On August 3, 1925, William Thomas Burrows, a carpenter and laborer at a poultry farm in Walpole, New Hampshire, and his wife Edna Almira Teachout, a houseworker to local families, welcomed their first son, William Thomas Burrows, Jr.
Billy, as he was called when he was a boy, battled measles, mumps, scarlet fever, tonsillitis, and even a broken nose, but would quickly grow into a tall, skinny, quiet, charming and highly intelligent young man. His brothers, James and John, would follow suit in the years to come.
He attended Walpole Elementary, part of what is now known as the Fall Mountain Regional School District, where he showed an early proficiency in mathematics. In 1936, Billy came to Camp Takodah during its 20th summer. He attended the first two weeks in July.
Even at 11 years old, he could see that Takodah was in the midst of great change.
In the spring, two large parcels of land abutting the Richmond site had been purchased – the Pickering Property and the Amidon Lot – which substantially added to the acreage Takodah had to grow. They also purchased a new bright red sailboat and received a unique donation from long time Takodah benefactor, Mrs. Kate K. Davis: a Victor Sound-on-Film Projector. That particular piece of motion picture equipment was quite advanced for its time and would go on to be used to promote Takodah and entertain campers for many years to come.
The projector, along with its camera, still sits on display in the Alumni Welcome Center as if waiting to be used again. The films, some of which likely include scenes with Billy in them, are in storage at the Lake Street Office Building.
Billy also would have met five other young men at Camp that humid July in ‘36. Their names were Thomas Aaron Eaton, Phillip Douglas Parady, Robert Douglas Lancey, Frederick Allen Stearns, and George Frederick Toomey. They would have played together, sailed together, sung together, eaten together, and lived together. They would have worked to “stand for the hard right against the easy wrong” and “do a little good each day,” as we say at Takodah.
All six boys would end up serving their country in the Second World War. All six would also end up making the supreme sacrifice in places stretching from the farthest reaches of the Pacific to the skies of England, to the woods of France, and the distant mountains of India. They would form a unique group within the Takodian family and while they certainly knew each other, they had no idea they would be linked together for all eternity.
At 14 years old, Billy enrolled at Vermont Academy, an all-male private boarding school in Saxons River, VT, where he earned honors in math and science.
After one year, Billy, now going as just “Bill,” switched to Bellows Falls Union High School in 1940 where he played football – earning a spot on the Allstate Football Team in 1942 – and baseball through his three year run. Always a hard worker, he spent several summers employed as a caddy at Hooper Golf Club on Prospect Hill in Walpole. In this off time, he hit the links and enjoyed spending time at the local hunting clubs. He continued to remain at the head of class in academics at BFUHS– with a particular fascination in the physics of flight – right up until his graduation in 1943.
Bill had a great many opportunities ahead of him that summer. He could go on to continue his education at the college or university of his choice. He could get a job and work towards developing a career. He could get married and start a family.
Or, he could follow suit with thousands of brave souls from sea to shining sea and join the fight to save democracy around the world.
When Bill thought about his own life, he thought about his freedom and all the rights, privileges, and possibilities it affords. The news was full of stories of people in far off places who were struggling to keep that which so many take for granted. But not Bill. He knew what was at stake. He talked to his parents. He discussed it with his brothers and his friends. He deliberated and debated the paths that lay ahead of him.
In the end, he chose the hard right. He looked up towards the sky and knew what he had to do.
That June, he filled out an application and took a medical examination with the Aviation Cadet Examining Board in Rutland, Vermont. And then, in August, William Thomas Burrows, Jr. enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces.
He first went through basic training at Gulfport Army Airfield in Gulfport, Mississippi. While he was doubtless discovering just how hot and humid the gulf coast could be in the summer, Bill took his first flight in a Piper Cub on 15 August 1943. Owing to excellent aptitude scores, Bill, now a Private, attended the College Training Detachment at the Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on 2 October 1943. There he studied mathematics, flight dynamics, and learned the basics of aerial navigation. Bill desperately wanted to be a pilot so he took instructional pre-flight courses at a USAAF school in Santa Anna, California. Starting in January 1944, he took classes in basic military indoctrination, officer training, chemical warfare, medical aid, physical fitness, and a host of courses in codes, maps, mathematics, naval forces, and physics. In March, he received special training on a variety of survival tactics and weapons including a .45 caliber pistol, .30 caliber carbine rifle, a Thompson sub-machine gun, a .30 caliber machine gun, and a .22 caliber rifle. Bill even reviewed and identified targets from war department aerial photos taken during the Battle of Britain and in Russia.
