'Little Brother'

My father was always self-deprecating in describing his Army stint in World War II; he said more than once that he "went in a private, and after five years I came out a Private First Class." From this, and his never mentioning combat -- he said, minimally, that they "heard some shelling" a couple of times -- I assumed as a child that his wartime was entirely out of the line of fire.

Like other good East Texas boys of all races, my father dashed off to enlist after Pearl Harbor, like both of his brothers, and both of his future brothers-in-law. My late Grandmother Burns was lucky; she had three sons and a son-in-law at war, all of whom came home unscratched. Her notes to her son John overseas, along with those of his father, are a delight to read. Once she sent the homesick soldier some snapshots of his cat, in an era when photographs were more of an extravagance than now, inscribed by the cat. His father conveyed in a letter that the cat (named Eenum, for some reason) was still "too lazy to catch a rat or a mouse, but is always available to drink his bowl of sweet milk at milking time."

I was always personally happy that Daddy hadn't been at -- for instance -- Anzio; he had done his part in giving five years to his country, no small sacrifice out of a young life. Afterward, he was always anti-war ("There are very few things worth going to war over"); both my parents opposed the Vietnam War long before it was hip to do so. Of course, his vivid but strictly non-combat-oriented anecdotes about his experiences overseas must have been screened for children's ears.

So only in the funeral home was I asked, by one of my uncles, whether I'd ever heard about "Little Brother." No, I hadn't.

My father was stationed in New Guinea back then, in the Signal Corps (52nd Bn., Team A-4, 1201st Service Unit at the time of his discharge, Army, #18 030 737).

Part of the Signal Corps' job was to put up communication poles and string lines between them. So one day, my father was up in a tree stringing a line. His part of the job done, he jumped down. The next soldier to go up was a young guy -- even younger -- whom they all called "Little Brother." While Little Brother was up in the tree, a Japanese sniper got him.

He fell out of the tree. In my father's arms, he asked, "Am I going to die?" As my uncle tells it, my father said, "Yeah, Little Brother, you're gonna die." The younger man asked, "Well, will you go to my parents and tell them what happened?" My father said he would.

I cannot tell how much time elapsed 'til my father's demobilization (3 Jun 45; height 5'11"; weight 130 lbs; "Longevity for pay purposes: 4 yrs. 7 mos. 17 days"; "Mustering Out Pay: Total $300. This payment $100."). I do know that Little Brother was from either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh (my relatives can't remember which), and the day after he came home to his own parents in East Texas, my father got on a train to Pennsylvania and took the message to Little Brother's parents.

IN MEMORIAM: John Wilson Burns (Sept. 3, 1922 -- July 7, 1997).

Margie Burns writes from Washington, D.C. Email

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