Cpl. William Edison Burns Jr. was born on August 3, 1919, to William E. Burns Sr. & Mary E. Merritt-Burns in Oak Park, Illinois. With his brother and sister, he attended the Field-Stevenson Grammar School in Forest Park and Garfield School in Maywood.
In Maywood, he lived at 808 South 9th Avenue and attended Proviso Township High School, where he was a member of the graduating Class of 1938. While a student at Proviso, he was interested in music, basketball, and ice skating. After high school, he attended college for a year before he was employed by the Continental Can Company in Chicago.
Bill was a member of the 33rd Tank Company of the Illinois National Guard and was called to federal service in November 1940, and trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
A typical day for the soldiers started in 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
In the late summer of 1941, at Camp Polk, Louisiana, the battalion took part in maneuvers. After the maneuvers, the 192nd was informed it was to remain behind at Camp Polk. It was on the side of a hill the tankers learned that they were being sent overseas. Many received leaves home to say goodbye to their families and friends, while those who were married or considered to be “too old” were given the chance to be released from federal service.
The decision for this move – which had been made on August 15, 1941 – was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
The battalion traveled west by train to San Francisco, California, where they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated. Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country. The ship repeated this event several times.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way.
The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents along the main road between the base and Clark Field. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He remained with the battalion until they had settled in and had their Thanksgiving Dinner – which was a stew thrown into their mess kits – and then he went to have his own dinner. After arriving in the Philippines, Bill was assigned to Headquarters of the Provisional Tank Group.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons which had been greased to prevent them from rusting at sea. They spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers in the coming weeks.
When war came on December 8, 1941, William was a member of the motorcycle reconnaissance detachment and was a dispatch rider assigned to carry messages to the 192nd Tank Battalion. As a member of this unit, he carried messages between the various companies of the 192nd. While under heavy enemy fire from enemy machine guns, aerial bombing, and artillery fire, he made numerous trips to the front lines units delivering messages and guiding other messengers. By doing this, he showed utter disregard for his own personal safety while performing his duties.
At some point, Bill was assigned to drive the jeep of Major John Morley of Headquarters, Provisional Tank Group. Morley who had arrived in the Philippines as a member of the 192nd now was liaison officer between tank headquarters and the battalion. Upon hearing the news, from Col. Cliff Williams of General King’s staff, that Williams was being sent to meet with the Japanese to negotiate the surrender of Bataan, Morley offered him his jeep to use. He also offered to have Bill, his driver, drive the jeep.
On April 8, 1942, Bill informed his friend, Sgt. Ray Vandenbroucke, who he had gone to high school with, that he had been selected to drive one of the two jeeps that were to carry the officers of General King’s staff to negotiate the surrender of the Filipino and American forces on Bataan. Since he did not know if he would return from this mission alive, Bill asked Ray to inform his parents that he had done his best during the Battle of Bataan. According to Vandenbroucke, Burns said: “Well Ray, I am driving the peep carrying our white flags of surrender up to the Jap lines tonight. If I do not return alive, tell the folks back home that I did the best that I could.”
The night of April 8, 1942, Bill drove the jeep which carried Col. Everett C. Williams and Major Marshall H. Hurt to notify the Japanese that General King intended on surrendering his forces on Bataan. Bill returned to the American lines with Major Hurt to bring the news that the Japanese were willing to accept the surrender of General King’s troops.
The next day, Bill drove the jeep carrying Col. Collier, a member of General King’s staff, to the meeting with General Kameichiro Nagano to discuss the terms of surrender. During this trip up the East Road, the two jeeps were attacked by Japanese planes. This was done despite the fact they were carrying white flags. Bill saved his own life, and that of Col. Collier, when he swerved his jeep sharply to the left as a Japanese plane strafed them. He continued to play this game of “cat and mouse” with the Japanese planes until a Japanese reconnaissance plane acknowledged them and kept the other planes away. No formal terms of surrender were given, Gen. Homa said, “We are not barbarians.”
After Bill returned to the tank group’s headquarters, Major John Morley wanted to find Capt. Alvin Poweleit 192nd’s doctor. He ordered Bill to drive him to Hospital #1, where Poweleit was. During the trip, Bill saw his first Japanese troops. He pulled the jeep into the Japanese tank column and followed them to the hospital. Since Poweleit could not leave until the evening, Morley had Bill drive him back to tank group command. Bill went to sleep that night wondering what lay in store the next morning.
On April 9, 1942, Bill became a Prisoner of War. Being that he was with the Headquarters Detachment of the Provisional Tank Group, he did not start the march at Mariveles. The members of the group were marched out to the main road near their headquarters on the morning of April 10. There, the enlisted men were separated from the officers. When they reached the road, they spent the rest of the day sitting and guessing what was going to happen.
That night they were ordered north. The march was difficult in the dark since they could not see where they were walking. Whenever they slipped, they knew they had stepped on the remains of a dead soldier. They made their way north while Japanese troops attempted to go south. Marching on the stony road was hard. At midnight, they were allowed to rest for an hour. When ordered to move, they marched until dawn when they were given another break.
When they reached the Lamao River, they could smell the corpses of those who had died two days earlier in the Japanese final push. In front of the members of the Provisional Tank Group were a group of Army Air Corps members. They broke from the ranks and drank from the river and filled their canteens with water. This would later be the reason so many POWs died at Camp O’Donnell.
The POWs made their way north through Limay. At Orani, the POWs were put into a bullpen which had been set up in a schoolyard. In one corner was a slit trench that was supposed to be used as a washroom. The surface of the pit was alive with maggots. It was also there that they received their first food.