Even though he had worked extremely hard and proven himself to be worthy of earning his wings, his dreams of being a pilot were dashed due to a slight deformity in his right thumb that had resulted from a compound fracture he endured in 1938. That’s all it took. One small, poorly healed injury prevented Bill from taking the controls of a shining silver craft heading up into the deep cold blue
But, Bill, having gained a reputation as a man of skill, personality, and determination, by no means gave up, gave in, or even considered quitting. While the yoke was beyond his reach, the clouds would still be his to command.
Given his proficiency at mathematics, maps, and geography, he was sent to 18 weeks of intensive USAAF Advanced Navigation School at Hondo Army Airfield in Texas on 23 April 1944.
While he was still disappointed that he would never have the chance to be a pilot, Bill was excited to play an important role in the function of an air crew and start to make his own contribution to the war effort. After training with the 87th Navigation Training Group, he successfully graduated as a certified Navigator on 21 August 1944.
Later that afternoon, Bill read and signed his Oath of Office as an officer in the USAAF.
I, William Thomas Burrows, Jr. having been appointed a 2d Lt. Army of the United States, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; so help me God.
Bill was immediately was notified he would be deploying overseas to combat operations in the European theater of the war.
After briefly being sent to Drew Airfield in Tampa, Florida, for replacement processing and training, he spent a furlough with his parents at home in Walpole from September 2-9. During that time, he caught up on his rest, ate some homecooked meals, and enjoyed just being a small-town boy, even if only for a short time. He and his parents spent many hours talking about his training and, soon enough, he revealed that he would soon be deployed for war duty.
William and Edna shared their outward pride for his accomplishments and willingness to serve his country and yet they were quietly concerned about the risks faced by their first-born son. While they did not know the heavy losses suffered in the skies over Europe – 35% of American 8th Air Force bomber crews were killed or taken prisoner over the course of the war – the stories from Europe were still grim, with newsreels, radio broadcasts and the daily papers reporting intense fighting against the Germans in the skies and fields across the continent.
Little did they know, that week was the last time they would ever see their son.
Bill returned to duty in Florida where he spent the remainder of that autumn in training. He was officially cleared for flight duty by the Office of the Flight Surgeon at Drew Field and spent day after day, hour after hour, racking up flight hours and preparing for deployment.
Finally, in November, it was time to go.
As bombers and crews were lost in combat operations, the Army Air Force flew replacement crews and bombers overseas as they became available. Bill, having recently joined a replacement crew, flew in a replacement aircraft on the long, difficult, and challenging northern route across the Atlantic, hopping base to base from the US to Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and then Britain.
On 5 December 1944, Bill’s parents received a telegram stating that he’d safely arrived in England. After arrival, he transferred to the 327th Bombardment Squadron, his destination squadron, part of the 92d Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. They operated out of RAF Podington Airfield in Bedfordshire, England.
Once at the squadron, Bill was assigned to a Lockheed Vega B-17G four-engine bomber, serial #42-97870, one of 12 aircraft in the squadron. That particular “Flying Fortress,” as the bombers were called, had been built in Burbank, California, and delivered to the USAAF on 21 March 1944. The “G” variant was the final version of the famous bomber. Among many other enhancements, they had increased the guns from seven to thirteen, upgraded the engines, added a frameless nose enclosure for improved forward views, and increased the overall armament load. Fitted out and transferred to Europe on 2 June 1944, Bill’s bomber had flown numerous missions before he arrived to meet the aircraft, or ‘airship’ (shortened to ‘ship’) as the flyers called her.
The American bomber force in that era, much like British Bomber Command, had developed in the 1920s and 30s partly in reaction to the tactical stalemate in the trenches during the First World War. American flyers, who had participated in air missions over the western front in 1917-18, believed that concentrated attacks by bombers could help break any future deadlock by destroying enemy defenses out of range of friendly ground artillery. They’d also seen the effects of German zeppelin bombing raids over London and participated in their own raids on the Ruhr. They quickly came to believe that heavy attacks on enemy cities would both outflank enemy ground defenses and convince civilians to sue for peace. The Army Air Corps (AAF), influenced by the Navy-Air Corps controversies instigated by General William “Billy” Mitchell, also believed bombers could attack enemy ships far out to sea, preventing any invasion and reducing the need for a Navy, which might increase Congressional funding for the AAF.
