The scar was left by a Japanese Samurai sword wielded by an officer of the Japanese Army while Burns was a prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II.
Such swords were used by the Japanese in some instances to behead captured American fighter plane pilots.
“For some reason, he decided at the last moment to spare me, turning the sword to strike me more with the broad side than with the razor-sharp edge,” Burns said.
He said that surprised him because some of the Japanese soldiers of that era in that war “were inhuman” in their treatment of POWs.
On April 10, 1942, the Japanese began the “Bataan Death March,” marching 76,000 Allied POWs, including 12,000 Americans, on a 60-mile trek to a new prison camp. They marched under a blazing sun with no food or water. About 5,000 Americans died.
Nearly a month later, Burns was among the last U.S. troops holding out in the Philippines, on Mindanao.
Burns was an engineer with the Army Air Corps’ 27th Bomb Group. The personnel were shipped separately from their planes and equipment. They arrived in Manila on Nov. 20, 1941, but their planes and equipment were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 and the Philippines the following day.
On Dec. 12, the convoy with the planes was diverted to Brisbane, Australia, leaving the bulk of the 27th’s pilots and engineers and mechanics to fight without planes or heavy arms as infantry on islands like Bataan, Corregidor and Mindanao.
“We had fought with everything we had — machine guns, pistols — but it was not enough,” Burns said.
Some were able to get to Corregidor from the Bataan Peninsula when the Japanese overwhelmed the units there.
Late on May 6, General Wainwright asked the Japanese commander, Homma, for terms of surrender. Homma insisted that surrender include all Allied forces in the Philippines. Believing that the lives of all those on Corregidor would be endangered, Wainwright accepted. On May 8, he sent a message to his officer, Sharp, ordering him to surrender the Visayan-Mindanao Force.
Burns was among about 300 Americans taken prisoner on Mindanao.
The defeat was the start of three-and-a-half years of harsh treatment for the Allied survivors, including atrocities like the Bataan Death March and the misery of Japanese prison camps, and the “Hell Ships” on which American and Allied men were sent to Japan to be used for labor in mines and factories.
Thousands were crowded into the holds of Japanese ships, without water, food or sufficient ventilation. The Japanese did not mark “POW” on the decks of these ships, and some were attacked by American aircraft and sunk. For instance, on Sept. 7, 1944, the Shinyo Maru was sunk by the USS Paddle. Of the 770 POWs on board, only 82 survived.
Burns was imprisoned in Manila for a while. Later, as General Douglas MacArthur and Allied forces returned to turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor, he was among those moved to Japan.
He was liberated by American forces after Japan’s surrender in September 1945.
Later, Burns would receive three presidential medals and a letter from the armed services of the Philippines, thanking him for his service to the Philippine people. The medals were for Defense, Liberation and Independence of the Philippine people.
He was also awarded the Bronze Star Medal, given for bravery on the battlefield.
Maj. Damon “Rocky” Gause, who wrote a book that included action by the 27th Bomb Group, sent him an autographed copy of the book in which he wrote, “...(the 97th’s) courageous fight against overwhelming odds on Bataan during World War II will always hold a special place in my heart. Our wonderful America will always be indebted to you.”
Burns, a graduate of Ironton High School, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941. During basic training in Georgia, his superiors asked who had knowledge of machine shop. Burns volunteered and built a machine shop. Officials liked it, and wanted him to build more of them. That’s how he wound up in the Philippines before World War II ever began.
He remained in the Air Force for 16 years, stationed chiefly at Wright Patterson Air Base near Dayton. He declined to reenlist for the final four years that would have given him the 20 years needed for retirement, came to Portsmouth, and began a successful home construction business.
He and his wife, Marijane, who had dated him at Ironton High, have two sons, Charles and Donald, a daughter, Linda, two granddaughters and a grandson.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.