Sunday, April 7, 2013

Miles S Burke, Forgotten Hero- Reposted in honor of Black History Month-

StM1c Miles S. Burke-1945
This coming April 6th 2014 will mark the 69th anniversary of the sinking of the Fletcher Class Destroyer, USS BUSH DD-529 after being hit by three Kamikaze planes off Okinawa. The Bush, her hull almost cut in two, soon folded and sank, taking almost one third of her crew down with her.

The story doesn't end there. I became aware of the story of the USS Bush, when I volunteered to help restore the USS Iowa BB-61 to become a museum ship in San Pedro, CA. One of the volunteers Jim Pobag, related how his step-father had been a crewman on the Bush, Jim went on to tell the story of that final encounter with a swarm of Kamikazes, and the heroism of the crew as they fought for their lives. But first, the back story of the Bush and how she came to that fateful day.

The USS Bush joined the war in 1943, and recorded the following service history, prior to April 6, 1945.
Between 29 July and 27 November 1943 Bush acted as a patrol and escort vessel in Alaskan waters. Arriving at Pearl Harbor 4 December 1943, she commenced operations as a patrol, escort, and fire support ship throughout the Pacific, from the Ellice Islands to New Guinea, the Philippines, and Okinawa. She participated in the Bismarck Archipelago operations, including the Cape Gloucester, New Britain landings and the Admiralty Islands landings (26 December 1943 – 31 March 1944); Saidor, New Guinea, operations (18–21 January); Morotai landings (15 September); Leyte landings (20–24 October), Luzon operation, including the Mindoro and Lingayen Gulf landings (12–18 December 1944 and 4–18 January 1945); Iwo Jima operation (19 February–9 March); and the Okinawa operation (1–6 April).
On 1 November 1944, while operating in Leyte Gulf, Bush splashed two of ten Japanese planes during a severe air attack. She was showered by flying shrapnel and suffered two men wounded.
On April 1, 1945 the Bush took up station off Okinawa as this brief history describes. On April 6th the Bush was attacked and eventually breaks in two and sinks.
USS Bush, right center, behind smoke after being attacked April 6, 1945

I really became intrigued, when Jim related the bravery of one crewman who, although cited for saving lives, seems to have preformed his duty far beyond what was required of any sailor, and perhaps, like another sailor who preformed heroically at Pearl Harbor, might have been overlooked for a higher award, due to his race.

The man was Miles S. Burke, StM2c an African-American who due to the segregated policies at the time could only serve as a mess steward. When battle stations were called, Burke was assigned to the handling room team on the after most gun mount #5. Burke due to his size and massive strength, was remembered by his team leader in these words.
Robert Aguilar, SKD2c, was in-charge of that handling room crew and he remembers Burke well. Aguilar says of Burke, "He had all the physical attributes to make him the perfect individual for the job. In addition, he had the mental, emotional and moral strength to handle the situations we got into without breaking down when we needed him the most. It was obvious that he was more valuable to us than he was to the crews that had the mechanical hoists from the magazine to the handling room. He never complained the about the hard work; he worked all alone; and I don't remember Miles asking to be relieved even for a short period of time." Aguilar goes on to note, "What a sight to see that big muscle-bound body, shiny with perspiration, stay on the job like he did that day in Surigato Strait when we were under air attack for several hours and the temperature got like an oven in the handling room area."
Burke was so fast that he out preformed the other gun crews and according to Jim's stepfathers account, made it appear that the #5 turret has an automatic loading system. When the ship was badly hit, Aguilar had a hard time getting Burke to abandon his station.
 "When we were called to come topside, I had a hard time convincing him that the order meant him also, he did not want to leave his post."
Once topside, Burke moved forward to the aft engine space, where he entered and began to carry wounded crewman topside to safety.
Former Assistant Gunnery Officer Hilliard Lubin, Lt.(jg) had this to say about Burke, "I do remember .... his actions going down into the afire engine spaces at least 3 or 4 times to bring up one burned snipe each time. I can still see his bloody feet, but then shoeless. Being as big as he was, and deck hatches down to engine spaces as small as they were, how he got through I find hard to imagine now."
Miles Burke's heroism does not end there, after leaving the ship, he uses his strength to hold onto two men by keeping them afloat for five hours until rescued. Burke's actions were noted by his commanding officer CDR Westholm.
"BURKE's battle station was in the lower magazine of 5" gun #5. When his gun became inoperative he came topside and aided in the care and moving of the wounded. He did this in the face of the repeated air attacks on the ship. When forced to abandon ship he remained calm and was a source of constant encouragement to his shipmates. For a period of five hours in the water and on a raft, he supported two men unable to swim and who had lost their strength and one of which was without a lifejacket, thus saving their lives. When alongside the rescue vessel he assisted in getting those who did not possess their strength aboard."
Westholm, recommended Burke for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal which is awarded for:

The Navy and Marine Corps Medal is the second highest non-combatant medal awarded by the United States Department of the Navy to members of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps. The decoration was established by an act of Congress on August 7, 1942. The Navy and Marine Corps Medal may be awarded to service members who, while serving in any capacity with the Navy or Marine Corps, distinguish themselves by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.
Miles S.Burke's who was also promoted to Mess Steward 1st Class, citation reads:
"For heroic conduct while attached to the U.S.S. BUSH following the sinking of that vessel in the vicinity of Okinawa, April 6, 1945. In the water and on a raft for five hours, BURKE supported two exhausted men who were unable to swim and one of whom was without a life jacket. His courage and perseverance were in keeping with highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
Read the whole history of the USS BUSH from their web page.

As noted above, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal was to be awarded for non-combat bravery, which given the actions of Miles Burke, seems to fly in the face of history, since the action of Steward's Mate Burke certainly took place during combat, and most likely had he been a white sailor, would have at least rated the Silver Star, or even the Navy Cross. Much time has passed and it appears that Miles S Burke's image and the account of his shipmates is our only link to his bravery. I think that the Navy would be wise to revisit his actions and consider him for a higher award, or at least special recognition during their celebration of Black American History Month in February each year. Miles S. Burke is one "Fullbore" sailor who personifies duty and bravery in the face of the enemy in the highest traditions of the U.S. Navy and deserved to be recognized again. I will forever be indebted to Jim Pobag for making me aware of this man's bravery, and that of his fellow crew members on the USS Bush.




Tommy Burgdorf said...

He did not die when the ship was sunk. Does anyone know what happen to him? His last US Navy Muster report after the bush was in May 1945 and he was being transferred to Receiving Station in San Francisco. I have many resources, but cannot find any information on him after that.

Charlottes Web said...

Miles S. Burke was my grandfather. I remember him proudly showing his honor and the letter from President Harry Truman. This article makes me proud that he and his heroism was not forgotten. said...

Charlottes Web

I am very honored to read your comment, and have been able to tell your grandfather's story. I would be very interested in making contact with you for the purpose of having the Navy review your grandfather's heroism as his bravery took place under fire and in combat which might make him eligible for a higher decoration. I tried to link to Charlottes Web, but looks like it is inactive.

Again, I am very glad to know that Miles has a family. His bravery is remarkable and needs to be remembered.

james pobog said...

@ Charlotte's Web,

It is my late stepfather who was on USS Bush. I knew some of the story most of my life, but it was not until I went to a Bush reunion in the late 90's that I learned so many details of the ship's sinking.

I have met Robert Aguillar and others who knew Miles Burke and what was so very interesting was how to a man, all of these old WWII sailors, none of them Black, spoke of Burke with a sense of awe and immense respect. He was almost mythical, a Greek hero of old, with super human strength and endurance. I was told that Tokyo Rose mentioned the Bush and the experimental automatic-loading gun it had. That automatic gun was Miles, his speed, his strength, and all his old shipmates give him that credit.

Working on Iowa as I do we talk to guests about the ships weapons, which include 5" guns like Miles helped operate. Officially, those guns fire at a rate of 15-20 rounds per minute. That is once every 3 or 4 seconds. In order to be noticed as something special, it means that Miles was enabling his gun to fire at more than 20 rounds per.

That is nothing less than spectacular. The man deserves a decoration much higher than the NMCM, and at that altitude, there's only a few to choose from...