A HERO’S JOURNEY BACK

by

Kristene Wallis Burr

2001

My husband is a tough guy.  He’s obstinate, demanding, fiery, and smart; a man who loves to issue orders.  The recipients of said orders quickly learn that he wants what he wants when he wants it.   Those qualities, coupled with an advanced case of perfectionism, are undoubtedly what made Wally Burr the world-renowned and much admired voiceover director of such “tough guy” animated shows as the original, classic versions of “G.I. Joe”, “Transformers” and “Conan”, to name but a few.

Wally is also a decorated combat veteran of World War II (or “Double-U Double-U Two”, as he likes to call it).  As a teenager, he had attended the prestigious Culver Military Academy in Indiana, where he became a member of its famed Black Horse troop.  The tough-as nails cavalry ROTC curriculum taught him everything there was to know about fighting battles on horseback. Upon graduation, in 1942, he was commissioned into the cavalry branch of the United States Army.  Since there wasn’t an awful lot of jousting to be had on the battlefields of the European theater in the 1940s,  the U.S. Army 4th Cavalry had, by this time, become a mechanized cavalry regiment, and this is where Wally wound up as the youngest commissioned officer at the time:  2nd Lieutenant Walter S. Burr, 18 years old and looking more like a  baby-faced 16-year-old.

Lt. Burr spent the next year-and-a-half as the leader of a platoon of tank soldiers, most of whom were at least three or four years older than he was, training at various locations throughout the United States for up-coming active duty.  Finally, in December, 1943, a dismal, rank-smelling transport ship took him on a 21-day journey across the winter-tossed Atlantic Ocean, from New York to England, where he spent six more months continuing to train in Chichester, a charming city just north of his next point of embarcation:  Southhampton.  When the orders finally came – “We’re shipping out tomorrow morning!” – Lt. Burr was as prepared as anyone could possibly be for what was to come.

Shortly after landing on Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion, Lt. Burr’s unit was dispatched to an area southwest of the beaches, within shooting range of a low, semi-circular mountain that concealed the strategic port city of Cherbourg to the north.  The region was crawling with Germans and it was their 88mm, high-velocity, anti-aircraft guns that were aimed directly at the old Roman road upon which Lt. Burr and his light armored unit -  light tanks, half-tracks, and armored cars -  were making their way toward the tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula.  Those much-feared 88s had a range of close to 50,000 feet; the American light tanks were armed with 37mm guns, hardly a match for the Germans, and when the shooting began, the American vehicles closest to the mountain were easy targets, all too quickly destroyed.  Lt. Burr and two of his tanks were far enough to the rear of the column that they were able to avoid the worst of the damages inflicted by the superior German weapons.  Lt. Burr managed to detour into a farmyard, turn around and rescue his troops whose tanks had become disabled in a ditch on the side of the road.

That small, but for Wally Burr, very memorable incident took place in June, 1944.

 

In 2001, nearly 60 years later, Wally managed to finagle an invitation for the two of us to attend the gala D-Day celebration hosted by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and HBO on the bluff overlooking Utah Beach. The event combined the annual D-Day memorial with the launching of “Band of Brothers”, Mr. Spielberg’s mini-series about the invasion.  In attendance were American WWII veterans, as well as generals representing nations that had participated in that chapter of the war:  Poland, Great Britain, Denmark, Canada and The United States.  It was a moving and dramatic day, but not, as it turned out, the highlight of our trip.  That was yet to come.

We remained in Normandy for the following few days, behaving like tourists.  Following an almost surreal overnight stay in a former monks’ dormitory at the fairy-tale village that is Mont St. Michel, we headed north once again, back toward Cherbourg, along the same Roman road that Wally had traveled in 1944.  This was no mere coincidence.  Au contraire: Wally was determined to locate the farmyard where he had first been shot at by the Germans all those decades ago.

I should probably mention at this point in my story that I speak fairly decent French and that Wally does not speak a word of it.  I should also mention that CAPTAIN Burr (which was his rank when he left the Army) still believes that there is nothing he cannot get if he makes enough demands for it.  That being stated, we began our search in Briquebec, a tiny village at the  southern end of the Roman road, which seemed vaguely familiar to him.  He had brought with him his original military maps, which he was certain would point any intelligent Frenchman to that exact farmyard…if only Wally would speak English loudly enough!  OR…better yet…if he could coax his somewhat reticent wife into attempting to explain to anyone and everyone that her husband had been here 60 years ago and did they happen to know where he had been?!  That, at least, is how it felt every time he shoved me at some hapless old lady or gentleman, demanding on Wally’s behalf to know if they could help.

After several fruitless attempts, literally going door-to-door at old half-timbered farmhouses as we headed closer and closer to Cherbourg, a mini-miracle occurred.   We crashed a birthday party being held in a community center for a 90-year-old matriarch and someone there knew someone else who was an aficionado of all things World War II in the region.   This friendly gentleman offered to introduce us to said expert, but only after making sure we joined the party for some late morning scotch and champagne.  How could we possibly refuse?  (By this time, I was very much aware that the French, who have an undeserved reputation for detesting Americans, were awe-struck by this tall, elderly Yank who had literally helped save their country.  Share a scotch at 11 o’clock in the morning?  You betcha!)

We were led to a neighboring village, moving ever closer to Cherbourg, and were introduced to an apple-cheeked, semi-toothless, 60ish man named Desiré.  At last!  The

war expert who might actually be able to help Wally in his quest to find that elusive farmyard!  It being noontime on a Sunday, Desiré, his wife, his slightly older sister and her husband were all gathered for a mid-day meal (which we Americans would consider a huge dinner!)  They insisted that we join them and thus began the final chapter of Wally’s journey.

