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Recognizing the military service of men and women from Arenzville, Illinois.


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  Charles Burrus

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Charles Burrus was graduated from Beardstown High School with the class of 1933. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 11, 1941 and completed training at Fort Bliss, Texas. He was assigned to the Headquarters Regiment of the 515th Coast Artillery, an anti-aircraft unit formed in New Mexico and later stationed in the Philippines. It is one of the most decorated units of World War II.

On December 8, 1941, when the Japanese attacked American bases on the Philippines, Sgt. Burrus was stationed at Fort Stotsenberg, Clark Field, in the Philippines. The 515th/200th Coast Artillery was the "first to fire" upon the enemy. His family never heard from him after the war began.

The men of the 515th/200th Coast Artillery withdrew to Bataan and held out for several months against an unrelenting Japanese assault, awaiting reinforcements that never came. After the surrender of Bataan on April 9, 1942, Charles became one of the many thousands of men who endured the tragic and senseless 65-mile forced march to prison camps at San Fernando. Weakened by disease and starvation, many men died enroute or were brutally murdered by Japanese guards. Those who survived faced forty months of imprisonment or the horror of the Hell Ships, unmarked marked ships used by the Japanese to transport prisoners away from the Philippines. Of the 1,818 men in the 515th/200th CA regiment, fewer than 900 made it back home, and within a year, one-third of them died of various complications.

Charles was listed as missing in action, and for years his family knew nothing more. Desperate for any information, in 1942 his brother Jack wrote to family members of one of Charles's buddies whom he had met during a visit with Charles at Fort Bliss. The family replied that they had heard from their son and knew only that both their son and Charles had survived the forced march and were prisoners of the Japanese.

The next word arrived from the War Department, informing Charles's parents that on May 26, 1943 he had been declared dead. He had died on June 4, 1942 at Camp O'Donnell. A final telegram informed the family that the cause of death had been malaria, malnutrition and dysentery. His body was returned home, and he is buried in the Arenzville cemetery.

Not much more was known about the circumstances of Charles's final days until one day, about fify years after the war, Charles's brother Jack made a chance remark to a fishing buddy named Bob Howard. Here is Jack's account, from a conversation with Jack (JB), his wife Cele (CB) and Molly Daniel (MJD), recorded on July 3, 1999:

JB: Well, see I went to visit him [Charles] when he was down in El Paso at Fort Bliss -- I visited Chas. And on Sunday -- they had Sunday off -- this was before the war started, see -- we went over into Juarez, Mexico. Tom Welsh, Gunnar Sacson, Chas, and I and John Herbert and Boss Lovekamp. It was a separate trip that Boss and John and I took. We went over there to Juarez, Mexico, for Sunday. That was an experience, too.

But then, they went out to bases out in the Philippines, and, I had only met Tom and Gunnar, just once. They both survived the Death March. Just barely. Tom especially. He was in the hospital for a long, long time. But we could never hear anything from anybody. We didn’t know what happened. Sometimes Japs put out “died in prison camp,” but you never heard a thing. In fact he had died early in June.

Here we’re going to move fast-forward here. How many years ago would it have been up in Canada?

CB: Seven or eight?

JB: Oh, longer than that. It was before I retired.

CB: Yes.

JB: Maybe fifteen [years ago]. Anyway, we’d go fishing in Canada every year, and I met a fellow named Bob Howard up there who was a detective on the Chicago police force. Any at rate, he would be there when we were there, with Wib and I. Bob had been a pilot on B-24. And he’d been shot down and been a prisoner. So, every night after we had our supper, Wib, Bob and I would sit outside there and lie to each other about the war. About how each one of us won it individually – literally – by ourselves, and I thought we had heard all the stories in the world. One time, Bob said that “before I was in pilot training, I was in an anti-aircraft outfit.” I said that I had a brother who was in an anti-aircraft outfit. Unfortunately, they went to the Philippines and he survived the Death March but died in prison camp.

He said, “You know, my watch commander was in the Philippines and he survived the Death March. He came home, and his name is Tom Welsh.”

I dropped the knife that I was skinning fish with. And I said, “I don’t believe this!” And I told him, and he said, “Well, as soon as you get home Tom will be in touch with you.”

I wasn’t home at all till – I didn’t think Tom would remember.

He said to me, “You bet I remember our trip over into Juarez,” and he said, “I’m sure glad to get ahold of you.”

And the very next Memorial Day, why, him and Gunnar Sacson both came down. They came down every Memorial Day until Tom died. And Gunnar -- we’ve seen Gunnar up at his place in Chicago -- Gunnar has been here several times. I tell you, it was just unbelievable. Just a chance remark there – Tom was Bob Howard’s commander!

So that’s when we really got the details.

CB: And you should have heard those stories!

JB: Oh, boy, I’m telling you! They’ll curl your hair. In fact, Tom was telling one story about a snake crawled through the barracks, and a guy on crutches tried to get it and he couldn’t. But another guy did, and they killed the snake. Then they got into a fight over who was going to get to eat it. The guy on the crutches couldn’t move fast enough to get it, and the other guy did. I mean it was just unbelievable.

MJD: But they were able to tell you what happened to Charles?

JB: Yes. Yes. They were. Tom especially. I think Gunnar was in a different compound, a different barracks. But Tom said he would have to stand in line for eight to ten hours to get a canteen full of water. And he could only take back a canteen, and then he had to stand again to bring back a canteen full of water.

CB: He said he fed [Chas] his last meal.

JB: Yes. Fed him what little he could get him to eat, he said. Tom was a real nice guy. ...What they went through! I mean, here they are, weighing a two hundred pounds and maybe they’re down to 110 or less when they get home.

Gunnar admits that he had it easier than Tom. And the things they would do. Gunnar -- let me see if I’ve got this right -- It was against the Geneva Convention, but the Japanese put the prisoners to work for war industry. And Gunnar got put to work building a ship. He said he did two things: he said whenever they could, they would scoop up a little sand on their way to work and put it in their pocket. And then throw it into the bearings. That would do them in. And he said that the guys what were riveting sheets together always made sure that they didn’t rivet too tight. And he said, “The nicest thing that ever happened was when they finished that ship, they pushed it out into the bay, and this ship slowly sank in the water.” He said, “If they ever did figure out what happened, they didn’t punish us for it.”

MJD: It must have been satisfying for them.

JB: It was. He said that was a great day... when it slowly sank.

Above: Medals awarded posthumously to Charles Burrus.

Above: Gravesite of Charles Burrus in Arenzville, IL. (Memorial Day, 2014)

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Copyright 2005, Molly Daniel. This page last updated 05/26/2014.
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