A History of the Burns Family
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PART NINE: World War Two  

Chapter One: Love and War, Redux

Fort Lewis, Pierce County, Washington
December, 1943

1 - Love and War
2 - Battle of Fort Lewis
3 - At Fort Benning
4 - Night at Lake Ames
5 - Betty Matlock
6 - Home Front
7 - At Fort Jackson
8 - Shipped
9 - Thanksgiving
10 - The Saar
11 - Bulge at Moircy
12 - Bulge at Bonnerue
13 - Bulge at Esternach
14 - April Fools

More Information

Dear Family, [1]

[Whitman classmate Bob] Turner and I arrived within the main gate at 12:36 p.m. I made special note of the time because this fact will undoubtedly have an eventual historical significance. Emblazoned across the door of the reception office is the slogan, “Through these doors pass the world’s finest service men.” Considering ourselves as somewhat lesser lights among the human race, we entered with some trepidation, fearing that perhaps there was another office of “snafus” and “gafus” [god-almighty f***-ups] such as us – for by no stretch of the imagination could be conceive of ourselves as fine servicemen or even reasonable facsimiles of the same…

To date Turner and I have been treated with special consideration. We have been segregated in all phases of the processing procedure from the some forty-odd men that arrived the same day. It seems strange to see us walking in rank from building to building, forty in one group led by a pfc, Turner and I alone being led by a corporal. This is due to our ERC [Enlisted Reserve Corps] status compared with their draft status. Whether this is significant or compensation for some special kind of hell we will have to endure later I don’t know.  Only time will tell.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of efficiency is Army mess. Some twenty minutes before mess – this name is pure symbolism – a large queue extending as far as my myopic eyes can perceive, forms in front of the hall. The hall, no larger than the basement of D.A. Burns and Sons, exclusive of the kitchen facilities where the food is prepared, feeds, at each meal, some thousand men in the amazing time of forty-five minutes.

Yesterday we took one phase of our processing – the physical exam. What a farce!  If you’re warm and can tell the difference between night and day, you are considered physically fit. The main determinant of physical fitness is the answering of one question. Have you had or do you have any serious accidents or diseases? If you answer “no,” with one fell swoop, the Doc okays one’s cardio-vascular system, lungs, ears, nervous system, endocrine system, etc. One rather humorous aspect of the exam takes place when they determine blood types. A group of 30 or so men are told to undress completely and line up in file – merely so that a pfc can prick the end of their fingers with a needle and extract two drops of blood. They are then told to dress and proceed to another building…

--   Letter to family, December 10, 1943


Hello again Honey,

It’s after nine o’clock, and naturally, in accordance with regulation 2967JA pertaining to lights in Barracks 1972Q as a subsection of order no. L327GS in regard to general regulations in this reception center, the second floor is darker than a portrait of Paul Robeson in a blackout. Consequently, I am forced to write this in what might euphemistically but accurately be described as a latrine…

I was amused more than amazed by the results of the “purity test.” When I was a beginning sophomore in college I too took the purity test, and it may interest you to know that not only did I have the “purest” score in the Phi Delta Theta house, but that I scored an unusually high 85% -- and then I lost 5% because I had smoked three cigarettes the night before for the first time in my life. Were I to take the same test today, I should probably score somewhere nearer the fifties, or at the very highest the low sixties. So don’t give up hope!  I am just the guy to show you how to improve your score – i.e. lower it….        

-- Letter to Betty, December 10, 1943


Fort Lewis barracks, World War II


Dearest Betty,

….There are four parts to the reception procedure: issuance of equipment, medical check, testing, and interviewing. As I have already related, the physical is somewhat of a burlesque. It has subsequently come to my attention that the tests and interviews will probably prove incidental to our actual disposition. According to my interviewer, I received what he called “a hell of a high score” in my general classification test – 141 out of a possible perfect score of 160. [2] I also received a 130 score on my mechanical aptitude test despite the fact I am unable to open a tin can with an axe. These scores place me in Class I, and theoretically qualify me for OCS, ASTP, or Army Air Corps. [3] But “there are many slips twixt the cup and the lip” and despite the recommendations of the classifier at Fort Lewis, Ninth Headquarters Command at Fort Douglas, Utah take into consideration only the practical need of manpower, and are liable to send men where they are needed irrespective of qualifications.

