U.S. Navy – Chief Petty Officer
World War II (June 1941 – August 1945)
Korean War (November 1950 – October 1952)
Kamikaze, or translated as “Divine Wind,” was the name originally given to a typhoon which supposedly saved Japan from a Mongol invasion by wrecking Kublai Khan’s fleet in August of 1281. After losing significant numbers of highly trained pilots at the Battle of Midway, Japan again called upon a “Divine Wind” to save their worshipped emperor. The citizens of Japan volunteered by the thousands to protect their emperor from the evil American forces closing in on the Islands. They were given minimal flight training, and any plane capable of flight was loaded with high explosives and enough fuel for a one-way trip. The “Divine Wind” was Japan’s best weapon at the time and with it remained the last hopes of Japan returning from World War II victorious. This is what struck fear into Americans. This is what struck fear into U.S. Navy veteran Donald Burr.
Burr was born on May 30th 1920 in San Jose, California where he spent most of his life. His father was a letter carrier and he had little contact with his mother. Burr grew up during the heart of the Great Depression which had a huge effect on his life. After graduating high school in 1938, he didn’t have enough money to go to any college out of town; however, he was able to afford Fresno State College. He completed two years of electrical engineering there, but they didn’t offer third or fourth year courses. Right after finishing the two years of college, during the summer of 1941 he went on active duty with the Navy.
Burr enlisted in the Navy because he didn’t want to be drafted into the Army and get stuck digging foxholes. Additionally, his favorite professor at Fresno State College, Professor Ralph Jack, was a lieutenant commander in charge of the local unit of the Naval Reserve. Burr would meet once a week to receive training there.
Burr was sent to boot camp in San Diego. He remembers the commanding officers making it as difficult as they could. By the time fall hit, he was transferred to Los Angeles to be trained as a Navy radio operator. He never received this training however, as the Navy found out that he had a couple years of electrical engineering education. Because of this, Burr started teaching on February 2nd of 1942 at the Radio Materiel School at Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay to teach Navy radiomen how to install and maintain transmitters. His rank was seaman at the time. He describes the trainees as people without the technical training, but knew the practical stuff. Both he and his fellow personnel, according to Burr, didn’t give much thought to the fact that others were dying in the war; he just knew that he was being trained to do a job. He remembers his captain as being stiff and formal and the executive officer as looking really sloppy. During this time, Burr was also able to communicate with his family via letter through U.S. mail; however, he was not allowed to talk about his job at all. Burr also met his future wife on Treasure Island as she was handing payroll at the time.
In 1944, Burr was assigned to the Battleship Missouri. Before going out to sea, the Missouri was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Burr got to work on it. Burr was in charge of the K division, which meant that he was in charge of keeping the ship’s 14 radar sets running. While still at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Burr’s technicians checked every wire connection and did everything they could to make the radar sets fail before they got out to sea. His rank was chief petty officer at the time.
After leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Missouri was challenged with going through the Panama Canal. The trouble was that the Missouri was 108 ½ feet wide, and the cement locks at the Canal were 110 feet wide and thus the massive ship ricocheted slowly from side to side of the canal getting paint scrapes along the way. From there, the Missouri traveled to San Francisco for final fitting out as fleet flagship before setting out on December 14th for Pearl Harbor. After less than a month at Pearl Harbor, the Missouri set out to supply continuous gun support for landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Burr remembers that the ship’s passageways below deck were dark and narrow. He remembers one time rushing through them and turning a corner. He ran into a very tall, slender officer. He didn’t realize it was the captain until he saw the Marines trotting along, trying to keep up with him. Burr later found a big cut on his cheek – most likely from the captain’s medal on his collar.
