by Marsha Geier Herald-Journal Staff
Monon - Memories sometimes flood the mind of Stephen Burbage Jr. of Monon.
Burbage, 76, served in the European theater with the Thunderbird Division, 45th Infantry, Co. K, 157th Regiment, during World War II.
He has written down some of his memories and, as time passes, he has been able to talk to his family about the war.
Burbage was born in Elkhart, but grew up on a farm near Chalmers. He attended Monon High School but left school after the 11th grade to go to work.
"I was caught in the draft at age 18," he says. "I went in at Fort Benjamin Harrison in the Army Infantry, was sent to Camp Blanding, Fla., and shipped overseas aboard the USS Cohen P Kelly from Newport News, VA. We went in a 200-ship convoy to Naples, Italy in May 1944."
He carried a B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle) and, when the troops came ashore at Anzio beach head, he met and shook hands with Ernie Pyle, the foot soldiers' war correspondent and fellow Hoosier.
"He was just sitting at an old typewriter catching up on some stories," Burbage says.
His unit was sent to Rome, then for amphibious training for a month in Salerno and Naples.
"We practiced making landings, but we didn't know where we would be going," he said. "And all our letters home were censored for places and secret army information."
Finally, he was among three infantry divisions headed toward battle.
"We came ashore at St. Maxime, France," Burbage says. "I was carrying my B.A.R. and had an assistant and an ammo carrier along with me on the assault wave."
In a horror that stays with him today, his best buddy stepped on a "wooden shoe" mine and lost his foot. Burbage stayed with him until the medics arrived.
"That was the Second D-Day in France, Aug. 15, 1944," he remembers.
As his unit walked through France, on entering each town the first thing the soldiers did was to blow up the church steeples, as they usually housed snipers.
On Sept. 1, 1944, his platoon engaged the 17th German Army at Montelemar, France. Burbage was on outpost duty and wiped out a 12-man German paratroop patrol to save his fellow soldiers. For this action, he was awarded the Bronze Star medal.
"It was kill or be killed. War was hell."
The men walked on in miserable conditions and Burbage almost made it to the Rhine River.
"I got trench foot and spent a month and a half in a hospital at Bar LeDuc, near Nancy, France," he says. "While I was there, my whole platoon got wiped out."
After leaving the hospital, he was placed on limited assignment with the military police and, for a while, saw duty at Orly Field near Paris and also in Germany, Austria and Belgium.
At Grenoble, France, he was injured when a truck he wa in was pushed off the road by a U.S. tank. Fellow soldiers were killed and he was pinned under the truck.
"I've been working with the White County Veterans' Service Office to get a Purple Heart for this action," he says.
While near Paris, he and his brother Raymond, also in the service, were able to meet for short visits. The brothers were able to return home together on the liberty ship, USS Francis Walker.
"The trip over took 27 days and the trip home took 14 days," he says.
He was honorably discharged on Nov. 3, 1945 at Camp Atterbury.
On Dec. 31, 1945, he married Anna Belle Ewing and the couple had three children. They have five grandchildren, one of which served in the Thunderbird Division, and six great-grandchildren.
He was employed with the Monon, L & N and CSX railroads and retired after 30 years in 1986.
His daughter, Stardust Page, has been recording his war history on her computer and searching the Internet for men from his division.
Burbage and his wife are charter members of the Monon Community Church Assembly of God, where he is the last surviving veteran of World War II.
"We lost some good men over there. The good Lord was with me and protected me," he says.
The old soldier has one wish.
"I hope to visit Washington D.C. to see the World War II memorial when it is completed.
"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do." Henry Ford, American auto manufacturer (1863-1947)
This article was originally printed in the Monticello, Indiana Herald Journal on August 28, 2001. It is reproduced here with the permission of author Marsha Geier, and the family of Stephen Burbage Jr.