John Taylor Burke
|HOME OF RECORD
|NEXT OF KIN
Mother, Mrs. Frances Underwood
|DATE OF BIRTH
April 21, 1925
August 29, 1942
|DATE OF LOSS
November 20, 1943
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
Killed In Action
CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
PFC Burke’s remains were officially identified on 15 May 2019.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
Private First Class
|STATUS OF REMAINS
NOTE: Although 1/8th Marines did not go ashore at Betio until the morning of 21 November, many members of this unit were originally reported as KIA on 20 November. Burke’s records have been officially amended by the Department of the Navy to reflect the correct date.
John Taylor “Jack” Burke was born in Icard, North Carolina, on 21 April 1925. He was the son of Lloyd and Frances “Flora” Burke and grew up, appropriately enough, in Burke County. Lloyd and Flora split when Jack was just a little boy; Flora remarried a cotton mill worker named Thomas Underwood, and moved with him to Catawba County. In 1940, Jack Burke was living in Newton, North Carolina, with his parents, step-sister, half-brother, and three lodgers all under the same roof.
Jack was sixteen years old and probably attending high school when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had to wait to come of age before enlisting – which he did at Raleigh on 29 August 1942. The hopeful teenager was packed off to boot camp in California; upon completion of his strenuous training, Private Burke was assigned to a replacement draft headed for New Zealand. He became a member of Company B, First Battalion, 8th Marines, a veteran unit recently returned from the Guadalcanal campaign.
Burke was assigned to a platoon in Company B, and set about learning the ropes. The outfit “needed a lot of training to get ourselves back into shape” after months on Guadalcanal, said company officer Lt. Dean Ladd, “and to incorporate the replacements who were streaming in from the States…. We built positions based on the Japanese model and practiced attacking them. We advanced through wooded areas against simulated sniper attacks….. We conducted amphibious landing exercises, usually at the beach near our camp.”(1) As a replacement, Jack Burke had to hustle hard to keep up with the veterans in his company. Fortunately, there were plentiful liberties in the towns and cities of New Zealand; Burke probably got to know his new comrades while visiting Wellington, and perhaps even had a “Kiwi” girlfriend. Jack’s eighteenth birthday happened to fall on a Saturday, and he might have been able to celebrate his majority with a weekend pass. He applied himself well to his training, and was rewarded with a promotion to private first class in the early fall of 1943.
Jack Burke was up early on the morning of 20 November 1943. The mess hall aboard the USS Sheridan had plenty of steak and powdered eggs; energy food for a day of exertion, which the veterans called the “dead man’s breakfast.” Those who ate did so in silence, too apprehensive to make conversation, and then went up on deck to watch the “show.” Burke’s battalion was designated as a reserve unit, and they had a ringside seat for the bombardment of Betio. “We can even see the shells, red-hot and glowing like meteors, streaking across the sky in shallow trajectories towards the island,” relates Lt. Ladd. “On Betio we see explosions, flames leaping up. We’re impressed. ‘Wow, look at that,’ we say. ‘Look at the smoke, look at the fire. Wow.'” (2) They could see the small dots of LVTs carrying the assault waves – their sister battalions – crawling towards the inferno. “The minutes pass, and we know the assault has begun,” continued Ladd. “Nothing to do now but wait. The warships have ceased firing. We smoke cigarettes, chat, check our weapons and gear, fidget. We can’t hear any sounds of battle…. Maybe there isn’t a battle. Maybe the amphtracs are trundling ashore without incident, depositing the Marines on the beaches, and no one is even getting his feet wet.” (3)
Radio reports quickly dispelled the pleasant myth, and the news was relayed to the waiting men via the Sheridan’s loudspeakers. The grim picture of what was really happening on shore blossomed into ugly reality, and the Marines realized that the call for reserves would soon be coming. Sure enough, at 1140 the order was passed to prepare to disembark. PFC Burke and the rest of his company climbed down rope nets slung over the side of the Sheridan and into waiting landing craft. They circled in the lagoon for hours under the equatorial sun, boondockers awash in sea water and vomit, smoking their cigarettes and choking on diesel fumes, occasionally looking over the side and wondering how Betio was still there. Night fell and still they circled, ignoring the horizon turned red by the burning island.
We know we’re too young to die, and somehow, in a kind of strange and protective twist of logic and feeling, we figure that because we’re too young to die we certainly won’t die.(4)
By sunrise on 21 November 1943, the troops in the boats were so fatigued they could barely function. “We were afloat for about twenty hours,” commented Lieutenant Ladd. “Our mouths are dry, our muscles are stiff, we feel haggard and cruddy. Some guys are sipping from their canteens or nibbling on their rations, although there’s not much eating because we just aren’t hungry.”(5) Finally, they were told to prepare to land on Beach Red 2.
