Short Story | They Called Me Sarge

Author : Alene Lorraine Burnett Reaugh

Although I have always had a good relationship with Dad, we never really discussed his military career. Last year, I visited him at his home and he hauled out a box of old photos from the attic. As we went through them, he started telling me stories about his military experiences and I ask if I could have copies of the photos. He said, “Take whatever you want.” After I returned home, he sent me a beautiful military photo album to complete for him. I did and the process left me wanting to know more.

I knew those wonderful photos of his service in the Navy and Air Force for over 35 years were just the tip of the iceberg. This led to long phone conversations, and the following are some of the stories of his military life as he told it to me over the past few months.

It was April 6, 1924 that Dad, Orville Darrell Burnett, was born at home in a one-room shack built by his dad and granddad in Osage, Oklahoma. He said that the last time he was there it was still standing. He was about 13 when his mom and dad separated. He then went with his older brother and three younger sisters to live with his Dad and Mrs. Owens in Drumright, Oklahoma. “Her name was Fanny but we had to call her Mrs. Owens” he said. She was the housekeeper who also watched after the kids.

His dad and granddad owned an auto mechanic shop in Drumright. One day a man came in and said his car needed fixing “real bad”, but he didn’t have the money to pay for it. The man said he had a sousaphone and offered to trade it for fixing his car. The trade was made and the instrument was given to Dad. “I went down to the school,” he said “and they only had three sousaphones so mine made four. With mine, each flank would have two of them. They didn’t care if I knew how to play they just told me to learn how to march.” So now, sporting a military type uniform, he played the sousaphone in his school marching band.” I only went through the eighth grade, that’s all anyone did in those days,” he told me defending his decision.

At age 16, he was ready to leave home and see the world.
He knew he had to be 17 to join the Navy, but he went to the recruiting office anyway. However, being 17 wasn’t enough. They still required him to have his parent’s signature, so he took the papers to his dad and asked him to sign them. His dad immediately noticed he lied about his age and told him there was a mistake on these papers. “You were born in 1924 not 1923,” his dad said. He responded quickly “Oh that doesn’t make any difference,” but his dad said “yes it does; you lied to the man.” He rarely got away with anything because “dad could read me like a book,” he said “and he made me go back and apologize.”

Ship 001_editedThe recruiter said Dad appeared to be a fine young man and if he came back with his father when he turned 17, he would sign him up. He only had to wait four months and on his birthday, he joined the Navy. This was the beginning of a military career spanning three wars.

As I looked through the photos of him as a sailor in Hawaii, it was hard to believe that just a few months before, he was that young boy playing his sousaphone in the school band. He had gained some maturity in those few months, he said, and was looking forward to his time in the Navy.

One picture shows him in full dress whites sitting on a Harley motorcycle. He explained to me, “Some guy bought that brand new in 1940 in San Francisco. The bike was smuggled onto the ship, but when they arrived in Hawaii, it was discovered. The guy decided to leave it with his friends in Hawaii who allowed all servicemen to use it when ever they wanted.”

When he joined the Navy he was assigned to a “kiddy cruise.” That’s what they call it when you join at 17. It was hard work being a sailor, but there was so much to learn and so much to see, it was worth it, he said. Just eight short months after entering the Navy, he was engulfed in the horror of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was the event that brought the United States into World War II. Two thousand one hundred seventeen, of which fifty seven were civilians, died that day. “…a date which will live in infamy,” as declared by President Roosevelt. It is also a date immortalized on Dad’s right arm in the form of a Tattoo reminding us to “Remember Pearl Harbor, Dec 7, 1941 Kaneohe Bay.”

His first assignment was on the USS Procyon, a ship named for the star in the constellation Canis minor, meaning “Little Dog.” They were at Pearl Harbor between November 18th and the 24th, but had returned to California. They were entering Mare Island Navy Yard when they heard the news of the Japanese attack. They received emergency orders and then went on to San Francisco to obtain blood plasma and medical supplies. Then they proceed to Hawaii to aid in the recovery from the bombing.

