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About Vernon L. Burge

About the author: Vernon L. Burge (November 29, 1888 –September 6, 1971), pioneer aviator in the United States Army Air Corps. His diary, as published, contained this introductory note:

V.L. Burge enlisted in the Army in 1907, remaining in the service until his retirement in January, 1942.

During this time he advanced through all the grades, to reach the rank of Colonel, Air Corps, U.S. Army.

His flying career with the Army began in the Philippine Islands in 1912 (pps. 35, 36 and 37), where he was instructed by Lieut. Lahm, now General Lahm, retired. V. L. Burge became the first enlisted pilot in the history of the U.S. Army.

At the time of his retirement, he was the second oldest active pilot in the Air Corps, and had flown constantly during his 30 years as a pilot, during which time he accumulated over 5,000 hours flying time, and was rated as a Command Pilot.

Retired as a Colonel at the age of 53, after 35 years of continuous service..

A document, entitled “Early History of Army Aviation,” by Col. V.L. Burge, is available online, which contains the following:

In December 1912, the Army shipped a Wright plane to Manila, P.I., Lieutenant Lahm at that time was on duty with the 7th Cavalry at Fort McKinley, P.I. He was detailed to fly the plane and establish a flying school. Two enlisted men were ordered to Manila as a nucleus for the enlisted personnel. They were:

Corporal Vernon L. Burge, Signal Corps

PFC Kenneth L. Kintzel, Signal Corps

Several men were assigned form Signal Corps troops at Manila, bringing strength of detachment to ten men. A large shed had been erected on the upper end of Polo Field and this plane was assembled and first flown early in March, l912by Lieutenant Lahm.

In the meantime, several officers had been ordered to receive flying instructions as follows:

1st Lieut Moss L. Love, Cavalry, killed at San Diego, California In 1913 and for whom Love Field, Texas was named.

1st Lieut. C.G. Chapman, Cavalry, now retired

Corporal V.L. Burge, (now Colonel), Signal Corps, in charge of enlisted detachment, was also detailed to receive instruction and qualified as a pilot in April 1913, being the first enlisted man to pilot an airplane in the United states Army, receiving Aero Club of America License 152.

Due to the rainy season the school was closed until Spring of 1913, and again re-opened at Fort McKinley. In the meantime two more officers had been detailed to receive instructions:

2nd Lieut. F.A. Mangus C.A.C., now Assistant Chief of Air Corps and a Brigadier General.

2nd Lieut. P.C. Phillipine, Scouts, killed at Passy Beach, Manila, P.L, in 1913 while flying a new type “C” Wright plane. He crashed into the bay from a height of several hundred feet and was immediately killed.

Another airplane, a Burgess-Wright eqipped with pontoons, had been received and it was shipped to Corregidor Island at the entrance to Manila Bay, Lieut. (now General) H.A. Dargue was in charge. Corporal (now Colonel) V.L. Burge also was ordered to Corregidor for duty. Many flights were made and artillery fire observed for the Coast Artillery. Lieut. Dargue also installed radio apparatus, which while crude, actually worked and he succeeded in transmitting and receiving messages. Late in 1914 the plane was wrecked and Lieut. Dargue and Corporal Burge were ordered to the Army Aviation School, San Diego, California, where they continued flying.

The annual report of Major General Franklin J. Bell, commanding the Phillippine Division in 1912, is of interest. It reads as follows:

An innovation in signal corps work, in this division, has resulted from the fact that an aeroplane was received in Febraury 1912. “The machine is a type B. Wright aeroplane, 30-h.p., with floats, and a supply of spare parts. A hangar, 50 x 75 feet, inside dimensions, with concrete floor, galvanized iron roof, sliding doors entirely across the front, and large enough to accommodate two assembled machines, was erected by the quarter-master’s department on the reservation, adjacent to the polo field at Fort William McKinley, at a cost of $1,809.91.

“1st Lieut. Frank S. Lahm, 7th cavalry, was detailed for temporary duty with the signal corps for aviation work and entered upon this duty March 11, 1912. Two noncommissioned officers and four men of the signal corps selected for their mechanical ability and especially for their experience with gasoline engines, were assigned to duty as mechanics.

“The aeroplane was assembled and flown for the first time March 21. Thereafter, flights were made every morning; the total time in the air up to June 30, was 34[?] hours and 5 minutes.

“On June 14 Cpl. Vernon L. Burge, signal corps, of the aviation detachment successfully fulfilled the requiremens of the International Aeronautical Federation for an aviation pilot’s license, and on June 23, Lieut. Moss L. Love signal co{ps, successfully passed the same test.

“There are at present three aviators in the division and one aeroplane. Requisition has been submitted for two aeroplanes, one a high power machine suitable for use in connection with the defense of Corregidor Island, and the other a type B Wright machine suitable for use at maneuvers or wherever needed.”

Cpl. Burge, mentioned in the report, now colonel of the Air Corps, was the first enlisted pilot. Lieut. Love was killed at San Diego in 1913.

The Airmen Heritage Series of the Airmen Memorial Museum has additional information on him, as does the Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register, including a copy of his obituary.

On June 9, 2014, a monument honoring “the nearly 3,000 enlisted sergeant pilots who served from 1912-1957” was unveiled in at the Enlisted Heritage Hall at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, which features a statue of Vernon L. Burge.

About the diary: Located online, the typed manuscript is apparently a transcript of Burge’s diary, covering the period 1909-1912. It is, likely, a document produced around the time that Burge wrote down his recollections, a large extract of which was quoted above. The diary contains, in the introductory note on the author, the information that “he now resides at 240 Rosemary, San Antonio 2, Texas,” which indicates the diary transcript was produced in the author’s lifetime.

The Philippine Diary Project contains V.L. Burge’s diary entries related to the Philippines, starting with his December 1 to 27, 1911 entry to the end of the diary, May 7, 1912.