I have found it difficult to write consistently today. Every time I sit down to write some damn corporal or pfc comes through the barracks and orders me to do something. Up until today, I have been one of the army’s prize goldbricks, but my conscience finally caught up with me, and I decided to a least make a token gesture of earning my $1.66 per diem. However, I can easily conceive of the possibility of spending a lifetime in here without turning a hand. If someone comes up and asks you to do something, you first hastily glance at your watch to ascertain the time of day. If it is before 5:30 p.m., one merely says, “I’m on 5:30 detail.” If it is after 5:30, one says, “I have just finished 5:30 detail.” A watch is indispensible in determining whether to choose phrase no. 1 or phrase no. 2.

I thought you might be interested in the interesting letters I have received since I arrived here.  Here is a sample of one: [followed by a full page of blank lines…]

 -- Letter from Bob to Betty, December 15, 1943

Prentiss Hall, Whitman College
December 15, 1943

Description: Betty in College

From the Whitman paper
ERC = Enlisted Reserve Corps

At her desk in Prentiss Hall, Betty mentally cringes rereading the letters she’s tried to write to Burns since he left. This one, last night’s fourth try, showed early promise. She'd rambled on with a free association of thoughts and ended up recounting the entire history of their romance. But a day later, it seems absurdly florid, hysterical almost, and so she has tossed it aside with the other three she wrote in the wee hours. She sighs and gets out a fresh sheet, then sits there frozen, chewing her lip. It’s so hard to know what to say to him when she doesn’t even know where he is!

Did I ever tell you about our room [at Prentiss Hall]? I have vaguely, but I shall be more specific. On 3 walls of our study room are pictures of the smoothest gals in the world -- 3 desks on one side of the room piled high with academic paraphernalia, 3 dressers on opposite side obscured in all sorts of little remembrances, reminders, pictures -- [my dresser] is really much more attractive than the rest, more colorful. Gracing the top-center is a huge red bow derived from bouquet at my birthday table (my b.d. is in July) - programs dangle down each side, an old, faded orchid sits at top - left - under which is Arrow corsage - telegram from Burns peeks out from trailing end of bow - history of Burns-Matlock progressive romance tacked to upper right corner - down left side of mirror are place cards and then just cards (one of which was sent after acquiring PDT pin -- saying a Toast (chug-a-lug) to Mrs. Robin Burns, and carried on from there -- it was from Pat Gregory in Tacoma and she was very happy that I had finally settled down.

-- From a much later January 15, 1944 letter from Betty to Bob

Description: Pins.jpg
       Bob and Betty's pins

He’d left Whitman shortly after the Varsity Ball, to get ready for his induction into the Army. Only five Enlisted Reserve Corps [4] men remained at Whitman at the time, and they had all been called to report at Fort Lewis. From there he was to have shipped for basic training almost immediately, but there’s been no word on exactly where or when. She's writing into a vacuum.  

Less than three weeks have passed since that glorious Thanksgiving Day, when they stood on the bridge over Lakum Duckum and he gave her a Phi Delta Theta pin. [5]  Although it’s not an engagement ring, it means the same thing: she and her Robin will be married one day, after the war is over and the world regains some sanity.

Lakum Duckum - Postcard of the period

The last six months, since the night they stargazed behind the Phi Delt house, are a bit of a blur. They’d left for home soon after that glorious night, fates uncertain. And during their sole summer meeting, Betty’s “mother” Lona had made her disapproval manifest. For starters, Betty was not home when he arrived at the door, but had to be summoned from her Lincoln High School friend Pat Challman’s house. 