A more gracious, warm and charming group of people would be difficult to find.  Not one of them spoke even a word of English, so it fell to little old moi to do all of the interpreting for Wally.  Desiré was so excited to have an American in his house, he could barely contain himself.  He kept running to the phone to call various relatives and, as it turned out, the local press corps, which he invited to come and interview Captain Burr the following day,  It seemed we were now being issued an invitation we couldn’t refuse: Dinner the following evening.

Desiré’s sister, Thérese, was several years older than he and had been old enough at the time to still remember what happened when the Americans came through their village during the liberation.  She told us how kind the soldiers had been to the children, handing out sweets to one and all.  She said that the children could not quite understand why, no matter how long or how hard they chewed, the “candy” simply couldn’t be swallowed.  Juicy Fruit, anyone…?

After lunch, a much younger couple arrived at our hosts’ home.  They turned out to be a niece and her husband, who was the mayor of this tiny village.  Desiré took us all upstairs into his attic.  Quelle surprise!  The single room, the size of the house below it, had been transformed into a mini-museum devoted exclusively to WWII.  Desiré had spent his entire life scouring the fields outside his village for memorabilia from the battles that had been waged there and this was the result:  A treasure trove of German and American artifacts, mostly in pristine condition, lovingly preserved by this man who had been an infant during the war.  Oddly, the niece and the mayor had never seen any of this and they were as impressed as we were.

Desiré was thrilled beyond imagining at the thought that a real, live American liberator of his country was actually in his home.  It became quite obvious that he greatly regretted having missed out on the excitement of the war itself, but he was about to repay at least this one old soldier.  We piled into two cars – all of us! – and Desiré drove us all around the area, trying desperately to match Wally’s memories with an actual location. After a couple of hours, during which Wally was becoming more and more agitated by the thought that he might never find the place he was seeking, we had to give up, but Desiré made us promise to return the following afternoon to continue the search and then join them for dinner.  I could tell that Wally was starting to feel a little trapped and really just wanted to get on with his search, without anyone’s help, but I wasn’t about to give in to that; with or without a successful outcome, these people were going above and beyond to help us and by god we were going to show our gratitude, one way or the other!

Monday afternoon found us on the hunt once again, this time only with Desiré, who took us in a different direction.  Unlike the previous day, we remained on the Roman

oad that led to Cherbourg.  Suddenly, Wally yelled, “That’s it!  That’s it!”, pointing to a half-hidden old farm on the western side of the road.  We pulled into the yard for a few minutes.  It was, without doubt, the exact place Wally had kept in his memory bank for nearly sixty years and according to him, the ancient farmhouse hadn’t changed at all.  Our new friend, Desiré, was almost as excited as Wally and proud of having accomplished what seemed like an impossible task only a day before.

When we arrived back at Desiré’s house, we were greeted not only by the family, but also by two reporters who had been sent by their newspaper, La Manche, to interview Wally.  La Manche, we were later to discover, was the main paper for all of Normandy.  I found it very strange, therefore, that neither of these people could speak English!  Fortunately, Desiré had had the presence of mind to type up whatever Wally had told him the day before about his war adventure; he handed it to me first, so that I could check its accuracy (it was amazingly very accurate!), before handing it to the reporters.  They snapped a couple of photos of all of us as a group and departed, never once having so much as cracked a smile in our direction.

The mood at dinner that night was a mixture of joy and nostalgia for all of us.  Being a quarter of a century younger than most of these people and, of course, having had nothing to do with WWII, I am still at a loss to explain why I found it all so moving and emotional…and still do.   Despite the language “barrier”, which never seemed to get in anyone’s way, at one point early in the evening, Wally was on one side of the room conversing animatedly with Desiré.  Thérese approached me with two half-sheets of bluish paper and handed them to me.  She was explaining something to me in rapid-fire French, which I at first did not understand.  Something about Omaha Beach, the site of an even more horrendous battle than the one on Utah Beach.  I looked at the pieces of paper in my hand; suddenly I understood.  On each piece was listed the name, rank, serial number and date of death of an American soldier who was buried in the American cemetery there.  Thérese and her husband, Andre, had “adopted” their gravesites and took it upon themselves to care for them.  The moment it hit me what I was reading, I started to choke up.  On the very rare occasion that I cry, I literally cannot speak.  Wally glanced over at me, saw what was happening, and asked me what was wrong.  When I finally managed to explain it to him, he, too, began to cry.  For a short time, the room was silent.  Thank the gods the French are an emotional people; our new friends understood without a word of explanation.

Toward the end of the evening, after much wine and much laughter, someone asked Wally how his mother had felt when she found out he was going to be coming home after the war ended.  Once again, Wally’s tears suddenly began to flow.  “My mother sent me a telegram,” he stammered, “saying that they were going to keep the Christmas tree up until I got home.  And they did.”

Before we said farewell that night, I copied down all of the information about the two long-ago soldiers whose graves were being cared for by this very grateful old French couple.  When we returned home, I made several attempts to locate their next of kin, but

it turned out to be an impossible task.  Not even “Dear Abby” could or would help.  Maybe someday I’ll try again.

As for Wally, that trip to the scene of his first big battle opened a door that I believe had been tightly shut for nearly 60 years.  Prior to that, he had rarely spoken about his war experiences and when he did, it was as if he were talking about someone else – detached, unemotional, almost as if it had been a thrilling adventure experienced by a different man.  Since our journey to Normandy, however, he has delved into long-buried memories and made connections with others who share similar experiences, thanks in great part to the internet, where he spends literally hours and hours

rediscovering places, people and experiences from the past.  I’m happy to report that the tears still flow occasionally.  For both of us.

 

Did I mention that my husband is a tough guy?

 

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