He was told he was too small and should go back home. “Go home boy, you’re not 18.” They were right. He was barely 17, having celebrated his birthday just a few months before.
Lloyd Burns was a South Georgia boy who played football at Valdosta High School during the school’s glory days. But there was a new, more sinister, challenge awaiting him. His birth certificate was faked and he held to his story, so Lloyd Burns became one of the nation’s youngest soldiers in 1942.
At the age of 18 years and 5 months, Burns received his pilot’s wings and a commission as a lieutenant in the Army’s Air Corps. He was, although the Army wasn’t aware of it, the youngest pilot in the United States Army Air Corps.
It wasn’t long before he and his crew were engaged in bombing missions in Europe, including the D-Day mission. The B-17 crew flew 30 hazardous missions and earned a ticket out of the war and a trip back home.
In the United States, Burns was assigned the task of training new pilots, an assignment he loathed. He was a combat pilot and wanted to be back in action. He was given the assignment of flying over the Gulf of Mexico searching for enemy submarine activity. This also proved to be too inconsequential a task — in fact, it was boring.
Lt. Burns applied to be trained to fly the B-29 Super Fortress against the Japanese in the Pacific theater. With his new aircraft and new crew, Burns flew bombing raids against the enemy, including over Japan itself.
On one memorable day, Lt. Burns was assigned to fly a decoy mission so that another aircraft would be unmolested. It turned out that the other aircraft was the Enola Gay, whose flight dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and led to the rapid end of the war.
Burns would later have one regret: he turned down a promotion to captain in order to fly a planeload of soldiers back to the United States and was soon thereafter honorably discharged. His regret was not getting those captain’s bars. “I was probably the only pilot to fly 30 bombing missions in Europe and five bombing missions in Japan and end my tour as a lieutenant.”
He was told by one superior officer that if he had stayed longer in the U.S. after his tour in Europe he would have easily made captain. But, that would have kept him out of the war and out of the B-29. At war’s end, Lt. Burns was 20 years old.
After the war, Burns graduated from Emory University with a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree, became a practicing physician, and turned his attention to healing. He lived in California and Florida before finally returning to Georgia and settling in Peachtree City. On Thanksgiving Day in 1961, he married his beloved Frances. Dr. Lloyd Burns has four children and three step-children.
Now 85 years old, he is fighting his own war against Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems. Somewhere around 2005, he was pronounced terminally ill by his cardiologist so he staged a memorial service for himself in which he observed the ceremony, participated in the day’s events, and grilled hamburgers.
He was told he would die in 2007 or maybe 2008. Now, halfway through 2010, I was honored to meet him at his home with his elegant and gracious wife. If his mind has grown dull due to the Alzheimer’s, one certainly could not tell it.
He regaled me with stories of missions in Europe and the Pacific, tales of Valdosta football, and then told me that he read my column in the newspaper each week and that I was one of the people he wanted to personally meet.
The honor was all mine. During our visit, he shared with me his strong faith in Christ. He also gave me a book he had written, “Before Ultra lights — Memories of WWII Air Combat.”
I called his wife a few days ago to see how they were doing. She said that he had fallen and was in a rehab facility and was fussing that he wanted to go home. “He’s a tough old bird,” she said.
“Tough, indeed,” I silently thought. “One of the toughest men I have ever met.”
I told Frances that Dr. Burns was a genuine hero and a personal hero of mine. She said that she would tell him I said that and that he would be pleased.
I hope he gets to read this column and I hope he comes home soon from rehab. I hope he and Frances get to share their 50th anniversary coming up before long.
I hope that people remember what Lt. Lloyd Burns and the men like him did for this nation and for the world. I hope we remember that heroes — genuine heroes — are still among us.
Some gave their lives and saved a nation. Others fought and survived and returned home to help heal the nation, live good and honorable lives, and to secure a future for the generations to come.
To the men like Dr. Lloyd Burns, we owe a debt that can never be fully repaid. Because of them, we are still free.[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec,org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]