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Burns, Joseph L. - T/Sgt

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Modified on 2018/09/24 00:22 by Rick Kaufman Categorized as Combat, Personnel


Life before the War

I was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on February 2, 1923. After completing St. Cecelia's High School in Exeter, PA, I joined the Air Force on October 10, 1942 and was based with the 8th Air Force Group in St. Peterboro, England.

Service during the War

"Ordinary Men and Women - Extraordinary Times" by Mary Burns Surdy - September 2017 edition of the 8th AF News (Volume 17, Number 3)

During WWII, I was a Flight Engineer (Aerial Engineer Gunner 748) with the 8th Air Force 613th Squadron on the B17’s stationed in Peterboro, England. On December 1, 1943, our third bombing mission over Solingen, Germany, my crew members and I were forced to bail out of our B17 after three engines were shot out and the plane could no longer maintain formation or altitude. Several efforts were made to lessen the weight of the plane by throwing over supplies and weighted objects. The pilot, in the end, was able to reach safe ground due to this effort, however, the remainder of our crew had to parachute. After parachuting to safety (with a faulty parachute that had been run over by a jeep earlier in the day), I hit the ground and buried the parachute. During the desent, I was strafed three times by German MIG fighter planes. We, at first, we were taken to a farm where German farmers, who were American sympathizers, provided us with warm milk and pumpernickel bread. After making contact with the “underground”, we managed to escape for 11 days staying in Monasteries, Catholic Convents, retail stores and taverns. I was furnished civilian clothing and a fake passport using the name of “Willie Taskin” of Belgium. I used bicycles, trains, a meat delivery truck, and traveled on foot for transportation, all the while trying to escape. We were told to not speak any “English” and speak only when spoken to. Gestapo and SS troops were everywhere. At one point, I traveled for 24 hours in sleet, snow and ice in shoes from which the soles had become completely detached. I managed to get within a day’s journey of the Pyrenees Mountains traveling from France to Spain where I would have reached a neutral country and freedom. However, on December 11, 1943, I was captured by the Gestapo and SS Troops, beaten severely and kicked at the end of the spine. Our boots, what was left of them, were removed and were forced to march barefoot in the snow. I was taken to a local Civil Jail in France where I was imprisoned as a civilian and listed as a “spy” since I only spoke English, as well as because of my “upper class” civilian clothing and fake passport which had been previously provided by the underground. I was placed on a wooden stool and chained to a wall, received no food or water and only allowed to defecate and urinate in a bucket. I was then transferred to the Bastille in Belgium. At this prison, I was placed in the “Civilian Wing” and again listed as a spy. (During this time, I was reported “dead” in the Wilkes-Barre newspaper.) After 30+ days of solitary confinement and mistreatment, I was told I would go before the Firing Squad the following morning at 5:00 AM. That evening, a Catholic Priest heard my confession, gave absolution and I received communion. The following morning, I was shackled and taken by two guards to the courtyard and strapped to a post. Three guards stood ready with rifles armed. The prison Commandant, at that point, stopped the proceedings. I was then taken by three German Officers in a 1938 Ford to many of the places I had hidden during my escape. They wanted to know if any area was familiar or if I could describe the persons who had assisted me. I denied all and said I acted alone. I was then returned to the Bastille and three days later transferred to an Interrogation Center in Frankfurt, Germany. More interrogations and threats took place here. I was placed in the Civilian Wing and again listed as a Spy. Two days later, German officers assembled myself along with 80 other POW’s. We were loaded into a boxcar (approximately 12’ x 35’). At one point, we were strafed by allied aircraft. Using a very winding route for four days, we were making our way to East Prussia via the Baltic Sea. We assisted with the establishment a new POW camp at Keifheide (Stalag #6). We were, however, first held in a field outside the Camp for 24 hours in rain and snow. We were then taken individually into an interrogation building, stripped, all orifices searched, slapped