With those strategic and budgeting ideas in mind, the AAF began building larger bombers in the for use in a future war. The era was one of rapid technological change, especially in aerodynamic engineering and engine technology. The B-17 was actually an old design, originally drawn in 1934, but much improved as technology and experience allowed. Equipped with four modern engines, the aircraft could carry a 6,000-pound bomb load, reach 25,000 feet and fly missions from southern England to anywhere in western and central Germany. Manned by a crew of ten, the positions included a bombardier (responsible for dropping the bomb load on target), a pilot and co-pilot, flight engineer, radio operator, two waist gunners in the fuselage, a ball turret gunner in the belly of the plane, a tail gunner and a navigator. The bomber could fly with a minimum crew of six in a pinch, if crew numbers were short. Indeed, Bill’s crew was only nine men and they did without one of the waist gunners. Given the cold and thin atmosphere at cruising altitude, the crew wore thick sheepskin jackets, insulated clothing, and oxygen masks.
It was difficult, demanding, exhausting, thrilling and, quite often, absolutely terrifying.
Every time they took off on a mission, they had a 50% chance of coming home. On especially dangerous missions, that number dropped to around 25%.
By late 1944, the Eighth Air Force had forty bomber groups (each of 48 planes) and fifteen long-range fighter groups in operation. With the winter weather often making flying difficult and targets hard to see, the bombers concentrated on hitting area targets such as railroads, repair yards and bridges. Indeed, Bill’s first mission was on 9 December when planes from eight bomb groups (including the 92d) attacked the Unterturkheim rail yard in Stuttgart, Germany. Luckily for Bill, the target was relatively close – Stuttgart is in northwest Germany – and while the weather was cloudy there were no storms. As navigator, this was a relatively easy flight for Bill. There was little German fighter opposition and as anti-aircraft fire (called ‘flak’) was moderate, only a few planes were damaged.
Over the next two weeks the pace remained high, with the 92d Group attacking rail yards at Kassel on 15 December and Kaiserslautern on the 18th. After a delay caused by winter storms, the group then bombed the Ehrang railroad marshaling yards on 23 December. That night a high-pressure front across western Europe brought clear, cold weather and Eighth Air Force hurriedly planned a maximum effort against German airfields and railroad infrastructure.
Bill had been in country for just 19 days and he had already seen and done so much. He’d flown 4 missions and still had 26 to go before he would be relieved.
On the early morning of 24 December, after dispatching letters and Christmas cards home the night before and eating a breakfast of fresh eggs and toast at 0500, Bill and his B-17G crew, which were like a family to him, joined over 2,000 other bombers and 853 fighters in what ended up being the largest air raid of the Second World War. Assigned to attack the Giessen Luftwaffe complex located north of Frankfurt, the raid by 74 bombers, including Bill’s ship, destroyed much of the airfield as well as about 75% of the surrounding town.
Intermittent German fighter attacks and heavy anti-aircraft fire shot down two 92d Group bombers during the raid and many more suffered damage. Unfortunately, Bill’s aircraft was hit particularly hard by flak, which knocked out one engine and damaged a second. There was also a hole in one wing, with several fuel tanks punctured. After nearly 13 hours, the aircraft was still airborne and the pilot, 2Lt. Donald K. Lathrum, managed to nurse the bomber across the English Channel for home.
As they entered airspace over England, the returning bombers ran in to heavy weather. One after another the airfields reported they were “socked in” by heavy rains and thick fog, including Podington. Bill’s aircraft was diverted to Rougham Airfield at Bury St. Edmunds, east of Cambridge, but heavy winds, delays caused by the hundreds of other bombers desperately trying to land and the fuel leak meant the damaged bomber was rapidly running out of fuel.
By the time the damaged aircraft reached Bury St. Edmunds the sky was dark, and visibility was low owing to the fog. Although given priority to land, Lathrum had never flown out of Rougham airfield and had difficulty lining up with the runway. On his first approach he realized the bomber was misaligned and had to go around. Just at that moment, the second damaged wing engine cut out and the bomber suddenly lost control. It pitched over and struck several trees that lined a farmer’s field about a half mile southeast of the runway. The bomber dropped as Lathrum struggled at the controls and moments later the left-wing tip struck the ground, causing the B-17G to turn over on its back, hit the ground, break apart, and explode.
