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Pearl Harbor survivor remembers the power of a single shot

Seventy-one years later, Elmer Burke finds one thing to smile about from that chaotic morning in Honolulu.

"Stoney could shoot.''

Burke can't remember a first name, not that it matters. He closes his eyes and sees the lanky Pennsylvanian aiming his rifle toward the early-morning sky full of Japanese planes on their way to bomb the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Army private Stoneman had overcome stuttering by learning to move deliberately. "Everything he did was slow,'' said Burke, who on Dec. 7, 1941, found himself supervising a small squad of soldiers guarding the water supply at Schofield Barracks. "It was peacetime, so each of my guards had only two rounds of ammunition. Nobody expected trouble.''

But shortly after 7:30 a.m., the soldiers heard the roar of engines above.

"We thought, 'What the heck is the Navy doing out this early on a Sunday?' They came in low in the morning sun and glittered like stars. I saw the markings on the wings and yelled, 'They're Japanese!' Soon we heard bombs in the distance.''

Burke, a corporal in the 19th Infantry, carried a .45-caliber pistol. Three of his four men quickly wasted their two rounds firing at the planes. Pvt. Stoneman carefully and slowly took aim.

"He must have hit the pilot,'' Burke said, "because that plane just dove into the woods. We started hollering and slapping Stoney on the back. It was quite a sight. He was credited with bringing down a Japanese plane with one shot.''

• • •

Elmer Burke, 93, has lived long enough to become rare. Time has thinned the eyewitnesses to the day of infamy, the sneak attack that propelled the United States into World War II. More than 2,400 Americans died that day, with another 1,300 wounded.

He lives in a small house in Port Richey with June, his wife of 58 years. An American flag flies from a pole in the front yard. Christmas is near, and June has decorated the house accordingly, making it feel warm and comfortable.

Burke has bad hips and trouble hearing. He's had six heart bypasses. But he wears a constant smile, cracks jokes, recites poetry, paints landscapes and produces his own greeting cards, including love notes for June. "She's my little girl,'' he says. "I tell her I love her 100 times a day.''

Despite the years, he still resembles the young man who joined the Army in 1940 because he wanted to see the world. He had grown up on a farm near Moscow, Pa., the youngest of three sons. The Army sent him to Hawaii. "I was a hick from the hills,'' he said, "and now I'm surrounded by palm trees and the most beautiful water you can imagine.''

He excelled at his duties and earned promotion to corporal. His commanders encouraged him to apply for Officer Candidate School but he hesitated because he didn't figure to stay in the military for long.

Then came Dec. 7.

"Everything changed after the attack,'' he said. "The next day we were up in the mountains digging holes, waiting for the Japanese ground invasion. We were certain they would come.''

From his vantage point one evening, Burke witnessed a collision of two American planes over the sea. He and another soldier stripped to their underwear and began swimming toward the wreckage, but the tide kept carrying it away. Eventually other aircraft helped rescue an injured pilot and the exhausted swimmers. Burke got a commendation and orders to report to Fort Benning, Ga. for training as an officer.

He returned to combat in the fall of 1944, a second lieutenant with the 328th Infantry in France. After Germany surrendered, he remained in Europe for two years as a transportation officer, helping to resettle hundreds of thousands of displaced families.

Burke left the Army in 1947 and despite no experience or education in construction, he started a home-building business with his brother. "I'm a quick learner,'' he said. "We did our own blueprints and taught ourselves how to build. We built homes all through the Poconos, including our own family homes.''

He married June in 1954 and they raised a daughter and a son. For 10 years before retiring to Florida, they owned a western clothing store in Saylorsburg, Pa., known as the Pueblo. Burke constructed the building in the Pueblo style, and today it is a day care center.

They bought a house in Port Richey in 1994, about the same time Burke began having heart problems. That didn't stop him from building a two-person sailboat with a Chinese junk sail. He sailed it often on Lake Tarpon.

For the most part, the Burkes have enjoyed their senior years. But last September, they lost their sense of security when two burglars struck at 3 in the morning while the couple slept.

"All of the sudden they were shining a light in our face,'' June said, "and their language … it was just awful.''

A tall man and a woman, both masked, threatened the couple with a hammer and tied their hands behind their backs with shoelaces. They ransacked the house, stealing prescription drugs, jewelry, a camera and other expensive items before fleeing. Sheriff's deputies so far have been unable to solve the crime.

The Burkes fortified their home with new windows and an alarm system, "but we still think about it every day,'' June said.

Elmer Burke keeps a loaded gun. He wrote a long letter to Sheriff Chris Nocco, saying he has more fear in his own home than he did fighting in the war.

Still, he said, he's grateful to be alive — to have survived two sneak attacks.

>>if you go

Living history

Elmer Burke plans to join at least eight other military veterans who were eyewitnesses to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. They will gather on Saturday at the Zephyrhills Museum of Military History, 39444 South Ave. Coordinator John Bolender expects most of the veterans to arrive about 10 a.m., but the museum will remain open to the public until 4 p.m. For information, call (813) 355-7277.

Pearl Harbor survivor remembers the power of a single shot 12/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 9:07pm]
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