Panel of WWII Vets

From left, a panel of World War II Veterans Staff Sgt. Jay Burke, Sgt. James Mcilroy and Col. Robert Hawn, answer questions from Fort Hood soldiers attending a First Army event at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in Killeen on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Amy Proctor

KILLEEN — On Thursday morning, three World War II veterans provided firsthand accounts of their time in one of the most unforgettable wars in history.

Joined by Fort Hood soldiers and family members at the Courtyard by Marriott, the veterans — retired Staff Sgt. Edwin J. Burke, 92, retired Sgt. James R. Mcilroy, 92, and retired Col. Robert Hawn, 91 — answered questions about the Battle of the Bulge in a panel discussion as a precursor to the First Army’s annual military ball later that evening.

Following the panel, the Herald gathered additional recollections from the veterans, all three of whom were soldiers of the 393rd Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, a regiment that saw both the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle at Remagen Bridge. The men were all also members of the Army Specialized Training Program, a program designed for bright young soldiers who possessed technical skills vital for the country’s wartime effort.

Retired Staff Sgt. Edwin J. Burke

“Winston Churchill was once sniped at and said it was an ‘exhilarating experience.’ I was sniped at, and those are not the words I would use,” said retired Staff Sgt. Edwin J. Burke.

Born in Arizona in 1924, Burke joined the Army Specialized Training Program at age 18.

“I couldn’t join the Navy because I was colorblind, or the Marines because I had an overbite and couldn’t wear their gas masks, so Army it was,” he said. “Being colorblind eventually came in handy when we were in Belgium, because I could see the camouflage pattern on the Germans uniforms when no one else could — they were too busy looking for the colors.”

Reflecting on one particular night during the Battle of the Bulge, Burke noted, “The moon was so bright that night, it was almost like daylight. That’s when I got sniped at — I was standing up in my foxhole. The bullet went real close to my ear. When it gets close to you like that, it makes a bad noise.”

Burke also took shrapnel to his leg during the Battle at Remagen Bridge.

“I was running across the bridge when it knocked me over,” he said. “There were holes all over the bridge where the Germans had been trying to destroy it (to stop the Allies from crossing over onto German soil). I’m lucky that I didn’t fall through one of them, because it was a 60-foot drop to the Rhine River. Hitler later executed the men he had ordered to destroy the bridge (which was steel and thus difficult to demolish) thinking they had been trying to sabotage him.”

When he returned home, Burke, a graduate of East State Texas College, joined the Army Corps of Engineers and worked his way up to becoming the Resident Engineer at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he managed multi-million dollar projects.

In 1963, Burke began working for NASA, supervising the development and construction of hazardous test facilities for Apollo hardware.

His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal.

Retired Sgt. James R. Mcilroy

Born in Abbott, Texas, retired Sgt. James R. Mcilroy voluntarily joined the Army at 18 as a college student.

“I figured I was going to get drafted anyway,” he said.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Mcilroy participated in a gory, days-long bayonet fight against the German soldiers.

“Of the 36 men in my platoon, 12 were killed, with 40 dead in our company,” he said. “I was hit on the last day, Jan. 30, 1945, when I took a rifle shot across the back. The snow was knee deep by then and they were shooting at anything that moved, so I laid there, spread eagle, from noon that day until dark. I was paralyzed from the waist down from the cold, and spent 9 months in the hospital after that.”

“As soon as I got home,” Mcilroy said, “I was miserable. But about a week later, I was back at college, and graduated a few years later. For 30 years, I never mentioned the war to anyone. Not one word. I went back to school, worked, raised a family and did a lot of things with my life. I knew they wouldn’t understand anyhow. I didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to be identified with it. It was so gruesome.”

Mcilroy graduated from Texas A&M University with a civil engineering degree in 1947 and went on to own his own business, Mcilroy Chevrolet, for 45 years.

His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal.

Retired Col. Robert W. Hawn

“That winter, the winter of the Battle of the Bulge, was the coldest winter since Napoleon’s War of 1812,” said retired Col. Robert Hawn. “I got frostbite on my hands and feet, but the memory that stands out most, for me, was getting shot at.”

Hawn, a Pennsylvania native who graduated from high school in Beaumont, Texas, recalled running across the Remagen Bridge as artillery bombarded him from all sides.

“The Germans were flying jets, Me-262s, over our heads and dropping bombs on us,” he said. “That was the first time I had ever seen a jet like that. As I ran across the bridge, I was shot at with a 22 mm cannon, and it grazed my right leg, landing me in the hospital for 89 days. If they kept you for 90 days, they had to send you home, so I was there for 89. Right after, they sent me back to France for eight or nine months more, and then I was going to have to go to Japan. They were loading us onto the troop ship when they called it off. Boy, was I relieved.”

After his active duty service, Hawn was directly commissioned into the Army Reserves during occupation duty in Germany. He retired at the rank of colonel after years of teaching at various staff colleges.

Hawn was also the first civil engineering graduate from Lamar State University (then Jr. College) and worked for the Texas Highway Department building the interstate highway system for more than 30 years.

His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal.

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