Family Matters

From Mule Train to Aeroplane
From the story “World War II and A Burgin Family”
--written by Eddie Burgin, grandson of Robert Cheek Burgin

Earl Thomas Burgin was the oldest of Robert Cheek's sons still alive at the outbreak of World War II and he was serving his second hitch in the Army. Most of his first enlistment had been spent in Panama as a machine gunner in an infantry outfit.

#15234165 Earl Thomas Burgin
The son of R. C. and Nannie Bell Burgin

Earl recalls those days fondly, and tells stories of those early army days of walking the width of Panama with mules carrying the guns. Earl laughingly recalls that the mules were treated better than he and the other privates were. On long marches, he had to readjust the mules' packs during breaks and make sure they had water. Whether he got a chance to get water was not important.

Earl enjoyed his experiences in Panama, but left the army to return home to Forest City, North Carolina. Earl was still a private after three years, because the peacetime army did not have a rapid promotion system. He got a job in the mill, because there were very few other choices.

Earl was home for eighteen months, before he decided to re-enlist in 1940. This time he ended up in the artillery. He would go to artillery school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. With promotions coming a little quicker in 1941, he was made Sergeant and sent to Muscogee, Oklahoma to help set up Camp Gruber for the stepped-up training the U.S. Army was currently undergoing.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941 and President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and Japan, things began moving at a rapid pace. With no special training, or appointment, Sergeant Burgin was soon picking up fresh inductees at the train station in Muscogee and acting as a de facto drill sergeant.

In March of 1942 Earl would travel from Camp Gruber to New York City to pick up a soldier who had gone AWOL This would be the first of many experiences that Earl would have that seem to come straight from a Hollywood movie script. Two Southern boys travel to New York to take Pvt. Nove Demarco into custody and return him to camp before they ship overseas. On the journey back they allowed the prisoner to go unhandcuffed and the three stopped in juke-joints in St. Louis and Kansas City to have a beer or two, along the way.

Earl's unit, the 339th Field Artillery Battalion, 88th Infantry Division, left Camp Gruber for North Africa in the early part of 1943. The trip across the Atlantic took 21 days, as the ship's convoy zigged and zagged through the water to avoid German U-boats lurking in the depths. The 339th was too late to play a part in the North African campaign, but just in time to prepare for the invasion of mainland Italy. Earl recalls the troop ship taking them across the Mediterranean being shared with some French troops and a large number of Moroccans, perhaps as many as 5,000.

This coincides with the U.S. Army's Battle Campaigns series report. The 88th makes its first appearance in the Rome-Arno publication, "With the addition of two new American infantry divisions to the II Corps, the 85th and 88th, the arrival of the IV Corps headquarters, and the addition of the 4th Moroccan Mountain and French 1st Motorized Divisions to the FEC, Fifth Army strength was over 350,276 by late April,". By Earl's account they arrived in Naples in January.

The picture Earl paints of Italy is not one of a sunny Roman holiday. He remembers the bitter cold. The one incident that stands out particularly vividly for Earl was digging into the frozen ground along one of the winter lines. Sgt. Burgin was sent with his squad of four guns and 16 men to dig in for a semi-permanent position. The ground was as hard as concrete, so Sgt. Burgin, known for his ability to make deals, was able to procure some dynamite. His C.O. had expected the dig to take several weeks. Earl's squad was done in less than four days with the first two gun positions. They had two weeks to sit back and try to stay out of the cold.

Like many people who have been through the horrors of war it is the good times that Earl remembers. He now admits that much of it was tough, but he does not mention, for instance, the night of 15 May 1944. "By the early morning hours of 16 May, the II Corps and FEC had broken the Gustav Line at several points at the cost of 3,000 casualties, 1,100 in the 85th Division alone," (Rome-Arno, 19). Earl was in Rome the day before it was officially liberated. The 88th kept pushing northward, even though the invasion of Normandy now made the Italian campaign a secondary theater. The fighting in Italy, however, was not secondary. For the true color of the battle, one must look to the Battle Campaign series again.

The intensity of the combat of September and October 1944 had a detrimental effect on the morale, readiness, and capability of the Allied forces in Italy. The already critical manpower shortages in Fifth and Eighth Armies were becoming so severe that their commanders predicted that if they continued to lose men at the same rate, both armies would have to cease operations for lack of replacements. Between 10 September and 26 October, II Corps' four divisions had suffered over 15,000 casualties, with the U.S. 88th Division alone losing over 5,000 men (Apennines 24).

Earl does recall one harrowing incident, in which a German shell set the camouflage netting on the number 2 gun on fire. He left his position with the number 1 gun and helped as the crew of number 2 frantically tried to put out the fire on the boxes of explosives. One of his men was hit by a piece of shrapnel the size of a silver dollar. It entered the man's lower abdomen. Earl found the piece had come out the man's back, but had then stopped and was resting in the man's shirt. Earl tried to calm the man telling him he was the lucky recipient of a million dollar wound (one that sends you home, but does not kill you.) All the while, Earl thought the man was sure to die. Fortunately, he did not die. Unfortunately, the man's wound was worth something less than a million dollars. He was back with the unit in three weeks.

Earl made it through the 88th's record 602 days of continuous combat and was awarded the Bronze Star for
"Meritorous Service and Leadership."

The next, short phase of the war Earl would act as a military policeman with the rest of the 339th F.A. Bn. in Bologna. Just as in a scene from "Kelly's Heroes" or some other Hollywood version of the war, Earl found himself guarding a warehouse full of bicycles, hundreds of thousands of bicycles that the Germans had confiscated from Italian citizens. Earl and some of his buddies managed to make a nice sum of money in the sale of bicycles.

Rank, medals awarded and length of time in the theater put Earl on the list of those first to go home. Before boarding ship for home he stopped to get a haircut from a local barber. When he paid the barber in lira, the barber gave him change in dollars. When Earl asked the barber if he could trade any other lira for dollars, the barber readily obliged, eager to get rid of dollars and accumulate some of his own currency. The barber must have lived to regret this trade, as the lira lost all value and dollars became the only valued currency.

Earl's troop ship back to the U.S. was the first to travel unescorted since the war began. It made the trip in seven days, one-third the time it had taken the 88th to come over. This ship did not have to zigzag to avoid German U-boats.

Within two days of his arrival in Norfolk, Earl was discharged and on his way home to Forest City. Finding his wife Lou and daughter Judy in a new house, Earl quickly settled into civilian life. He worked for a short while at the mill where Lou had been working, but before long he applied for G.I. Bill money and went to electrician's school in Chicago. Working as electrician on nuclear power plants and other large sites, Earl and Lou moved to several different towns in the Midwest and back East before coming home to a comfortable retirement in Forest City.