Major Robert F. Burns
90th Division, U.S. Army
War Letters from Europe
Normandy to Germany
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Enlistment. Robert F. Burns attended CMTC training at Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1931, 1932, and 1933. After completing his Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts at the University of Illinois in 1936, he moved to San Francisco. On September 5, 1939, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant Infantry Reserve at the Presidio in San Francisco. He was assigned to the 362nd Infantry Regiment (Reserve). He was called to active duty at Camp Roberts, California on February 5, 1941 and served as Platoon Leader from February 10, 1941 to October 28th, 1941. He then served as Troop Training Company Officer from October 29, 1941 to February 25, 1942 in the same company.
Joined 90th Division. When the 90th Division was activated on March 25, 1942, he joined the Tough Ombres at Camp Barkeley, Texas, as a Platoon Leader for the 358th Infantry Regiment. On August 20, 1942, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and nine days later he was assigned to K Co, 358th as a Platoon Leader and Company Officer. He was promoted to Captain on August 14, 1943. On January 1, 1944, he transferred to Headquarters, 3rd Battalion, 358th, as S-3, Operations and Training Staff Officer, a position he held through November 1, 1944.
Training and Overseas Movement. In January 1943, training at Camp Barkeley was augmented by maneuvers in Louisiana for two months. In August 1943, three months of additional training and maneuvers were held in the California and Arizona deserts terminating with a mock battle. Training continued until December. In early January 1944, the 90th Division left via train for Fort Dix, New Jersey. He returned to Chicago on leave in late January. On March 14, 1944 the 90th Division moved to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey in preparation for overseas deployment. On March 22, 1944, they traveled via train to New York and under cover of night boarded ships for England. He traveled on the ship John Erickson.
England. The 90th Division arrived in Liverpool on April 8, 1944 and then moved to camps south of Birmingham. On May 12, 1944, the 3rd Battalion, 358th moved to Camp Llanmartinn, a closed camp, near Newport, Wales where they continued their intensive training and equipment preparation. On June 4, 1944, they boarded the transport ships for the invasion at Normandy. The 3rd Battalion, 358th traveled on the Bienville.
France. The 3rd Battalion, 358th, landed on Utah Beach on June 8, 1944, D-Day+2. They organized at Loutres. On June 10, 1944, the 358th entered combat crossing the Merderet River and moved towards the objectives of Picauville and Pont L'Abbe. They faced determined resistance and began fighting through the famous French hedgerows. Progress was slow and casualties heavy. Battles were fought for Pont L'Abbe, Gourbesville, Le Callais. The end of June provided a short measure of rest for the Battalion and gave Capt. Burns the opportunity to write home to his mother. On June 22, 1944, he wrote: "You'll see by the heading (Somewhere in France) why you haven't heard much from me recently. We've been pretty much on the move and only now are we having a breather. We have seen some rough fighting but so far I am unscratched."
The third of July began the Battle of the Foret de Mont Castre and Hill 122, a vantage point the Germans had fortified and used successfully as part of the Mahlman Line of defense. From Hill 122, the landing beaches were visible on a clear day. Advancing through the steep terrain of the Foret was a grueling, and for many in the 3rd Battalion, deadly encounter with experienced and determined German troops. Capt. Burns, as S-3 for the 3rd Battalion, was a front line participant in the battle as the 358th Infantry History and his Silver Star indicate. The Foret and Hill 122 were finally taken on July 12, 1944. The 3rd Battalion, 358th Infantry later received a Presidential Unit Citation for their determination and success in the Battle of the Foret de Mont Castre. The latter days of July were devoted to an ill-fated attempt to take the Island of Seves, which resulted in the surrender of many soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 358th Infantry. Details of the surrender are documented in the 358th Infantry History on July 23rd and following days.
August brought battles to liberate numerous small towns in an attempt to block the Germans from escaping from the Falais Pocket gap. Capt. Burns was sent on a mission with K Company to the town of Landivy and found it unoccupied by Germans. According to the Battle History of the 358th Battalion: "The people here were very happy to see the Americans and even presented Capt. Robert Burns, Battalion S-3 with the keys to the city at an elaborate ceremony." [Bryan, Battle History, Chap. 4] His letter of September 1, 1944 provided many interesting details of what actually happened during this ceremony.
During September and October, the Battalion continued to liberate French towns. His letters home during this time rarely mentioned the fighting but focused on detailed descriptions of the countryside, the French people, the architecture of the buildings, animals they came across, and the men he fought with. His letter of October 14, 1944 focused on what he called "some real heroes of this war - the runners." He went on to describe in detail his trip with one runner and his understanding of how difficult and unsung their heroic job really was. In late October, each man in the Battalion received his Combat Infantryman Badge. He noted in his letter of October 22, 1944 that "...all of us consider it our highest award, above any other medal, for it is limited to front line fighting troops." In this same letter he mentioned sending home his Silver Star that he had received on September 27th.