Dean Ladd took one last look at his platoon. Jack Burke might have been one of the Marines staring back at him.
Most of them teenagers, most of them new to combat. I look at them and they look at me. I see fresh, boyish faces and wide worried eyes staring out from beneath their helmet brims. Their helmets all seem a size too big, accentuating their boyishness, making them look as young as, well, as most of them really are….
We call them men; we treat them as men; we expect them to act like men. They are, after all, United States Marines. But, really, they’re kids, just out of high school or not even that. Kids with rifles, true; kids trained to kill, also true; but kids nevertheless….
The kids on my boat have got a lot of growing up to do. Unfortunately, they’ll be doing a hefty portion of that growing up in the coming minutes and hours. In that period, many – far too many – will undergo all the growing up they will ever experience. They will transition with almost obscene dispatch from youth to adulthood to the grave. At Betio, youth won’t be served; it’ll be served up and consumed, literally, in fire. These youths will be men only briefly, and then they will be just a memory, forever.
As the boats headed for the beach as quickly as their straining engines allowed, the Marines aboard began to hear the buzzing of machine gun bullets overhead. Then, with a shattering crash, the boats ran aground on the reef, one by one. Marines fell to the deck, cursing and crying out, then the ramps dropped and they tumbled out into the surf, instant targets for gunners on the shore.
“At Betio, there were Marines whose entire combat careers lasted only a few seconds,” wrote Dean Ladd. “These were the kids who joined the 2nd Division in New Zealand, fresh out of boot camp. The landing craft ramps went down, they charged out, and they were shot dead. Just that fast they were gone, lifeless bodies floating in the water.” As the lieutenant waded towards the shore, he saw “men are dropping everywhere, to the left and right of me, dropping, falling, sinking into the water, going under. Some men don’t cry out, hardly make a sound when they’re hit: the bullet or bullets thump into them, they grunt, and they’re gone.” (6)
The battalion was shattered in the long slog to shore. The stunned survivors who made it to Red Beach were, to put it lightly, “badly disorganized” after enduring five hundred yards of mortars, shells, and machine gun fire from both flanks. Many were seen to fall in the water or on the beach, but many others virtually disappeared; they simply were never seen again. One of those who vanished was PFC Jack Burke. No living eyewitnesses could tell of his fate, and he was reported as missing in action following the battle.
By March of 1944, the battalion’s record keepers realized that many of the missing were, in fact, dead and hopefully buried. A blanket correction to the muster roll was typed up, and the next of kin notified. Meanwhile, on Betio, memorial crosses bearing the names of the dead were being erected. One bore the name of PFC John Taylor Burke.
In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company attempted to locate and identify the dead on Tarawa. However, with little information about PFC Burke – no clue as to his last known whereabouts, no available dental chart – they were not able to definitively identify his remains.
Meanwhile, Frances Underwood received a small parcel of her son’s personal belongings. The paltry collection – some photos, a Bible, a pair of sunglasses – would be the only physical remembrances returned during her lifetime.
John Burke did, in fact, lose his life on Betio. At some point in November 1943, his body was collected and carried to the Central Division Cemetery near Beach Red 2. He was unrecognizable to the men who buried him, and he had no means of identification on his person, so they erected a marker for an unknown Marine.
The 604th QMGRC exhumed the remains in the Central Division Cemetery (which they called by its Navy designation, “Cemetery 26”) in March, 1946. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to identify many of the men they uncovered, including the skeleton they designated as “X-98.” After being examined and photographed, X-98 was reburied in Lone Palm Cemetery, Plot 1 Row 6 Grave 10.
The next stop for X-98 was the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. There, technicians noted several fractures in his jaw and skull, but could only describe a young man whose face was “not unusual in its proportions.” They also noted his only belongings as a rotting pair of Marine Corps shoes, size 8EE. Unable to secure a dental match, and unable to narrow down their candidates with the evidence available, the laboratory declared X-98 unidentifiable, and had him buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on 23 March 1949.
The long-unnamed remains of X-98 were disinterred in January 2017, and readmitted to the lab. Two years later, using a chest radiograph comparison and DNA samples contributed by a living relative, the DPAA was able to definitively identify John Taylor Burke on 15 May 2019.
Jack Burke will be buried in Hickory, North Carolina, on 26 October 2019.
(1) Dean Ladd and Steve Weingartner, Faithful Warriors: A Combat Marine Remembers the Pacific War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 120.
(2) Ibid., 17.
(3) Ibid., 18.
(4) Ibid., 22.
(5) Ibid., 23.
(6) Ibid., 30.