On the USS Missouri Burr remembers generally feeling quite good. He was never particularly worried about actual engagement; however, he does remember the kamikazes as being very chaotic. Burr describes, “The Japanese were getting desperate, so they enlisted their – their younger teenagers, gave them basic training in flying, and then they put ‘em in a plane with enough fuel for a one-way trip, and loaded big bombs.” He remembers that there were two kamikazes that targeted the Missouri. One of them exploded just off the side of the ship, and a piece of the wing landed on the upper deck. A fire started, but that was put out in a quick manner and no one was killed. The other kamikaze failed to hit the Missouri altogether. Burr stated that when the first plane hit, “I was on my way to my battle station, and I almost fell down the – to – the hatch to the next deck when the ship lurched.”
Burr also went up to the bridge on numerous occasions to repair the radar sets. The bridge was positioned almost directly above the number-two 16-inch gun turret. He recalls, “When they fired those guns, the blast shattered the picture tube in the radar that the captain used, and I went up there to take out the broken pieces and install a new picture tube, scope tube.”
Once on the Missouri, one of the radars kept picking up a very weak image that kept disappearing and popping up again on the surface of the ocean. Burr and his men figured it was a Japanese submarine, so he told the captain about it and he called the admiral and told him about it. The admiral thought the radars must have been bad because no one else could see it. Burr and his men kept watching it and calling in, finally the admiral sent destroyers out to check it. Burr remembers watching it disappear as the destroyers got close. The destroyers sunk the submarine.
On the Missouri, the captain had his choice of meal in his quarters, the executive officer also had his own choice of what he liked, and all the other officers had to eat that same meal regardless of what they would have preferred themselves. The chiefs (which included Burr) got the best of the food available to the enlisted men. This was due to the fact that when in port, a mess chief would buy extra food specifically for the chiefs.
Burr also remembers that they would train the anti-aircraft crews how to shoot down planes. They would fly drones around and send them out to make dives at the various ships.
Aboard the Missouri, all of the mail from the crew members that was being sent back to their family had to be censored. The chief officers did that, but they were overloaded, so the chief petty officers were assigned to do some censoring as well. Reflecting his sense of humor, Burr enthusiastically mentioned, “Instead of having the mail posted on the Missouri and then being held for a week or two, till an officer could get to it some of the people in my division would hand me their mail to do the censoring. One man in my division that was from the [slum], the poor area in Boston wrote the letter, and he’s writing to his mother. He says, ‘We’ve got a real smart chief on the Missouri. After the war, I’m going to get him to come to Boston, Scollay Square, and jam the police radio.’”
On August 31st, 1945, Burr left the Navy; however, he did remain in the Naval Reserves because it looked like the United States might go to war with the Communists. Due to his time of release, he missed the surrender ceremonies. Burr managed to avoid all injuries and didn’t earn any notable awards. Soon after his arrival home, Burr returned to Treasure Island and got married. There, he got a job at the 250-watt radio station. During his time there, they got permission to increase power. Burr helped put together the 50,000-watt transmitter.
This proved impactful as not long after Burr was called up during the Korean War to run the 500,000-watt radio transmitter for Pearl Harbor. At Pearl Harbor, Burr sent for his wife and two children to be with him. His wife had previously done payroll work, but now took on a civil-service job at the Naval Ammunition Depot keeping track of all the explosives.
At Pearl Harbor, Burr never left the island of Oahu. He was still a chief petty officer. He was allowed to communicate with his family, but all the letters he sent were censored to avoid any military information being picked up by enemy agents. When his time in Hawaii was over, Burr remained in the reserves for a few more years.
When Burr finally arrived home, he was treated like anyone else because all families had young men in service at the time. Burr went back to the broadcasting business and even managed to put on a television station in Fresno. Burr did this until 1985. Afterwards, even without a teaching degree, Burr took a job instructing at Fresno State College for evening classes. Since his service, Burr has joined the USS Missouri Association which he takes great pride in.
Despite going through war, Burr has many positive memories and enjoys talking about his experiences. He had an enjoyable time and made a big impact on the world through his service. He learned many life lessons and got a greater sense for the world. Looking into the future he hopes to see the U.S. continue to do things the way things have been done throughout his lifetime: good and right. Donald Burr continues to be a proud patriot at 95 years old!
Interview by Jacob Bruner on November 7th, 2015