As preparation for the crossing of the Moselle River began in early November, "Captain Burns was transferred to Division Headquarters as assistant G-3." [Bryan, Battle History, Chapter 4] In his letter of November 12, 1944, he described the unexpected promotion and noted that the "Big disadvantage is that it gets you removed from the actual war." In his letter of November 24, 1944, he wrote: "They say everything comes to him who waits and tomorrow I am going to Paris for a week of school." In the same letter he also noted: "I really enjoy my present work but it definitely is a 16-18 hr a day job and sometimes 24." His new job as assistant G-3 must have been quite a change from that of an S-3 on the front line. While he did make it to Paris, his VMail of December 2, 1944 expressed his disappointment that he was unable to take a tour and also unable to buy anything for the family because of the high cost of just about everything. In his letter of December 27, 1944 he described his Christmas as "nice."
Luxembourg. In January 1945, the Division moved to Luxembourg to participate in the Battle of the Bulge. On January 9, 1945, he wrote of the beauty of Luxembourg: "But that which makes it pretty makes it more difficult to fight over. For our men up front it's a cold, grim business, moving without shelter through the white wilderness. Only the confidence in their own great fighting power and the knowledge of certain victory sustain them. We were dealt a swift and unexpected blow which was quickly fended by courageous men, and now we are ramming the enemy's teeth back into his own throat to stifle him for all time. Two much praise cannot be written for the men of this Division for the tremendous drive they have developed since the first dark days in Normandy." On January 20, 1945, still in Luxembourg, he wrote: "The white blanket seems only to emphasize the bleakness and desolation of the area. The buildings stand sightless and uncovered like a blind man without an overcoat. A few gaunt cows stir about and an occasional pig runs pink and chilled down the road. Where the few civilians still live, heavy-furred dogs like Alaskan sled dogs wander aimlessly. War has passed here with great violence and not even the heavy snow can completely blot out the frozen wreckage strewn on every side. Yet, withal, the country is magnificent and when the sun is out it makes a brilliant picture. But underneath it is harsh and cruel on the men who must burrow into it to live and to fight."
Belgium and Germany. In February, the 90th Division crossed into Belgium and then into Germany. On February 16, 1945, Capt. Burns was promoted to Major. His letter of February 21, 1945 described how he was told his promotion had come through: "...I was still sleeping late yesterday afternoon when Capt. Everett woke me up and told me to get up and be a major. Guess I wasn't much convinced for I went back to sleep for about 20 minutes. After supper the general called me in to personally congratulate me." Late February brought some respite and he attended a movie in a cold and uncomfortable setting clearly described in his letter of February 26, 1945. He ended that letter with these melancholy words: "You emerge into the cold night and the reality of mud and debris and torn houses. Gone are the warm Russian sun, the gypsy music and the lazy warmth of summer. Now remains only the noise of wet clay sucking at your boots to break the strange silence that marks this town from which all civilization has fled." In that same letter of February 26,1945 he also noted that he was ..."now entitled to wear another decoration, for the 3rd Battalion with which I was has just received a Presidential Unit Citation for its action in the Foret de Mont Castre. You may have seen some of these ribbons - a plain blue with a gold metal border all around. It is worn on the right breast instead of the left where all other decorations are placed."
After February 26, 1945, there were no letters for more than a month. In his next letter on April 5, 1945, he sounded more positive: "Things look very favorable. Now that we are through the west wall, these people shrink from having their homes fought over and white flags are everywhere becoming more frequent. It is easy to see why the Germans fostered Nazism. They lack for nothing. Their larders are well stocked. They have fine homes, beautiful furniture in even the smallest farm community. Labor is plentiful. I have never seen so many people 'displaced persons' as are everywhere here. They include prisoners of war, forced laborers and I suppose some volunteer help."
Czechoslovakia. His letter of May 5, 1945, explained why he hadn't written during the past month: "At last I'm caught up again and can breathe easily for a while. We were moving so fast these past weeks that my reports were way behind. But now I am pretty much up-to-date...The situation is breaking fast. It appears to be just a question of time. We still have some fanatics in front of us, however." By May 10, Germany had surrendered and the 90th Division had moved into Czechoslovakia, a country he described to his mother in his letter of May 16, 1945 : "You'd enjoy this country's climate as well as Tucson's I believe. It's about like Southern California and most of the natives are already deeply tanned."
Germany. His letter of May 20, 1945 noted: "The general, before he left, gave me an Oak Leaf Cluster to my Bronze Star, which constitutes a second award of it. "In his letter of June 3, 1945, he had begun to think about possible discharge: "I have just about decided that if I do become non-essential (which seems doubtful) that I will get discharged over here and stay in France for about a year. I'd like to take some art work in Paris and at the same time will learn to speak French." His letter of June 22, 1945 noted: "The really big news, however, is that I am going to the Riviera for a week's vacation. I go to Munich tomorrow by motor and take a plane from there. I will be at the Riviera seven days, exclusive of travel time. Col. Booth came back last week end, which is what allows me to go." His letter of July 3, 1945 noted that his trip turned out to be not just a vacation but also an opportunity to meet with his old boss, Col. Stilwell, who was also in Cannes. "...I had word that Col. Stilwell was here. I went to look for him but did not find him until evening when we had quite a reunion." On July 27, 1945, he wrote that he had been transferred to XII Corps G-3 Sec.: "Here I sit a "paper rustler," the thing I have always tried to avoid. I wrote you some time ago that I probably would be transferred to a Category IV unit (scheduled for demobilization) and so I have been. I came here yesterday. The set-up is good though still unfamiliar. I am in the G-3 section still, but am at present and probably for some time will be in the "Administrative and Publications" subsection. They are official keepers of the dots and dashes whose job is to see that all members of the staff spell right and put commas in the right places in their little creative outbursts."