2Lt. William Thomas Burrows, Jr., then manning his position in the nose of the aircraft, was killed upon impact.
Although medical teams arrived at the scene within three minutes, there was little that could be done for most of the men. The entire front and center of the aircraft was shattered beyond recognition. Still, the medics were able to rescue both the tail gunner and the ball turret gunner, who survived since the plane had crashed upside down.
Sgt. Issac E. “Ike” Harder, the tail gunner, suffered a broken hip and lacerations, and was evacuated to the 65th General Hospital at Redgrave Park in Suffolk, England. He would make a full recovery and eventually return to active duty.
Sgt. Myron W. Goodman, the ball turret gunner, was less fortunate. He suffered three cervical vertebrae fractures and was paralyzed from the waist down. While he was also evacuated to the 65th, he succumbed to his injuries on 28 December.
The rest of the crew, including 2Lt. Donald K. Lathrum, co-pilot 2Lt. Robert R. Berry, bombardier Staff Sgt. Wilbron W. Stanteen, Jr., top turret gunner Sgt. James W. Bryan, radio operator Sgt. Angelo V. Greco, and waist gunner Sgt. Jack P. Isbell, all died in the crash and were recovered by mortuary teams.
On 30 December 1944, a letter from Captain Henry Ware in the Chaplain’s Office for the 92nd Bomb Group arrived at the Burrows home on Prospect Road in Walpole, NH.
The War Department has listed your son as having been killed in action on December 24th, 1944. On behalf of the Commanding General, I wish to extend our sincere sympathy. The task of the Eighth Air Force is one of vital important. If we do our job well., the War will be noticeably shorted. William was buried in an American Military Cemetery. It is located in a lovely part of the country. I conducted the service which was simple but dignified and appropriate.
Christmas for the Burrows family would never be the same again. They were devastated. But, the news kept coming. On 3 January 1945 a “Casualty Message Telegram” was delivered to his mother.
The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Second Lieutenant William T. Burrows, Jr. was killed in action.
And then a letter from Major John J. Bauer from The Office of The Adjutant General arrived on 8 January after Bill’s mother had inquired about how he had died.
“I am writing to you to confirm the recent telegram informing you of the death of your son. I fully understand your desire to learn as much as possible regarding the circumstances leading to his death. Recently, provisions were made whereby there will be sent direction to the emergency addressee or next of kin a letter containing further information. It may be expected soon.”
Within a matter of days, that letter arrived.
“William died instantly when his aircraft crashed in landing after an operational mission. As you know, William has joined his organization only a short time before his death. Yet he had made many friends, and his earnestness impressed us all. His contributions to an early and successful end to this war – before and in his final sacrifice – will long serve as an inspiration to his comrades. If we can help you in any way, it will be a privilege to have you call on us.”
And then another on 21 February 1945 from Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General, United States Army Air Forces.
“With keenest regret, I have learned of the death of your son. I find the manner in which he accomplished his training was characteristic of the worthy effort he made throughout his military career. He applied himself seriously at Hondo Air Field, enjoying an enviable reputation for being cooperative and conscientious. He was eager to do his best on each duty assignment and the patriotic spirit which inspired him was admired by officers and men alike. “
And finally, the next day, 22 February 1945.
At the request of the President, I write to inform you that the Purple Heart has been awarded posthumously to your son, William T. Burrows, Jr., Air Corps, who sacrificed his life in defense of his country. Little that we can do or say will console you. We profoundly appreciate the greatness of your loss, for in a very real sense the loss suffered by any of us in this battle for our country is a loss shared by all of us.
Long after his medal arrived, the loss would be felt. For Bill would always be missed, forever be remembered, and be annually honored on the day he died. Now the Burrows, like so many other mothers, fathers, and siblings, would mourn the loss of a life of tremendous potential that had been cut far, far too short.
“We see little and hear less of this tall fellow,” a friend of Bill’s wrote in his high school yearbook. While that was certainly true for the man, his memory would echo for decades to come.
Authors Note: A fantastic coincidence surrounding this story occurred shortly after it was published. The co-author of Bill’s story volunteered for a week as a “Cabin Dad” with the Buffalo Division during Session One, 2019. He got to talking to his British co-leader and at one point the author asked him where he was from. He replied that he was from a tiny little village just outside the city of Bury St. Edmunds. In fact, he doesn’t live too far from Rougham Airfield!