The second in a twopart series
"It is the interplay of past and present that gives history its fascination," historian Alan Bullock once wrote.
During interviews for Gambit Weekly's two-part series on the 60th anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and the surrender of Japan to the United States (Aug. 15), local historians and veterans of World War II recounted themes of the Pacific War that are eerily reminiscent of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: Suicide attacks by a fanatical foe, brutal treatment of prisoners, horrific bombings of cities that kill and maim innocent civilians, militant nationalism, allegations of racism, and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) diagnosed in American veterans returning home from war.
Indeed, as the National D-Day Museum (www.ddaymuseum.org/calendar) prepares a series of lectures and panel discussions on the Pacific War in conjunction with the anniversary of Japan's formal surrender Sept. 2, two Louisiana National Guard units are preparing to leave Iraq and return home to their anxious families. When it comes to living with love and war under one roof, there are arguably no more senior local experts than World War II veteran Philip Burst, 90, and his wife, Ruby, 85, both of Metairie.
Inside the Marine Corps League hall in Kenner, there's a party going on. Elderly veterans of World War II back-slap and playfully rib one other. On the back wall of the hall, a huge mural of the Marines erecting the American flag at Mt. Surabachi, Iwo Jima, oversees tables of refreshments and yellowing scrapbooks of the war. Long tables are festooned in patriotic red, white and blue -- paper mache tablecloths, settings and birthday cake. Star-shaped balloons hover over each table bearing the numeral "90."
Philip Emile "Phillie" Burst, born on July 21, 1915, is the guest of honor. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other veterans at the front of the hall. Cameras flash. The aging warriors frown, again determined and purposeful.
A native New Orleanian and second-generation roofer, Burst joined the U.S. Army Air Force and eventually became sergeant. Noting his civilian experience and skills at cutting various metals for rooftops, the military sent him to various training schools around the United States before putting him on a track for a special mission.
His only overseas assignment came in late 1944. He was sent to the Pacific island of Tinian, then a roughly six-hour flight from Japan aboard the lumbering American B-29 bombers. While stationed on Tinian in 1944-45, he and a sergeant built a rack out of heavy aluminum that was placed under the Enola Gay. The rack would cradle the atom bomb until the crew of the B-29 was ready to drop it on Hiroshima.
In the early hours of Aug. 6, 1945, Burst, then a corporal, and one other man, Sgt. Leon C. Vincennes, loaded the atomic bomb aboard the Enola Gay for its fateful flight into history. When the B-29 returned to Tinian that night, Burst says he saw aerial photographs of the damaged city.
"I felt sorry for them really," Burst says of the more than 100,000 people killed in the blast. "Sgt. Vincennes and I helped to load it. We made the brackets in our shop."
To veterans like Burst, however, President Harry Truman's decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. They say the bombings, which followed the firebombings of 69 other Japanese cities, hastened the end of a war against a suicidal Japanese foe -- ultimately sparing more lives than the nearly quarter of a million people who died from the atomic blasts, including the unintended cancers and other deadly effects from radiation.
"If we wouldn't have dropped this bomb, we were going to lose plenty men if we invaded Japan, because they (the Japanese) were fanatics -- they wouldn't give up," Burst says.
For example, when Americans first landed on Tinian, some 50 Japanese civilians -- frightened by propaganda about American atrocities -- climbed on bicycles and sped off a cliff, plunging to their deaths. Historians say Japanese culture then regarded being taken prisoner as a shameful act -- so shameful that suicide was considered an honorable death.
During in his stay on Tinian, Burst survived strafing and bombing attacks by Japanese Zeros. He witnessed Japanese kamikaze attacks on American vessels off the coast of Tinian and the neighboring island of Saipan, as well as numerous crash landings by American B-29s returning to Tinian from conventional bombing runs over Japan. He also heard the distinctive radio propaganda reports of Japan's notorious "Tokyo Rose," aimed at demoralizing American troops far from home.
Burst listed the Japanese air raids on Tinian and the nearby island of Saipan in a journal. The first entry was Dec. 9, 1944; the last, Dec. 29, 1944. He then stopped counting the enemy air attacks. There were relatively few in 1945. "After we dropped the atomic bombs, we didn't get any raids," he says.
In an interview at his Metairie home, Burst's eyes brim with tears as he cradles a scrapbook and recalls the crash of a B-29 that killed all 10 crew members aboard. "When it come in (to Tinian), I was working close by," he says. The plane hit a coral rock at the beginning of a runway and exploded, scattering body parts and splashing fuel everywhere. Ambulances and ground crew raced to the scene, fearing the fire would spread to other planes parked nearby.
"It shook me up for awhile because I helped to pick up all them bodies," he recalls. He became sick. "It was a terrible ordeal, real bad. That's the worst experience I seen."
Burst says he was so traumatized by the B-29 crash that could not look at any war movies when he first came home. The adverse symptoms soon "passed over." He was evaluated at the local Veterans Administration hospital and received a small disability pension. He now takes aspirin for occasional headaches, he says.
Burst is a model for combat veterans, from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to government health experts and representatives of local veterans groups organizations.
Burst is among 400 of 1,000 surviving World War II veterans from the New Orleans area who were belatedly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- often 40 to 50 years later, according to Jay Walsh, a regional official with the Louisiana Department of Veteran Affairs.
"When they came home they got married, had kids and went to work for 50 years," Walsh says. Their PTSD symptoms generally resurface after retirement, illness or the loss of a spouse.
Some veterans are still "too proud" to accept treatment (and pension benefits) for service related to PTSD, Walsh says. They continue to suffer from such symptoms as lack of sleep, nightmares, startled responses, isolation and recurring thoughts of tragic events.