At 6:00 P.M. the POWs were formed into 100 men detachments and began to march north again. When they were given a break, they were allowed to sit but they had stayed in ranks. When they got north of Hermosa, they were on a paved road which made it easier to walk. It began to rain which was refreshing for the prisoners.
The POWs continued north through Layac before daylight. They passed through Lubao in the morning and Guagua at midday. Many POWs fell out at this point. The guards beat the men, but if they refused to get up, they let me lay on the ground until they could continue or if they couldn’t, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando.
At San Fernando, the men were forced into another bullpen. This one was already filled with Filipino soldiers. The POWs were put into groups of 200 men to be fed. A couple of the POWs would get the food that was distributed to each member of the group. Water was given out in a similar fashion. That night, not all the POWs could lie down.
The POWs were awoken at 4:00 A.M. and taken to the train station. They were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known as “Forty or Eights,” because each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car. They were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas at 9:00 A.M.
The POWs marched the last few miles to Camp O’Donnell. Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse.
Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scrapped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. Sometime between April 12 and May 1, while a POW at Camp O’Donnell, Bill was one of 100 POW’s selected to be sent to Camp Olivas on a work detail.
The men on this detail were selected because they were in good physical condition. These men drove trucks down to Bataan to bring back vehicles that had been abandoned and disabled by the retreating Filipino and American forces. Each truck had a driver and three men assigned to it. The men would tie three vehicles together and tow the damaged vehicles to San Fernando. Each man would sit in a disabled vehicle and steer it. From San Fernando, the men would drive the vehicles to Manila where the vehicles were sent to Manila to be loaded onto ships bound for Japan.
While working on this detail, Bill was one of five men selected, by the Japanese, to be sent to the hospital because of illness. Bill and Charles Peterson, another former Illinois National Guardsman, were considered so ill that they were placed in isolation. According to Capt. Harold Collins of the 192nd, Cpl. William Edison Burns died on Friday, July 3, 1942, from malaria and yellow jaundice at Camp Olivas. The document written during the war at Bilibid Prison states Burns died at Camp Olivas between the 6 and 10-kilometer markers of the Apayao River.
After his death, Sgt. Bob Peterson and Pvt. Harry Noworul – both of B Company – convinced the Japanese to allow them to bury Bill, and Charles Peterson, outside of San Fernando. The two men carried his body over a kilometer from the town where they buried him in a secluded spot.
After the surrender of Bataan and Corregidor, the Burns family received a message from the War Department.
“According to War Department records you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Corporal William E. Burns Jr. who according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“We deeply regret that it is impossible for us to give you more information. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the war department. Conceivably, the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly of other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese government has indicated its intentions of conforming to the terms of the Geneva convention with respects to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the war department cannot give you positive information.
“The war department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as ‘missing in action’ from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is hoped that the Japanese government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At this time you will be notified by this office in the event his name (William E. Burns Jr.) is contained in the list of prisoners of war.”
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Corporal William E. Burns Jr. had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
For over a year, the family did not receive any news if Bill was a Prisoner of War. Because of this, they received a third letter from the War Department.
Dear Mrs. Burns:
“The records of the War Department show your son, Corporal William E. Burns Jr., 20,600,378, Infantry, missing in action in the Philippine Islands since May 7, 1942.
All available information concerning your son has been carefully considered and under the provisions of Public Law 490, 77th Congress, as amended, an official determination has been made continuing him on the records of the War Department in a missing in action status. The law cited provides that pay and allowances are to be credited to the person’s account and payment of allottees are to be considered during the absence of such persons in a missing status.
I fully appreciate your concern and deep interest. You will, without further request on your part, receive immediate notification of any change in your son’s status. I regret that the far-flung operations of the present war, the ebb and flow combat over great distances in isolated areas, and the characteristics of our enemy impose upon some of us this heavy burden of uncertainty with respect to the safety of our loved ones.
Very truly yours,
J. A. ULIO
The Adjutant General
The family of Cpl. William Burns did not learn of his death until May 15, 1945.
“=I AM DEEPLY DISTRESSED TO INFORM YOU REPORT JUST RECEIVED STATES YOUR SON CORPORAL WILLIA E. BURNS JR. WHO PREVIOUSLY REPORTED AS MISSING IN ACTION DIED 3 JULY 1942 IN A JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR CAMP IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS AS A RESULT OF YELLOW JAUNDICE PERIOD THE SECRETARY OF WAR ASKS THAT I EXPRESS HIS DEEP SYMPATHY IN YOUR LOSS AND HIS REGRET THAT THE UNAVOIDABLE CIRCUMSTANCES MADE NECESSARY THE UNUSUAL LAPSE OF THE TIME OF REPORTING YOUR SONS DEATH TO YOU CONFIRMING LETTER TO FOLLOW=
“ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENL.”
After the war, Noworul and Peterson drew a map so that Bill’s remains could be found and returned to the family. The Burns Family requested that Bill’s remains be returned to the United States. Since his father had moved to California, Bill was reburied at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in Section N, Site 2387, in San Bruno, California.
Cpl. William E. Burns Jr. was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. During the presentation at Proviso Township High School, in the school’s auditorium, the citation was read. It said, “For valor and heroic achievement in connection with the military operations against the enemy on Bataan, Philippine Islands, 8/9 April 1942. Corporal Burns made numerous trips to the front units during the above period delivering messages and guiding messengers while a heavy enemy attack was in progress. His utter disregard of personal danger in the performance of his duties under artillery and machine-gun fire and aerial bombing was an inspiration to all with whom he came in contact.”
During the dedication of the memorial to B Company, on May 17, 1959, Cpl. William E. Burns Jr.’s father received his Silver Star for meritorious achievement and gallantry in action.