Family Matters

Wings Over Forest City
From the story “World War II and A Burgin Family”
--written by Eddie Burgin, grandson of Robert Cheek Burgin

Robert Cheek and Nannie Bell Burgin were like many other couples in the foothills of North Carolina. They had a strong faith in God, and were known to be pillars of their church. They had a strong work ethic, and put in long hours in the fields after a hard day in the mill. They also had a strong belief in, and love of family.

#1523416 Robert Cheek Burgin
The son of John D and "Neely" Burgin

Robert Cheek Burgin, known to most people in Forest City as R.C., was born just 20 years after the end of the Civil War. He was born into a family that had a long heritage in the mountains and foothills of McDowell County, North Carolina. He married Nannie Bell Harris in 1909, when she was just 16 years old. Neither of them had more than an eighth grade education, although both read voraciously.

They moved to the small mill-town of Forest City in search of work. R.C. worked in the mill, but saved his money so that he could buy his own piece of land, own his own house, and farm. He was able to move his family out of mill housing, and had forty acres of his own. This put the family at least one rung up on the socio-economic ladder of the mill village of Forest City.

While R.C. still worked in the mill, his children did not live in mill housing. Long before two-income families were the norm, most women in Forest City worked outside of the home. They had to. Nannie Bell, however, stayed at home. She worked on the farm and was busy birthing and raising their eleven children.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and Japan, R.C. was skeptical. Like many working-class people, R.C. was an isolationist. Much of his opinion about the war was formed by his favorite source of news, The Grit, a national weekly magazine. The war had nothing to do with the United States, especially not the portion of the United States in which he lived. Roosevelt was in cahoots with the big business interests up North, and this was their war.

There was no way R.C. could forsee the real way in which the war would touch his family. Two of his four sons (Earl and Fred) would serve in the war in Europe, and a third (Wilbur) would leave home to begin officer-pilot's training before the war was over. Examining this family gives an incredibly insightful look at the effects of the war on America as a whole, and in particular, on one ordinary, poor, rural family in Forest City, North Carolina.

Following Is A Short Story of Fred Burgin's Wartime Experiences:

The oldest of R.C.'s boys still alive in 1941 was Earl Thomas Burgin. Earl was already serving his country. He had served three years in the Army, but would later re-enlist. Fred Lovelace Burgin was, in many ways, the complete opposite of his older brother Earl. Where Earl was enterprising and outgoing, Fred was patient and soft-spoken. Earl left home at a young age to join the army and reenlisted when it sounded like war was on its way. Fred decided to stay put until he was drafted. Once drafted, however, Fred went willingly and was soon on his way to Camp Croft, S.C. in early 1942.

Fred recalls his first year of training in the U.S. in vivid detail. He was selected for the Army Air Corps and was placed in a B-24 bomber group. He was sent to Willow Run, Michigan to become familiar with the newly produced "Liberator". He received certification May 28th 1943. From there, they would travel to New York and pick up one of these new bombers.

By 1943 Fred was a sergeant and the crew chief for his plane. In the Liberator this meant he was the flight engineer in charge of the six enlisted men that complimented the four officers, who served as pilot, copilot, navigator and bombardier. As flight engineer, he held the upper turret gunner's spot. Flying in these bombers was no luxury. "A four to six-hour mission in the stratosphere was a physical and mental ordeal for those who took bombing altitude, with air rushing through the open waist gun positions, the temperature was 50 degrees below zero,"(Nalty & Berger 25).

Late in 1943 as the plane was headed south in order to leave the U. S. by way of Florida, Fred's pilot asked if he would like to buzz by his house. Many of the local residents thought that Forest City was being attacked that day as the big bomber flew over the farmhouse on the outskirts of town.

The plane continued on down to Florida. They then headed on down to Brazil and then across the Atlantic to North Africa. After a brief layover, they flew into Italy. According to the "History of Cottontails" on the 450th Bomber Group's official web site, the bombers landed in Manduria throughout the month of December 1943. Fred must have been on one of these planes.

Fred would have little time to get to know Manduria. On March 19, 1944 Fred's plane would fly a mission over Vienna. According to World War II; The Encyclopedia of the War Years, it was the day the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force bombers (made) the first air attack on Vienna. (Polmar & Allen 36). Vienna was an industrial center, as well as a cultural capital.

#15234166 Fred Burgin MIA Notice
Appearing In the Forest City News

Fred's plane had dropped its bombs, but was hit by flak and brought down. For a more detailed account of the downing of Fred's aircraft ( click here! ) Upon hitting the ground and finding his bearings, the first person Fred encountered was a Brit. "Tallyho, Yank! Your pilot's all right. The Krauts will be along to pick you up soon." This was his first welcome to enemy territory; a British airman who was allowed to roam freely in Austria. It is another scene that makes the absurd Hollywood versions of World War II seem not so absurd.

Fred was taken to Frankfurt for interrogation then on to East Prussia for internment in Stalag Luft IV. It is a period that Fred does not dwell on now. It was not as bad as some would imagine, he says. He acknowledges that Japanese prisoners of war were treated much worse, but it is something he does not enjoy reliving.

Stalag Luft IV was located near Grosstychow just south of the Baltic Sea, perhaps one hundred miles west of Danzig. In January of 1945 the Germans decided that the camp must be evacuated because of the advancing Russian army.

Fred and others were put on a ship that sailed west on the Baltic. Fred felt more vulnerable at this time than he had since he had entered the war. A ship sailing under a Nazi flag was surely a target for Allied bombs.

The ship made it safely to port where they disembarked and began marching. They must have gone somewhere near Wismar and started marching south towards Berlin, because they ended up following the Elbe River.

Fred never did find out their intended destination, because one day the German guards surprisingly handed over their weapons to the American POWs and fled into the woods. For several weeks Fred and his fellow airmen were on their own. They feared trying to approach German civilians so they just kept walking until they eventually ran into American troops. They were fed and given some shelter, but the artillery unit they was heading east and Fred's group wanted to head west, so they continued walking.

Fred does not have a liberation day that he can point to on the calendar due to these very strange events, but in the first or second week of May 1945 they made it to Camp Lucky Strike. This was a processing camp for displaced servicemen. They were processed and shipped home.

Fred went back to Forest City to find his wife, Frances and three year old son, Fred, Jr., waiting for him. After a few months of out-processing and treatment he settled back into civilian life. With the money he had saved and been given by the Army, Fred bought a nice house and some land.

Fred had three children by Frances (Hudson) Burgin: Fred Lovelace, Jr., Myra Ellen and James Kelly. Frances Burgin died May 7, 1956 due to a miscarriage. On April 14, 1962 Fred remarried. His second wife was Doris Jean Hunnicut. Fred and "Dot" had no children.