in the newspaper.” The headlines read ‘She came through! but it’s difficult to sing anyway.’ Fred also has a newspaper clipping from April 24th, l942 when the band had played at a funeral. The headline read, “Funeral of the Last Confederate Soldier.” “Out of the group of 81+ soldiers, we put together two field marching bands and two dance bands. We traveled all over the place.
The 106th performed maneuvers in Louisiana, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. On a firing range in Tennessee, Fred, with an intuition as sharp as his father’s, had asked his regimental commander, a West Pointer, “You know, my band isn’t always going to be able to play. Can you get me an officer that has been in combat that can give us training? He did. He got a guy who was fabulous. We got the equipment and he set up a mayhem pit. Wehad two teams and we had to throw each other’s team out. This training saved a lot of lives. Infantry bands, for the most part were annihilated. We were lucky. We had two guys hurt, but we didn’t lose anybody. I was fortunate. So many didn’t make it out!”
“As we later prepared for overseas assignment, I was given the orders to reduce the band to 56 soldiers. That was so difficult because it meant I had to cut some of the friends I grew up with. I took half from a group of guys in the band from Utah and half from my band. They didn’t need me tootin’ anymore and the other Warrant Officer was one month my senior, which made me surplus. So, they made me Division Exchange Officer. I took five of the boys with me and we handled supplies for about 40,000 troops.”
On November 10th, 1944 they left Camp Miles Standish to board the USS Wakefield out of Boston to where they docked in Liverpool, England on November 17th. On December 2nd, 1944 they boarded the HMS Cheshire and waited for nightfall. The troops waited just off the French coast due to rough seas. They took rope ladders down to the landing craft. Fred recalls being on a river for awhile before being loaded onto trucks. On December 7th they rolled toward Belgium by night. The rain had turned to snow.
There were a bunch of times I was frightened. The most was when I was at the rear echelon at Vielsalm. The Belgium Bulge was just starting and German troops were coming in mass through our division lines. Believing it to be a quiet zone, the command had put all 3 combat teams (infantry and artillery) on line in place of 2 teams on line and 1 in reserve. The Germans cut between teams going behind 1 and 2, killing or capturing all. When the enemy came to our rear echelon they by-passed us, intending to capture or kill us later. It also had been assumed that since we were in the Schnee Eiffel the enemy could not move fast towards us. We learned, however, that the fire lanes through the forest had been built with concrete covered with dirt. The same tactic used by the Germans in WW I.
“My brother, Carl, was back at the rear echelon. He had been put in charge of a unit of combat engineers, but for some reason he was back with me…..I don’t know why.” He said, “I’ve got to get back to my platoon,” and I pleaded with him to please stay; we were 4 or 5 miles back. He left.
On his way back to the platoon, my brotherwas captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. He was 180 pounds going in. He was 90 pounds when he came out!”
“In 28 hours we lost 70% of 14,000 men. About half were captured. The treatment they got was horrible.”
Fred explains, “The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s last push. German’s came through the forest. You can’t imagine the noise and what looked like flames from the shells bursting. The first of their ground troops, coming behind the tanks, were literally mowed down. Some were old men, kids; and some were women. It was unbelievable! These were their citizens. The cement under mud and dirt, I mentioned earlier, was developed after World War I, with the intention it would be used again. Germans had excellent tanks. Much more rapid fire than what we had. Their tanks would come roaring through the fire lanes, going boom, boom boom very rapidly, much faster than ours.”
Fred continues, “My father found it hard to understand why, while I was stationed in Europe, I couldn’t find Carl. After the war was closing down, I got word that Carl was leaving for home. He’d be flying out or going aboard a ship. I talked an artillery observer pilot into taking me from Germany across Switzerland into France. I remember flying over a man with a horse-drawn plow working below us. As we got close to him, he hit a land mine. It almost turned our plane over in mid-air. The pilot flew back to see what was left. All we found was part of the plow and the front of the horse. The man and the rest of the horse were gone. By the time we got to Le Havre, the ship Carl had boarded had been gone for two hours. Probably a good thing I didn’t see him at 90 pounds.”
“We stumbled into a camp where the German’s were holding Jews. You can’t imagine what those people looked like. We were moving, at the time since the infantry in front of us were pushing the Germans back to the East. We had a heck of a time trying to help the people and handle the guards who readily surrendered. They were free to go as we moved on.”