The tension was palpable, and worsened when Lona looked askance at the way Bob squatted on his haunches near the fireplace -- like some kind of Indian, she said. And then, when she heard that the Burnses lived above their rug-cleaning shop – well, that was the last straw. There was no way a Matlock girl was going to get involved with someone like that, even if he was a college student! Betty has not met the Burns clan yet, but she is sure they will be more welcoming than her parents had been. In fact, Bob’s father has already written to her about forwarding letters to Bob, and signed the note “Bob’s Dad.”



From the Whitman College Newspaper, 1943

The fuss with her mother had eventually blown over, but would have made no difference anyway. Betty’s love for her Robin is too deep to be derailed by her parents or anyone else. When she and Bob returned to Whitman in October, they took up where they had left off, spending more and more time together as Bob’s date of departure for the Army drew closer. There were dances and parties, to be sure, but mostly it's the little things she remembers: conversations in the Cabin booths, the long strolls around campus, the earnest talks. Or the time he showed up in the Prentiss kitchen, and she was so nervous she dropped a knife in the housemother’s lap and spilled pudding on one of her sorority sisters. And all those lounge-lizard moments that tested their commitment to high ratings on the Purity Test everyone was always giving one another. And the time he walked her to Prentiss after their third date at Lakum Duckum, and they never actually arrived..... 

Betty's dance card from the Varsity Ball, Marcus Whitman Hotel, November 27, 1943

They’d had to subtract not a few points those last two weeks – for the locked door and some final shared innocent hours in a rented room at the Marcus Whitman right before he left to report to duty at Fort Lewis. She still recalls the hammering of her heart as they tiptoed up the back stairs, hoping no one would see them! But the moment when he had placed the pin on her on the Lakum Duckum bridge stands out as the most exciting of her life. 

She keeps his first letter – with its absurdly lovable drawing – out on her desk where she can see it every morning. Dance cards strung together with ribbon festoon the sides of the desk, and these, along with their pins and that photograph of him with his shy and enigmatic smile, help her to realize it was not all a dream. For both of them, their romance seems almost too good to be true.

I feel compelled to comment on those last several days: despite the fact they were sleepless and somewhat tempered by haste as if trying to live a lifetime in a matter of hours, to me they were completely unforgettable. I felt several times as if I were going to swell up and burst with happiness. It is a little difficult to express what type of reaction it produced in me. But somehow it seemed to lend more reality and unifying solidity in a short period than any previous two weeks that I can recall.

-- Bob to Betty, December 4, 1943

But enough pining away! It’s already 9:00 and McCreedy will be returning soon. She simply must start a decent letter to him! Anything would be better than the drivel she’d written the night before – dangerous daydreams, broken hearts, walls closing in, bleakness everywhere. What melodramatic tripe! She can’t even figure out how Description: Dad Heart Drawingto sign them properly. Should she say “I love you” outright? Maybe she could insert it in tiny script, to signify shyness? [6]

Oh, for heaven’s sake!

Just then there’s a knock on the door and Mac rushes in with the joyful news. Robin had called from Fort Lewis earlier in the evening and will call again tomorrow night! Betty’s heart skips a beat; she’s overwhelmed with happiness and confusion. But after collecting herself, she puts fountain pen to lined notebook paper with a new sense of purpose. Now she knows just how to begin!

“Robin! I didn’t know you were still at Fort Lewis! You said you would probably leave last weekend!!! Anyway – I was downstairs when you called tonite and nobody even bothered to tell me about it till 9:00. I’ll be waiting breathlessly to hear your voice tomorrow. There is so much I want to say. I’m coming home if you’re going to be there. Oh gosh – if I could just see you – even if I have to peer thru the gates...

