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Oft-Forgotten Story Of Coast Guard Aviator Richard Burke
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - January 10, 2016

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Coast Guard Aviator Richard Burke, Recipient of two Distinguished Flying CrossesThe pantheon of famous Coast Guard aviators includes such 20th century luminaries as Elmer Stone, the world's first aviator to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean; Frank Erickson, pioneering aviator in the development of the helicopter; and Donald MacDiarmid, considered the Coast Guard's foremost authority on maritime aviation search, rescue and survival.

One individual missing from the list of famous aviators is Richard Leon Burke. In his day, military leaders, prominent politicians and Coast Guard aviators, including MacDiarmid, recognized Burke as the Service's most skillful and experienced air-sea rescue pilot.

Born in 1903, Burke heralded from San Antonio, Texas. In 1924, he entered the Coast Guard Academy, where he held the nicknames “Cowboy” and “Tex.” Burke's activities not only included competitive sports, but also orchestra in which he played the violin. His Southern gentility and “romantic ideals from Texas” entertained his classmates who marveled at his “strong will and determination” and his penchant for taking a cold shower every morning at six o'clock.

In 1927, Burke graduated from the Academy, received his commission and assignment to the Cutter Modoc. After Modoc, Burke received assignments on board a number of East Coast cutters, but he also developed a passion for flying. In the spring of 1930, Headquarters sent him to the Norfolk Naval Air Station for “Flight Elimination Training.” The next year, Burke received promotion to lieutenant and underwent aviator training. At flight school, Burke earned his wings and received orders to his first assignment, Coast Guard Base Seven, near Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Coast Guard Aviator Richard Burke ready to climb on board a waiting Grumman J2F “Duck,” one of the service’s smaller air-sea rescue aircraft in the 1930s and 1940s. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Coast Guard Aviator Richard Burke ready to climb on board a waiting Grumman J2F “Duck,” one of the service's smaller air-sea rescue aircraft in the 1930s and 1940s. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

In the early 1930s, Burke established a reputation as one of the Service's great rescue pilots. Honing his skills in navigating through rain, fog and heavy cloud cover, and landing amphibious aircraft in treacherous seas, Burke participated in several high-profile rescues. In 1933, he rescued a seriously ill sailor from the fishing vessel Shawmut, off the Massachusetts coast. This operation required Burke to fly through foul weather and locate the trawler on the basis of radio direction. This rescue earned Burke his first Distinguished Flying Cross medal, only the third issued to a Coast Guard aviator.

Coast Guard Lt. Burke receives his first Distinguished Flying Cross from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. On the left stands Coast Guard Commandant Russell R. Waesche. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Coast Guard Lt. Burke receives his first Distinguished Flying Cross from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. On the left stands Coast Guard Commandant Russell R. Waesche. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The following year proved another eventful year for Burke. He received command of Air Station Cape May, where he flew numerous highly publicized search, rescue and hospitalization cases. At the same time he took command of the air base, the Treasury Department designated him official pilot for Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. During the next six years, Burke flew the secretary on official trips throughout North America and he flew the First Family to travel destinations when necessary. Burke's reputation would become well known not only to Coast Guard commandant Russell Waesche, whose office wrote him several commendation letters, but also with the heads of the Treasury and Navy departments.

While serving at Cape May, Burke had a variety of assignments and missions. He was skilled at piloting all types of fixed-wing aircraft, from the Treasury Secretary's Lockheed Electra to a variety of Coast Guard amphibians. So it came as no surprise in 1935, when he set speed and altitude records for the Hall PH-2 “flying boat,” a workhorse of Coast Guard aviation from the 1930s through World War II. In 1937, he was on hand during the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and directed efforts to rescue survivors of the burning zeppelin. And, Burke's support of military training activities at Cape May earned him the personal thanks and recognition of National Guard authorities, Marine Corps general Thomas Holcomb and Navy Secretary Claude Swanson.

During Burke's command at Cape May, the Service lost its first aviator in the line of duty. In January 1935, Chief Gunner's Mate Charles Thrun served as one of Cape May's enlisted pilots and, during test flights of the newly introduced Grumman J2F “Duck” amphibian, Thrun crashed just offshore. Burke sped to the scene of the accident in a base crashboat to Thrun's overturned aircraft. Burke and his crew extricated Thrun after repeated exposure to the icy water and bone-chilling air, but not in time to resuscitate the aviator. Burke and his men were hospitalized after contracting hypothermia from the rescue attempt and they each received the Silver Lifesaving Medal in recognition of their efforts.