“Towards the end of the push to the East, we picked up many of the German soldiers. Sometimes they would run right up to you. We put a fence up in a field, and put them in there. Dug a trench or a latrine and we would throw rations over the fence for them. They weren’t any trouble. In fact, sometimes I would grab a couple of them to help load supplies.”
“I remember an important incident at Vielsalm. I jumped in a foxhole as the Germans were coming down the road. We expected we had to fight or surrender.The Germans had determined that we were practically defenseless, having only a Salvation Army trailer and only one machine gun. They by-passed us thinking they could pick us up later. After the Germans passed I was standing near a bush when a man’s head came through without a helmet—he quickly told me that the 82nd Airborne was here to get us out, which they did.”
Fred admits, “I stole a car once in Germany. The Motor Pool Sergeant, Otto, who had grown up near where we were, seemed to like me very much. His mother lived about 10 miles from where we were.” The Jeep assigned to me got rough to ride in so I thought I’d like to have a German car. I said to him, “Do you know where we can pick up a car?” He said he knew where the Nazis lived in this small town. So we went over to one house where a doctor lived and knocked on the door. We had him open the garage door to see his car. On this car the front doors opened back and the back doors opened towards the front. The headlights were on the fenders, but one fender had been smashed. Even so, Otto said, “That’s the car you should take.” But I wanted to keep looking so we went on. Soon we found another, but the owner had taken the wheels off. We went back to the first car. By the time we got back, the doctor had taken one wheel off. We made him put it back on…..it wouldn’t start so we had to drag the car back to Bad Ems, where I was quartered. Overnight, Otto had the car painted and had put my numbers on it. The next morning, at breakfast, the Provo Marshal sat down at my table and said, “Burnham, you wouldn’t know a Corporal and Second Lieutenant who would have gone to a nearby town and gotten a car, would you?” “Nope,” I said. You see, the Major had intentionally given the wrong ranks. I used that car until I came home… However, there was a G-4 that I had to constantly fight because he wanted the car. Every time he came to try to get the car for himself, Otto would have taken something out of it so it wouldn’t run. Otto’s mother made a small stuffed elephant which I later gave to my baby daughter, Susie, who was born in 1942.
“I was getting ready to come home when I was suddenly declared “essential” to the ETO for entertainment. That meant three more years in Europe. We were at Le Havre and I was saying good bye to my boys. They thought they were going to Japan, but instead they were going home. A Jeep pulled up and the Chief of Staff, Colonel Baker, asked meif I wanted to go home. “You’re damn right!” I said.
He said: “Keep your mouth shut and do as I tell you. It isn’t fair after all you were assigned to do, to hold you here.” They loaded everyone of Division Headquarters Officers alphabetically and they missed me. I thought the plan had failed when I looked up and saw Colonel Baker coming down the gangplank. He said to the officer checking us onboard, “Son, how come this man isn’t up there?” Then he said, “Get out of the way, boy.” When we got on deck he told me, “I am making you Chief Clerk for the General Staff. I don’t know what you will be doing, and you don’t know what you will be doing. But, you will be going home.” When I got to the separation station in Wisconsin, the guy I dealt with was a guy I went to college with. He asked me what I was doing there. I said, “Going home!” He said, “OK.”
The Commanding General of the Division presented the Bronze Star to me. I was set to receive the Legion of Merit, but I didn’t want to wait around for it. I wanted to go home!”
Fred had graduated from college in 1939. He had married his sweetheart from school in 1940. He was teaching school prior to being called into service. Although he had no intention of going back into teaching when discharged, the Superintendent from the school district egged him on. The Secretary of State had built a huge home which the Superintendent said now was owned by the Treasurer of the School Board.
“We went through this huge house and the owner asked if he bought a new ice box and a new coal feeder if $25 a month would be too much rent. So we took it….it was quite a home. I taught for one year, went to Washington University, St. Louis, got my Masters. Then I got the job as principal of the high school. Two years later, I became Superintendent of the District. The District covered 104 square miles.”
Eventually, an attorney, a math teacher, and I founded a company that consulted schools on big bond projects. We did about 1800 projects in Illinois. Publicity that helped us get jobs came from a project where we sold bonds for 3% interest, while bondsmen in a neighboring district where Illinois Power and Light provided most of the school taxes, sold for 4%. As a result Illinois Power and Light sued their district which provided good publicity for our new company.”
Fred did consulting work for 24 years, moving to Marco Island in 1984.
His first wife passed away in 1980 and he remarried in l984, when his second wife, Priscilla, according to Fred “caught him.”
What are some of Fred’s best memories of his time in service?
PLAYING IN THE BAND, OF COURSE.