-- Betty to Bob, December 15, 1943


The New Shop
December 15, 1943

In the apartment above the shop, Ebba has spread out big sheets of butcher paper, and Patty’s happily decorating them with fingerpainted splotches and swirls of red and green. With Guy, Dave, and Fred (sober, for once!) “tip-tapping down away at the second-floor workshop like Santa’s little elves,” and Ada furtively sewing the final touches on Karoo the Kangaroo’s velvety brown baby, Christmas at the Burnses is underway! [7]

Ebba smiles at the brown-braided head bent over the Christmas wrapping project. Today has been such an exciting day for her niece, starting with the P.T.A. Christmas party at school. In the production of “The Little Pine Tree,” Patty had played to perfection her role as The Good Earth, which was all the more thrilling because Dave had taken time off from work to attend the performance. When the Little Pine Tree asked, “Who’ll help me grow?” Patty had called out “I will, little pine tree!” and then made little patting motions around its roots as she arranged herself around the trunk. Patty said the hardest part was not crying out when her good friend Ardella, playing the doll, hung herself from the tree and kicked her in the ribs! 

And the excitement continued tonight, when Patty came over to work on the wrapping paper and carefully delivered her front tooth to Ebba for safekeeping. The first one had gone missing, and Patty had been terribly sad that Perez the Tooth Mouse [8] had not been able to pay her a visit and leave a special little surprise. This time there will be no sadness. A letter to Perez has already been composed, and Ada and Ebba have conspired to place a “lovely book bedecked with ribbons and such, and a little clown…made from a walnut and some bright red ribbon” under Patty’s pillow.

Ebba squirts another daub of green onto Patty’s current creation. Once it’s dry, the hand-made Christmas paper will be used to wrap Bob’s gifts, which they’ll take down to Fort Lewis on Sunday, along with the glasses and medicines he left behind. Ebba’s packing the box with one eye on her 5-year-old charge, trying to think of things that will bring her brother comfort. Which reminds her, she must find a photograph to send to Betty, one that’s better than these blurry messes she snapped on his last night at home. And where’s that tin for the cookies?

Bob’s only been gone a week, but there’s already a palpable hole in his place. Whenever Linda, not yet two, looks at his photograph on the shelf, she says, clear as day: “Uncle Bobby, soldier, army.”  And whenever Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby comes on the radio, she does the same, hearing a similarity in the timber of their voices to her uncle’s. In fact, Ebba reflects, Linna Lee’s ear for music is quite extraordinary. She loves to put on little dances for the family, and can often be heard picking out little melodies on the piano in the apartment – not the random pounding of most toddlers, but distinctly tuneful compositions. She is a promising candidate for the Burns Christmas choir, that’s for sure.

Linda Lee

With the radio playing Christmas carols and lively Linda being tucked in by Wilma at home, it’s peaceful in the apartment tonight. Patty's face puckers in concentration as she carefully handprints one last sheet of butcher paper in holiday colors, running her tongue now and then across the the place where her tooth used to be..

Thankfully, Gerry has found some quiet hidey-hole in the shop for studying for his calculus exam. He’s been unusually cross of late. It may be due to another sore throat – he really must see someone about those tonsils! – but a more likely explanation is the approach of Christmas, which is always a terrible time for him. The Burkes would always spend most of the holiday battling with one another, and now, even though his mother and sisters are far away, he still seems poised for combat. [9]  The least little noise from Linda or Patty Lou sets him off, and the girls have become increasingly frightened of him. Even patient Ada gets visibly annoyed at his demand for silence when it’s Description: Rollosimply not practical or fair to expect it. This is the Burns home after all, not to mention the place where they earn their livelihood! 

At least Don is out for the evening, ensuring one less potential combatant. The two men mix like oil and water in every way imaginable, from personality to politics. Someday it’s going to come to a head, Ebba feels sure, but not tonight. Tonight Don and Helen have gone Christmas shopping. Everyone’s drawn names and made their Christmas gift requests, though Ebba can’t imagine who’s going to go looking for a History of the Russian Revolution [10] for Don (unless there’s one at St. Vincent de Paul’s) or the mink coat Helen asked for with her tongue firmly in cheek. Ebba hopes they are having a good time. They certainly deserve a little good cheer tonight – with Don’s I-A classification arriving in the mail today. Though she and Bob jokingly call their brother Rollo, after the little rich kid in the Nancy cartoon, he has taken a principled stand against the war from the very beginning, and it seems especially unfair that at the age of 36, he should have received a summons to report for duty on January 17th.

