(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12. Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).
Times were tough in the late Depression years when he graduated from high school in Shepard, TX, recalls Warren Coolidge Burrell who said he immediately joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He worked there only 18 months before joining the Army in 1940, beginning a 30-year association with the military.
Although the Japanese had not yet bombed Pearl Harbor, war in Europe had the United States military machine in readiness. Private Burrell was shipped to Fort Huaca, Arizona, for basic training, then got his first taste of Louisiana at Camp Claiborne where he took part in the Louisiana Maneuvers.
Burrell was serving at Jackson Air Base in Mississippi in late 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He had been assigned to the 93rd Infantry Division, attached to the 20th Airborne where he was a truckmaster in the “all-colored” outfit. The armed forces didn’t integrate until 1953,” he recalled. They were a support squadron, loading planes with bombs that were destined for Japan.
The Army then sent Burrell to Kessler Field in Biloxi, then on to Fort Bragg, NC. “They were training young men from Tuskegee as pilots…basic training for fighter jets. I was a platoon leader. I weighed about 220 pounds at that time so I was too heavy for the jets but did have about 20 hours flying time in the larger B-25 Mitchell bombers.
“I left there in 1942 and went to CBI…China Burma India…still with the 20th Airborne, that group that was flying the Hump to China. It took us 30 days by ship to go from California to Bombay. We were responsible for loading supplies and ammunition onto trucks and planes that were going to our forces in China.”
An NCO at the time, Burrell was in command of his group. He recalls that “Flying the Hump” did not refer to flying over the eastern Himalayas, for they are too high. The planes would fly through the valleys between the mountain peaks, a danger because of Japanese emplacements on the mountainsides.
In 1945 when the war ended, Burrell found himself sitting in Burma where he’d been assisting troops by sending supplies by way of the Burma Road. “I’d accumulated enough points to go home,” he said. He boarded the USS Callendar, bound for New York, and was pleasantly surprised to meet his brother George aboard as well. George had served with the 352nd Engineers in Iran. Burrell then headed back to east Texas for his discharge.
The young man who’d known the Army most of his working life decided it might not be a bad career choice and after a 30-day break, “I re-upped. I went to Fort Dix in New York with the 365th Infantry where I learned a little bit of everything. Cooking, baking, beef-cutting, police academy, military police, judge advocate. I went to NCO school for leadership. From 1952-56, we went over to Germany where I was a mess steward and inspector. Winter was hard in Germany…we were on the border with Russia.”
The soldier returned stateside to the more familiar climate of Fort Hood in Leesville, LA, where he was stationed when he retired in 1960. A few years earlier, he’d met Pernessa Pope who ran a place of business there in Leesville. She says, these many years later, “In his uniform, he looked good to me.” (“Oh, Lord! I wasn’t even 40 back then,” he added.) They married in 1958. After his retirement, they moved to her hometown, Winnfield.
Burrell logged an additional 10 years with the Army Reserve and worked a number of jobs here, including Esso, Mobil, Sabine State Bank and more. Starting with those 18 months with the CCC building bridges, roads, and roadside parks, planting trees and fighting fires, he figured, “I’ve been working all my days.”
Born July 25, 1923, this veteran is 88. The interview ended, the writer stepped towards the door to leave. Burrell quipped, “My wife is 104.” I smiled, assuming a joke as he looked at the spry young lady who’d added comments throughout the interview. “Yes, I was born in 1907.” Remarkable.
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