Madeline Uddo, director of the PTSD program at the federal VA hospital in New Orleans, says veterans of World War II tend to "minimize" the effects of PTSD more than veterans of other wars, though their anger and resentment may persist even though Germany and Japan are now America's allies. "Many will not buy products made in Japan ... or Germany," Uddo says of local World War II vets.
Albert Allain, a mental health professional who directs the local VA's PTSD program for former prisoners of war, says he has not seen a new patient from the Pacific Theater-era in nearly 10 years. Of the 16,000 American POWs who returned from Japanese prison camps, 76 percent were treated for PTSD. Allain recalls interviewing some local PTSD patients who were imprisoned in Japan at the time of the atomic bombings.
"Several POW camps were in close proximity to the atom bomb drops," Allain says. "They knew something was up. They heard the blasts. Some saw the effects of the blasts."
After Japan surrendered, U.S. planes would drop food to POWs until they could be rescued by occupation forces. Historian John Toland reports that 23 American POWs died at Hiroshima, including one who was beaten to death by an angry mob of survivors.
"Phillie" Burst may be the man of the hour, but his wife, Ruby, has no trouble holding the room.
At 85, her hair is beautifully coiffed. Her skin is smooth and unworried. She laughs easily and often, untroubled by her wheelchair, the constant companionship of a pacemaker for her ailing heart or by the green oxygen tank that helps breath life into a failing lung.
Diabetes has robbed her deep brown eyes of her sight, but not their beauty. "I am not in constant pain," she politely reassures a visitor.
While time has taken a toll on her health, her peppery wit remains a formidable foe. She sighs when she hears her husband is reminiscing about the war again. "When he first came home from the war, he didn't want to talk about it at all," she says. "Now, it's all he talks about. You'd think he won the war by himself!" She smiles at her own joke.
She is ready to upstage the war and its somber summer of 60th anniversaries, by reminding a guest of the superior longevity of love over war -- in her case, anyway.
"We got friends that have been married longer than us, but there are not many," she says. "Neither one of us was hard to get along with. We argue more now that we are older. I have to keep his adrenalin going."
Serious for a moment, she recalls the day she heard the news of the first atomic bomb. It was Aug. 7, 1945, the day after Hiroshima. Phillie was stationed on the island of Tinian. Ruby was alone in New Orleans, watching a movie inside the Downtown Joy theater on Canal Street.
Suddenly, car horns began blaring outside. People ran inside the darkened theater, screaming the news. President Truman had announced the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
Everyone ran outside of theater and onto Canal Street in celebration, she recalls. Strangers hugged and kissed "like it was New Year's Eve." Ruby wept "tears of joy." She was not alone.
"We all went outside and cried -- we all knew our men was coming home," Burst recalls.
However, Ruby's man would not come home until January 1946. Phil Burst, then 30, had left Tinian in late 1945. He hoped to be home to his 25-year-old wife by New Year's Eve. His homecoming was unexpectedly delayed when the soldiers' ship put in at San Francisco Harbor.
"There was a (longshoreman's) strike and they wouldn't bring the ship to dock," Ruby recalls, still incredulous. "You believe that? They (troops) risk their life and they do them that? Some guys were jumping off the ship to swim to shore."
While her husband was in the service, she had been working in the spinning room at Lane's Cotton Mill, a four-block factory Uptown on Tchoupitoulas Street, between Valence Street and Napoleon Avenue. "I worked for 10 cents an hour," she says.
During the war, she worked 12 hours a day, six days a week and lived with her mother, who lived three blocks from the mill. The mill made cloth for military uniforms, especially the khakis. "I quit when Phillie's ship came in," Ruby recalls. "He was gone a year and half."
When Phil Burst finally got ashore, he took the train home to New Orleans. His parents went to meet him at the train station. Ruby stayed put in their Uptown home, however. His train would pass two blocks away and she knew she would see her husband first. The train slowed at Dufossat Street for a crossing. He tossed his Army duffel bag to a waiting buddy, then hopped off. Sgt. Philip E. Burst then hurried home to his waiting wife. "It was love," Ruby says, her voice softening. The war was over.
The Bursts settled down and raised two daughters, Myra and Phyllis. Phyllis lives in Kenner. The couple lives with Myra in a neatly furnished home in Metairie. The family has a cockatoo, Goldy, and a cat, Hunter.
Phil Burst says he still corresponds with Vincennes, the former sergeant who helped him load the atom bomb onto the Enola Gay. "He is now in his 80s and living in a nursing home," Burst says.
Ruby says she doesn't think about the war -- not as much as he does. She does not have to go that far back for some of her favorite memories.
For her 70th birthday, she recalls, Phil bought her a bicycle. "I never had a bicycle in my life," she says, still marveling. "He bought me a three-wheeler with a big basket on the back." After a heart attack left her disabled, the kids in the neighborhood would borrow it. They would ride around the suburban streets, with music blaring from a "boom box" that fit in the back basket, she recalls approvingly.
Philip can no longer drive. When he can get a ride, he likes to go to church functions, off-track betting parlors and veterans group meetings, including the Cooties, a military order. "They dress in red and white and wear a goofy hat," Ruby says, laughing. "They call themselves 'the mudbugs.' They got a big crawfish on the back of their hats. Men never grow up -- they are little boys."
Later, she is asked if she is still in love. She pauses. "It's either love or old age!" she says, laughing again.
CORRECTION: In last week's cover story "A Trumpet Summit," we misspelled the name of jazz musician, educator and producer Harold Battiste. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.
- Donn Young
- Philip Burst, shown with his wife, Ruby, cradles a scrapbook and recalls the crash of a B-29 that killed all 10 crew members aboard. "It shook me up for awhile because I helped to pick up all them bodies," he says. ";It was a terrible ordeal, real bad. That's the worst experience I seen."