The ship remained at Pearl Harbor until the first part of January, 1942 and then she returned to San Francisco “…and commenced round-the-clock loading of fighter planes and their marine pilots destined for Pago Pago, Samoa.” There were three trips in all before beginning to transport troops and equipment to Pearl Harbor. “It looked like we were losing the war,” he told me “until Midway.” The Battle at Midway June 4 thru June 7, 1942 turned everything around. The United States had weakened the Japanese Navy substantially and they were never able to recover.

After the Midway battle, Dad was assigned to a PBY Catalina Flying Boat to aid in the rescue and assist downed aircrews and other survivors. This may have been what inspired him to become a fighter pilot later in his career.

He married my mom August 8, 1944 in San Francisco and my brother Daryl Lee was born the following year September 2, 1945. After four years in the Navy, Dad was discharged March 16, 1946. Like his dad and granddad before him, he started up an auto mechanic business. By the time I was born on March 13, 1947, he was feeling he really wanted to go back in the service. My mom encouraged him because she said he needed to be “regimented.” He told me, “I didn’t think that I needed to be regimented but I was happy to return.” I am sure he must have enjoyed the camaraderie of the men and women in the military. In addition, the military offered a decent living, allowing a good way to provide for his family.

Instead of going back into the Navy, he joined the Air Force. He was sent to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois where he studied to be a Flight Engineer. He was away from home for about a year while attending this school. My mother told me that of the five years they were married, they only lived together just a few months. In 1949, she asked for a divorce so that she could move on.

Dad served throughout WWII and although it had ended, his military career continued. On July 31, 1950, he married Rita Gese from Spokane, Washington and the following day he was shipped off for Korea. He served during the entire Korean conflict, which ended in July 1953.

After Korea, he flew the “The Distant Early Warning”, (DEW) line which was the “…primary line of air defense warning of ‘Over the Pole’ invasion of the North American Continent.” He flew B-29’s, the plane they called the Superfortress with a maximum bomb load of 20,000. He also flew B-52’s, known as the Stratofortress. The Stratofortress was a, subsonic, long-range strategic bomber capable of launching a wide range of bombs. There were planes in the air at all times flying the DEW line.

One picture that caught my interest was of a plane sitting with its nose on the runway. I asked him about this one and he told me the following story:

“I sent a new member of the crew up to change a light bulb. These bulbs were enclosed in a wire covering. The airman removed the screws and changed the bulb. He lost a few of the screws in the process but failed to tell anyone.

Prior to landing it was discovered that the nose landing gear was jammed, apparently the ‘lost screws’ had fallen into the mechanism. We were unable to safely land the plane at night as there were no lights or stars and the headlight on the plane would only project about 50 feet. Without the nose landing gear it was just too dangerous. There was another problem, the amount of fuel that would be needed to stay in the air until day break was more than we had.

The crew worked hard to come up with a solution and finally figured a way for the plane to be re-fueled in the air. The B47’s lined up and then took turns fueling the KC135 all night long. This was the first time a KC135 took on fuel from a bomber. At day break we landed the plane safely on its nose.”

At Goose Bay, in Labrador, Canada, the temperature was usually around -17 degrees Fahrenheit. The aircraft were lined up, heated and ready to go 365 days a year. Dad said, “Thousands of Air Force personnel around the world spent Christmas and New Years on alert listening for the klaxon horn they hoped would never go off”. This was SAC, the Strategic Air Command on alert and ready to defend. He explained that since we were not on speaking terms with Russia, this was to “show” them that we meant business. We were ready to retaliate if necessary. If they bombed us, we would bomb them.