After six years as commander of Cape May, assistant coordinator for Mid-Atlantic maritime interdiction activities, and official pilot for the Secretary of Treasury, Burke received promotion to lieutenant commander and command of newly constructed Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina. When he learned of Burke's reassignment, Secretary Morgenthau wrote him “. . . we have flown thousands of miles together over land and sea, and often your responsibility was very great. There have been occasions that required quick thinking and resolute, clear-headed action. Your skill and sound judgment at such times and in fact whenever you were piloting me have been a source of great satisfaction to me.”

By the summer of 1940, Burke arrived at his new command so it came as a shock late in 1941, when he received transfer orders to the air station at Biloxi, Mississippi. Burke proved so popular with the local community that Congressman Herbert Bonner campaigned to keep Burke in command of Elizabeth City and discussed the issue with Commandant Waesche. Bonner convinced Headquarters to rescind Burke's transfer, so the aviator remained in command of the air station for the next three years.

By 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II and German u-boats focused their efforts on the commercial shipping lanes off the coast of North Carolina. Termed the “Happy Times,” or “American Shooting Season” by German submariners, that year proved the most active period of the war for Navy and Coast Guard operations off the East Coast. In the first half of 1942, Burke and his crews worked closely with Army and Navy assets to combat u-boat depredations against American shipping. At times braving anti-aircraft fire from the submarines, Burke's aircraft would spot the u-boats from the air and drop markers in the water to direct attacks from air and sea. In January, Burke and his pilots played an important role in an attack on the u-boat that sank the tanker Frances E. Powell, and assisted in the rescue of the Powell's survivors. Burke also made a treacherous heavy weather rescue to save survivors of the torpedoed Panamanian freighter Chenango. For the Chenango rescue, Burke received letters of commendation from both Commandant Waesche and Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations. A Chenango survivor later wrote about Burke's air-sea rescue, “It was a dangerous sea to land upon. A U-boat could have ‘given them the works' right away. Please don't forget to tell them that we owe our lives entirely to their risking their own lives for us.”

While his aviation exploits remained his most visible accomplishments, but he also demonstrated great leadership ability. In a 1942 rescue, Burke flew in heavy weather to evacuate a Navy enlisted man suffering acute appendicitis. Burke had to make a water landing near a destroyer patrolling off the North Carolina coast, take on the suffering man and deliver him to medical facilities in time to save his life. In a letter of thanks, the man's wife wrote Burke “. . . even for the sake of just one man, there was no risk too great for you and your crew to take to save him.”

Burke circulated a copy of the letter to his crew with the added comment: “Nice work, men! It was a damn good job by plane-crew and mechanics and overhaul crew; otherwise, we wouldn't have gotten back.”

A rescue performed by Burke on July 9th, 1942, received the most attention of all. Two days earlier, an Army Air Corps Hudson bomber had successfully attacked the enemy submarine U-701. Some u-boat crewmembers survived the sinking and floated for days 100 miles off the North Carolina coast. By the time Burke spotted them, only seven of the seventeen survivors remained alive. However, the Germans were weak, delirious, and suffering from shock, lack of food and water. Burke made a water landing near the Germans, took them on board his amphibian and flew them to the Norfolk Naval Air Station for medical attention.

The U-701 rescue and the others listed above were just a few of the numerous anti-submarine patrol, rescue and hospitalization flights Burke flew during the war. In 1944, at the end of his North Carolina tour, he received a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Navy Commendation Ribbon in recognition of his service and leadership as commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City. The DFC citation commended Burke for “. . . constantly exercising keen judgment, expert airmanship skill and great initiative under extremely adverse conditions.”

After the war, Burke received promotion to captain and, for the next ten years, served in senior leadership and oversight positions for the Service's aviation branch. During these assignments, he oversaw several high-profile cases, including the response effort to the 1946 crash of a Sabena Airlines DC-4 at Gander, Newfoundland. This mission proved a success and served as the first test case for evacuating crash victims by helicopter. He also oversaw the 1955 air-sea rescue effort of Pan American Airlines' Clipper United States, which ditched in the ocean off the Oregon coast.

Richard Leon Burke was a member of the long blue line who served as a role model not only as a skilled aviator, but also as an exemplary leader. In 1979, he passed away in Connecticut at the age of seventy-five. During his career, Burke took part in hundreds of search, rescue and humanitarian flights, receiving numerous honors, awards and recognitions for his heroic feats and daring aviation exploits. The final sentence in the citation for the Gold Star in lieu of his second Distinguished Flying Cross reflected his successful leadership as a Coast Guard aviator: “His cool courage and unswerving devotion to duty at all times as pilot in charge of aircraft constituted an inspiring example to the forces under his command.”

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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