About John P. Burns

About the author: John Patterson Burns (September 22, 1917 — April 13, 1942), Lieutenant, serving in the 21st Pursuit Squadron, Philippines. As detailed by Mr. William H. Bartsch in “‘I wonder at times how we keep going here’: the 1941-42 Philippines diary of Lt. John P. Burns, 21st Pursuit Squadron.” in Air Power History, vol. 53, no. 4, 2006, p. 28+,

[He] was born on September 22, 1917, in Mansfield, Ohio, and graduated from Uniontown High School in 1936. In June 1940, he graduated from Ohio University with a degree in electrical engineering and a commission in the Infantry of the Army Reserve. Burns received his wings from Kelly Field on February 7, 1941, in the class of 41′, fulfilling a childhood ambition. He was subsequently assigned to the 21st Pursuit Squadron of the 35th Pursuit Group at Hamilton Field, California, where he served until his squadron and the sister 34th Pursuit Squadron were ordered in October 1941 to “PLUM”, the code name for the Philippines.

In 1949, John’s body was returned home after being disinterred from its original Del Monte grave. He is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, Uniontown, Ohio.

The author’s brother, Rev. Richard Lee Burns, in a May 30, 2005 Memorial Day response, detailed their family’s history:

John was born in Mansfield, Ohio on September 22, 1917 where my father Warren Burns was a Junior High Principal. In 1919, Dad, my Mother Marjorie, and John who was then two, were sent by Goodyear to Singapore, Malaya (as it was then known) where Dad purchased rubber for the tire industry. On their way to Singapore in Manila Harbor, a ball John was playing with went over the side of the ship into the water. John started after it and would have drowned had he not been grabbed by another child, daughter of a Methodist missionary. Ironically, twenty-two years later John flew missions over that Manila Bay area and died in that very country in 1942.

The family returned to Akron from Singapore in 1922 and lived on North Hill while Dad continued his 37-year stint with Goodyear. In 1931 we moved to Tisen Road in East Moreland, two miles north of Uniontown off of Route 8. We were now a family of five, Bob and I having been born in Akron after Singapore.

John attended Uniontown Schools, was active in scouting attaining the Life Rank, and he participated in football, basketball, and baseball. He was honored as all-Stark County end on the 1935 football team. He graduated in the class of 1936. John spent the next four years at Ohio University where he graduated in 1940 with an electrical engineering degree and a Second Lieutenant’s commission in the U. S. Army. He was immediately assigned to infantry training at Fort Knox, all the time waiting for an appointment to fulfill his life long dream as a career Army Air Corps pilot. He was soon accepted and began his primary training at Spartan Field, Tulsa, Oklahoma, his basic at Randolph Field and his advanced at Kelley Field, both in San Antonio, Texas. John received his pilot’s wings February, 1941. He was assigned to the 21st Pursuit Squadron at Hamilton Field, California where he flew Curtiss P-40 fighter planes.

On November 1, 1941 the 21st Pursuit Squadron left San Francisco by ship for the Philippine Islands, arriving in Manila Harbor November 20, twenty two years after his first visit there.

In a later portion of the article in which the diary was originally published, Bartsch details the circumstances in which the author died:

[On April 12, 1942] Japanese floatplanes–Mitsubishi “Petes”-operating in pairs appeared over Del Monte field in the early morning and made unsuccessful bombing attempts on the three B-17s on the ground. In the afternoon they reappeared and again dropped their small bombs on the B-17s, hitting one and damaging two.

At the satellite fighter strip at Dalirig, eight miles south of Del Monte field, Gus Williams and John Brownewell (17th Pursuit) took off on the morning of April 13th for a strafing mission of Davao. Then they spotted two “Petes” over the area and in a dogfight Brownewell shot one down, but Williams’ “P-40 Something” went into wild gyrations in climbing, then its engine quit. Williams managed to get his malfunctioning ship down safely, however.

About 12:35, a report came in from an observer post that the bothersome Japanese float planes were again approaching the area and that the one P-40 on the field at the time (a P-40E, perhaps Brownewelrs on his return from the Davao mission?) should be used to intercept. As the alert officer had gone for lunch five minutes earlier, Burns was left to take the mission. In his take-off roll, he failed to hold the ship in the center of the 200-foot wide runway and veered off into large rocks that lined both sides of the strip. The P-40E plunged over the side of the canyon that bordered the field and caught fire. No one could reach him in time and there was no fire fighting equipment at the field. Burns burned to death in the cockpit. That evening the chaplain and friends buried him in a little graveyard in a grove of trees.

Sadly, he was reportedly on the list of pilots the Royce mission was to evacuate on its return flight to Australia.

From Rev. Burns’ 2005 Memorial Day response comes additional information on the family and the repatriation of the author’s remains:

Near the time of John’s death, my brother Bob enlisted in army and served in the second battle of the Philippines, New Guinea, and the occupation of Japan. Soon after he returned home, our family was sitting at the dinner table and the folks were doing the “if only” routine. “If only the other pilot hadn’t gone to lunch.” “If only John hadn’t been sick he might not have crashed.” Bob listened awhile and then said quietly. “Look, don’t drive yourself to distraction playing “if only.” The odds of John surviving from 1941 to the end of the war are minimal. Most of the ones who went with Royce as John was scheduled to do were killed in the South Pacific. Of the 30 pilots in the 21st Pursuit Squadron, only six survived the end of the war. Six out of thirty.” Bob was right. Of the entire 24th Pursuit Group of 1200 men, only 500 survived, either being killed in action or dying on the Bataan Death March or on the prison ships that took them to Japan. The Battling Bastards of Bataan paid a big price with little to work with but their own lives.