around, kicked, spat upon and generally debased and humiliated. They were 80 POW’s who opened up this new Camp. I was elected to be in charge of Red Cross and YMCA supplies that would eventually reach us. While there, I was hospitalized with pneumonia. I was part of the plans for escape, putting together a radio each day. Over an extended period of time, various pieces of a German officer’s uniform were assembled by the POW’s. We watched one day as a POW outfitted himself and walked to the gates to freedom from the prison. I am not sure of results of his escape. Tunneling also took place during our tenure as prisoners. Germans Shepherds and Doberman Pinchers were used as Guard Dogs. When allowed to congregate under surveillance, I also helped with religious services. This camp eventually built up to 7000 prisoners. Due to the Russian Army advancing from the north, we were routed from this camp without notice and were told to take with us only what we could carry on our person. We were then marched to the nearest port and lead into the “hold” of a ship for three days. We had no food or a place to lie down while in route through the mine infested Baltic Sea. There were approximately 600 of us in the hold of the ship and we took turns standing and sitting. There was only one opening, about three feet square, to let in light and air. During this time, we received only buckets of water lowered by rope. After five days, we disembarked and were shackled in pairs and forced to “double-time” between a solid wall of soldiers, seamen, civilians and dogs to Stalag #4 Gross Tychow. During our forced march, my partner who was shackled to me fell to the ground. As I looked up, a German Officer was about to come down on me with a bayonet. Another officer put his gun in between his bayonet and myself and said “nein”. We were in such poor physical condition that many did not survive. After arrival at 3 Compound Camp, we discovered all the grass was eaten by former Russian inmates because there was no food. I was again placed in charge of Red Cross and YMCA and this allowed me to work in the German Vorlager, which helped me keep my sanity somewhat intact. The rooms held 16 prisoners and were shuttered from 4:00 PM to 7:00 AM daily. On February 2, 1945 (my 22 nd birthday) at 2:00 AM, guards came in and said we had one hour to evacuate the camp. We then started on the now infamous “Black Hunger March” – “Black Death March” for 95 days in ever diminishing circles throughout Germany. We marched at night and slept in fields during the day. Were strafed by both Allied and German aircraft, stoned and threatened by civilians as were marched through various towns. We were all quite ill and weak, at this point, receiving food only rarely and food that was intended for intake by livestock. Many of us suffered dysentery and were passing only mucous and blood as bowel movements. After marching 488 miles, were liberated by the British 2 nd Army near Halle, Germany. We proceeded to make our own way, unescorted through the lines as the War was still in progress. After a week at a British Outpost, we are air-lifted to Camp Lucky Strike near LeHarve, France. We were given physicals, which consisted of a BP, temp, visual and dental exams. We were deloused for we had not been able to wash for over three months and everyone had developed body lice, along with malnutrition and dysentery. Many of these fellow prisoners died from dysentery. We were placed on special diets to regain our weight and health. The Camp was overwhelmed by the number of POW’s and they were anxious to put us on the Liberty Ships back to the USA. We arrived in Fort Miles Standish in Maine and were then by transported to Ft. Dix, New Jersey. We were issued clothing and sent to our homes for 30 days R&R. I was eventually sent to Columbia AFB, South Carolina and put in charge of Enlisted Men’s records until 11-2-45 when I was honorably discharged, as I did not have enough “Points” to be eligible for discharge on an earlier date.

T/Sgt Joseph L. Burns flew 25 missions, from 11/26/1943, mission #1, to 06/12/1944, mission #89. He served as a Engr / Top Turret.

Recorded Missions

No Missions Found




Life after the War

I worked 37+ years in the Veterans Administration system upon discharge with the last ten years as Chief Medical Administration Officer at the VA Regional Office in Newark, New Jersey and the VA Hospital East Orange, New Jersey. Seven of those were years served as CMO at the VAOPC (Independent) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and two and one half of those years as Clinic Director.
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