He has many stories I am anxious to hear them all. The following is another one:

Greenland Refuling 001_edited“We had some bad experiences while flying in the Artic. One in particular happened in about 1955 when we were flying a KC 97, a four-engine tanker, from Rapid City, South Dakota to Thule, Greenland. We were just 70 miles from Thule, when we discovered we had a runaway propeller. It was going so fast that it was just screaming like a wounded eagle and passed the speed of sound. The propeller was 16 ft long, a foot wide and lightweight because it was hollow. We tried everything, but couldn’t get the damn thing stopped.

We hesitated to freeze the engine because it was very dangerous with the propeller going so fast. If you stopped it suddenly it would stop with such a jerk that it could tear the front end of your engine loose. Then the propeller would walk across your airplane cutting holes everywhere that it hit. You can’t just turn the engine off; you have to freeze it by closing the gates, which cuts the fluids and hydraulic oil, then shutting down the engine. We had 33 passengers on board all huddled in the tail of the airplane, so we had to do something. These things were all taken into consideration.

Finally, I told the pilot that I have done everything I can do; there is no way to stop the prop and there is nothing left to do but to freeze it. He said to freeze it, so I did. The propeller was built like a wing and because it was so lightweight, we got away with freezing it. I forgot those props were lightweight and we lucked out in having them because they didn’t make such a jar when they stopped.

The pilot was great he never once raised his voice. Some of them were screaming and carrying on ‘do something, do something’ and this guy just sat there and the only time he raised his voice was to make sure I could hear him over the screaming of the engines.

So we got thru that, but then we had another problem. When we started out we only had enough fuel to make it into Thule with a small reserve. When you lose an engine and are running on just three, you use more fuel than you would with four. So then we were low on fuel and there was extra drag on the propeller as it was just tethered and it was like hauling a 32 sq ft plate out on the wing. It was slowing us down; we were only doing about 140 mph and that bothered us.

We could have lost 35 people if we had gone into the water or tried to ditch it. We couldn’t ditch the plane because going into a frozen sea would be like diving into a brick wall. We couldn’t bail out as we would freeze to death in a minute in the icy water. Anyway, the only thing was either to ditch it or bail out, either way was suicide.

But, we landed safely into Thule about midnight with the fuel lights blinking. We pulled into the hanger and proceed to the mess hall. I was not the least apprehensive while it was happening, but when it was over I was shaking like a leaf.”

As Tech Sergeant in the 310thAir Refueling Squadron he was awarded a certificate “for his dedicated personal and professional contributions to the effectiveness of the SAC Deterrent Force during the Cuban Crisis October 22, 1962.”
After many years in SAC, he “got out.” He retired October 1, 1963 and was transferred to the Reserve of the Air Force.

In 1965, he was invited back into the Ready Reserves. As part of the Reserves, he became an Air Reserve Technician flying cargo missions in and out of Vietnam. He flew into Vietnam with cargo planes bringing in airplane parts and supplies. “They would shoot at us”, he told me, “but they never hit us. We flew into Taipei and then into Nationalist China where we were safe”. Their safety was due to a coalition between Nationalist China and the United States. “I never told Rita where I was going because I didn’t want to worry her,” he admitted.

He worked half of his time in the Reserves as a civilian and the other half as a GI. He said he got a few more privileges as a civilian. He could stay in the officer’s quarters where they had better accommodations, and still wear his uniform. In addition, the civilian job paid a little more.

He received an Honorable Discharge from the Air Force and officially retired once again on July 25, 1973 as Master Sergeant O.D. Burnett; “they called me Sarge,” he told me.

He and Rita finally settled down near Fort Worth, Texas. The kids were growing up and there were marriages and grandbabies to celebrate. Whenever they felt like it, they took off on trips all over the United States. They wanted to see every bit of this beautiful country that he had spent all these years defending.

He and Rita celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and renewed their vows in 2000. There were six children, and now ten grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

He does not consider himself a hero, “I was just doing my job,” he told me, but in my eyes and that of the rest of the family, Dad is a real hero.

Thank you for protecting us Sarge.