John’s body was returned to Uniontown seven years later in 1949 and is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in our family plot. John died sixty-three years ago last month. That’s a long time. But still each day since that time I give thanks to God that John Burns was my brother and I say a prayer for him as he lives in the great communion of saints. And although I am strong as I do that, I must confess to you that I still miss him something awful and I will unto the day as my parents die because I’ve always believed that a brother is forever. A poet put upon the lips of Ulysses these words.” I am part of all that I have ever met.” True also it is that all that we have ever met and shared and loved are a part of us forever.

About the diary: As detailed by Mr. William H. Bartsch in 2006 in the journal article in which the diary was first published,

In February 2006, while assisting John Lukacs, who is preparing the first biography of Ed Dyess, the commanding officer of the 21st Pursuit Squadron whose POW experiences and escape made him famous during World War II, I learned that John Burns–one of the 21st Pursuit pilots–did keep a diary and that it was in the possession of his younger brother, Reverend Richard Lee Burns. Reverend Burns kindly made a copy of it for Lukacs and allowed him to make a copy for me too.

How the diary ended up in the hands of the Burns family turned out to be a story in itself. According to Rev. Burns, it was received in a package in 1945 from an American soldier who had been engaged in the seizure of Buna, New Guinea, from the Japanese in early January 1943. The soldier indicated that he had taken the diary off the body of a Japanese soldier killed in the battle. Following his return to the U.S. at the end of the War, the American soldier–whose name is no longer remembered–was able to locate the Burns family to return the diary.

Research by the author would seem to indicate that the Japanese soldier was a member of the 41st Infantry Regiment, which on May 9, 1942, had captured the American air base at Del Monte, Mindanao and its satellite fields, ending the Philippines campaign. The 41st Regiment was subsequently assigned to the New Guinea campaign, arriving in July 1942. It fought its last battle in defense of Buna in early January 1943, at which time the Japanese soldier was evidently killed.

One wonders how the Japanese soldier came into possession of Burns’ diary and why he was carrying it on his body at the time he was killed. Burns had been killed in an accident taking off from Dalirig strip, Mindanao, on April 13, 1942, and was buried at nearby Del Monte that evening. It is likely the chaplain who buried him–probably Joseph V. LaFleur, the chaplain of the 19th Bomb Group who was at Del Monte at the time–found the diary in Burns’ living quarters and kept it for return to the family as part of his duties. His intention would have been thwarted when he was taken prisoner with the rest of the surrendering American force at Del Monte and turned over the “souvenir” when ordered by the Japanese.

The diary provides an invaluable day-by-day account of the activities of Burns from the time of his departure from the U.S. on November 1, 1940 through April 11, 1942, two days before his death. It is the only contemporary source that exists of the initial operations of the 21st Pursuit Squadron and its subsequent experiences on beach defense and at Bataan Field in January, February, and March 1942…

I am indebted to John Lukacs for drawing my attention to the existence of the diary of John Burns and putting me in touch with his brother, the Rev. Richard Lee Burns, who helped me with information about John’s early life and provided documentation regarding the circumstances of his fatal accident and burial.

This is Rev. Burn’s version of the return of the diary, from his 2005 Memorial Day response:

 It is ironical how our family received this diary that we assumed was lost when John died. But three years later in 1945 my parents received a package from a name they did not know. He had been a soldier in the U.S. Army in New Guinea and after the Battle of Buna Beach in Northern New Guinea he went through some of the belonging of a dead Japanese soldier and found this Pilot’s Leather Identification Card that were John’s. This Japanese soldier evidently had taken from John’s belongings on the Island of Mindanao after the Philippines fell in 1942. He carried them as souvenirs until he was killed in New Guinea. This American soldier sent it to h address in the diary and it came home.

The Philippine diary project is grateful to Mr. William H. Bartsch who granted permission for the inclusion of the Burns diary, and through him, to the Rev. Richard Lee Burns, brother of the author. The entries included the annotations of Mr. Bartsch, in italics.

While the diary, as reproduced by Bartsch has no final entry, we are including an entry for April 13, 1942, the day the author died, on the basis of the fine blog entry written by Kerwin Salvador P. Caragos in Pacific Wars:

That evening the chaplain and friends buried him in a little graveyard in a grove of trees.
One of the pilots who saw Lt. Burns’ crash wrote this last entry in John’s diary:

April 13, 1942
 ” Killed in takeoff in attempt to intercept Jap bombers.  John died quickly and bravely, the way if they have to, all pilots want to die.”

The Philippine Diary Project, on the basis above, included the entry, but in italics.

Readers are encouraged to consult Mr. Bartsch’s Doomed at the Start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-1942 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992).