He sounded much happier in his letter of August 3, 1945 in which he wrote: "Well, things are looking better. I have a new job which keeps me busy all day. I am now a Corps Special Troops I & E Officer (I & E - Information and Education). As such I am "principal" of the Corps school. Sure is a lot of fun now that I'm learning the ropes. We have about 600 students taking quite a variety of courses: Algebra, trig, physics, carpentry, business English, French, German, piano, book keeping, photography, typewriting, advertising, etc. I'm not taking anything myself as I have my hands full and the program is well under way." Teaching was certainly more to his liking than pushing papers. August also brought another trip to Paris during which he could finally explore the city a bit as explained in his letter of August 28, 1945: "Yesterday, I went up to the old Montmartre area around Sacre Coeur church. The church stands on a hill something like Morin Peaks in San Francisco, so that you see all far out over the city sprawled below it. The interior of this church is extremely handsome with some beautiful mosaic work around the walls and pulpit. The statues are all very restrained which gives them great dignity. The area around the church has very old buildings, quite different in style from the rest of Paris. Three or four artists were at work in both water colors and oils. I peered over their shoulders like everyone else."
In September, back in Regensburg, Germany, he was hospitalized for an eye infection that had developed on his trip to Paris. On September 9, 1945, he wrote that he had finalized plans to remain in Europe even though many of his colleagues were leaving Europe: "Were I not planning on going to school next month I probably would be one of them. But I have everything just about arranged to take the next quarter in painting at Beaux Arts in Paris starting in October. This means I won't be home until at least February, but I think it will be better." He was again hospitalized on September 27th for more than a week to continue treatment for the infection in his eye.
France. For someone whose degree was in Fine Arts with a major in painting, there could hardly have been a better opportunity than art school in Paris. He left Regensburg, Germany and moved to Paris on October 10, 1945 to attend classes under the Army Educational Program. He began his formal classes at the School of the Beaux Arts on October 15, 1945. He studied with Jean Souverbie, head professor, and Jean Jaudon. During his nearly three months living in Paris, he attended classes, visited art museums, and sketched and painted. One of his paintings was on exhibit at a "student's show." During his time in Paris, he met Paulette Lequien, whom he later married after returning to Paris in June, 1946. He spent Christmas, 1945, with Paulette, her daughter Marie-Paulette, and her mother, Elise Marie Dorpmans.
Back to the United States. When the school term ended, he left Paris on January 14, 1946 to go to Namur, Belgium to be "processed" to return to the United States. His high point score (calculated by time overseas and decorations awarded) gave him priority and meant he could leave sooner from Le Havre, France instead of waiting at Antwerp for a ship. He traveled by train to LeHavre on January 21, 1946 and arrived the next day at Camp Herbert Tareyton, a tent camp that he described as cold and none too comfortable. He sailed for the United States on January 25, 1946 on the Mont Clair, a victory ship that held about 1,500 men. He was in charge of a small group of 28 men and 5 officers who were also to be separated at Camp Grant in Illinois. He reached Camp Kilmer, New Jersey on February 8, 1946 and sent a telegram to his mother that simply said: "Arrived safely. Leaving for Grant Saturday. Home probably midweek. Love, Bob." It was just over two years since he had last been home and seen his family. He was discharged from active duty on June 3, 1946 at Camp Grant, Illinois.
After World War II. From June, 1946 until February, 1949, he remained on inactive reserve with the 500th R Infantry OR Comp Gp (Unasgd). In March, 1949, he transferred to Headquarters 5308 Infantry Division (5th US Army) USAR School (Chicago). He was promoted to Lt. Col. on November 6, 1952. Over the next 25 years he served in several positions in this unit: Asst S-3, Instructor at C&GSC, S-3, and finally Commandant. At the school, he taught classes one evening a week and spent two weeks each summer at a midwest Army installation or at Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth teaching classes. He was promoted to a full Colonel on March 2, 1961. He retired from his position as Commandant of this school on March 11, 1974, his 60th birthday. His service with the Army stretched from September 5, 1939 to March 11, 1974, a total of nearly 35 years. His 5 years of active duty in World War II undoubtedly provided him with a wealth of personal knowledge to teach military tactics in the Reserves. He rarely shared much of his war-time experience with the family but, fortunately, he kept good official records of his service and those records provided the factual data of his military career for this site.
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