Academic journal article Air Power History

"I Wonder at Times How We Keep Going Here": The 1941-42 Philippines Diary of Lt. John P. Burns, 21st Pursuit Squadron

Academic journal article Air Power History

"I Wonder at Times How We Keep Going Here": The 1941-42 Philippines Diary of Lt. John P. Burns, 21st Pursuit Squadron

Article excerpt

In my research in the 1980s for Doomed at the Start--the story of the 24th Pursuit Group in the ill-fated Philippines campaign of 1941-1942--one of my main sources of information were the entries in the diaries kept by a number of the pursuit pilots. The diaries were invaluable in affording me an insight into the day-by-day feelings and experiences of the young men caught up in the depressing events of the five-month campaign. However, for the experiences of the pilots assigned to two of the Pursuit squadrons--the 21st and 34th--who had arrived less than three weeks before the initial Japanese aerial attack on the Philippines of December 8, 1941, I was handicapped by the lack of any diaries and had to rely on memoirs and correspondence years after the events they experienced.

In February 2006, while assisting John Lukacs, who is preparing the first biography of Ed Dyess, the commanding officer of the 21st Pursuit Squadron whose POW experiences and escape made him famous during World War II, I learned that John Burns--one of the 21st Pursuit pilots--did keep a diary and that it was in the possession of his younger brother, Reverend Richard Lee Burns. Reverend Burns kindly made a copy of it for Lukacs and allowed him to make a copy for me too.

How the diary ended up in the hands of the Burns family turned out to be a story in itself. According to Rev. Burns, it was received in a package in 1945 from an American soldier who had been engaged in the seizure of Buna, New Guinea, from the Japanese in early January 1943. The soldier indicated that he had taken the diary off the body of a Japanese soldier killed in the battle. Following his return to the U.S. at the end of the War, the American soldier--whose name is no longer remembered--was able to locate the Burns family to return the diary.

Research by the author would seem to indicate that the Japanese soldier was a member of the 41st Infantry Regiment, which on May 9, 1942, had captured the American air base at Del Monte, Mindanao and its satellite fields, ending the Philippines campaign. The 41st Regiment was subsequently assigned to the New Guinea campaign, arriving in July 1942. It fought its last battle in defense of Buna in early January 1943, at which time the Japanese soldier was evidently killed.

One wonders how the Japanese soldier came into possession of Burns' diary and why he was carrying it on his body at the time he was killed. Burns had been killed in an accident taking off from Dalirig strip, Mindanao, on April 13, 1942, and was buried at nearby Del Monte that evening. It is likely the chaplain who buried him--probably Joseph V. LaFleur, the chaplain of the 19th Bomb Group who was at Del Monte at the time--found the diary in Burns' living quarters and kept it for return to the family as part of his duties. His intention would have been thwarted when he was taken prisoner with the rest of the surrendering American force at Del Monte and turned over the "souvenir" when ordered by the Japanese.

The diary provides an invaluable day-by-day account of the activities of Burns from the time of his departure from the U.S. on November 1, 1940 through April 11, 1942, two days before his death. It is the only contemporary source that exists of the initial operations of the 21st Pursuit Squadron and its subsequent experiences on beach defense and at Bataan Field in January, February, and March 1942. Had I known of its existence at the time of writing Doomed, it would have provided me better documentation for my coverage of the squadron's operations.

In the way of background information, John Patterson Burns was born on September 22, 1917, in Mansfield, Ohio, and graduated from Uniontown High School in 1936. In June 1940, he graduated from Ohio University with a degree in electrical engineering and a commission in the Infantry of the Army Reserve. Burns received his wings from Kelly Field on February 7, 1941, in the class of 41A, fulfilling a childhood ambition. …

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