Then again, maybe they’ll all be conscripts soon. President Roosevelt is making noises about drafting women, particularly nurses, and the upper age limit for conscription seems to be going steadily up as the war effort. Don’s writing to Bob now, and has shown Ebba his parting shot – “The girls here are getting prepared for widowhood – the old girl [Ada] is even hoping they’ll take the old man so they can have things their own way, at least until Gerald gets home.…” 


Author’s Note

Tacoma Union Station

On December 27, 1943, Linda Lee’s second birthday, the family sat down to a delicious chicken supper that Wilma had fixed, and then drove hell bent for leather to Tacoma in the hope of seeing Bob one last time. Guy gallantly stopped to pick up Betty Matlock, now home at the Wattenbargers in Tacoma for the holidays, and they raced to Fort Lewis, but just missed his departure. 

From the kind and helpful man at the Fort’s “visitors' house” they learned their best bet would be to intercept him at the Tacoma Union depot. They hurtled back to town, hoping the train might be a little late, but when they arrived at 9:10, they learned that Bob and three fellow soldiers had left on the Union Pacific train at 8:40. 

Ebba was glad they missed him, because, perhaps remembering the family’s abrupt departure from Ohio in 1935, she thought it was easier for everyone concerned. Ada wrote her son later that she although she was wearing her new hat and coat and looked “really quite stunning” she did not feel too bad to find him gone. More like relieved, no doubt, since she was famously not given to outbursts of emotion. Betty had visited him at the Fort earlier, and her emotions matched those of her future in-laws.

But the next day found Ada down for the count. Gerry was scheduled to have his tonsils out on the 29th, and she gloried in the enforced silence. As she wrote to Bob, she rested most all day, “except when [her spirit went] flying through the spaces, peeking here and there for the glimpse of a curly head.” And yet she was strangely comforted by meeting the girl her son loved so much. Ironically, if they hadn’t stopped to pick Betty up, they might have seen Bob one last time, but the shared experience of trying to find him created an instant bond that would sustain both parents and sweetheart in the trying months ahead. By January 3rd, when Betty wrote to thank “Mr. and Mrs. Burns” for their kindness, Bob was already at Fort Benning, Georgia.


[1] All details taken from contemporaneous letters, later letters, and Bob's recollections.

[2] The Army General Classification Test is divided into three distinct divisions (1) Vocabulary, (2) Arithmetical reasoning problems, (3) Block counting. The test consists of 150 questions and is usually given to large groups at the same time. Test results are divided into five classifications: (1) Very superior, (2) Superior, (3) Average, (4) Inferior, (5) Very inferior. The AGCT was like an early SAT. Carl Brigham, who was a key figure in developing the Army tests during WW I, was hired by the College Board to develop the first SAT.

[3] OCS = Officer Candidate School, ASTP = Army Specialized Training Program.

[4] Ebba’s admonitions to her brother to sign up for a medical course were apparently heeded. He enlisted as a pre-med on August 19, 1942, rather than be drafted, and was not called for more than a year.

[5] It wasn’t actually his pin, but one borrowed from fraternity brother Bob Bloch until he could order his own.

[6] She actually did this.

[7] The men of the family always handmade Christmas gifts for the children. I still remember the kitchen set (complete with a little stove and sink) and table and chairs my uncles helped make for me and my sister one Christmas.

[8] An ancient Spanish tradition of giving children’s baby teeth to rodents to ward off disease was turned into a folk tale by Father Luis Coloma in 1911. Spanish children still put their “milk teeth” under their pillows for Ratoncito Perez.

[9] Gerry had his tonsils out before Christmas, and was so unpleasant on his return that Ebba took him to Lake Ames to give the family some peace over the holiday.

[10] Ada does, of course.