|An up close and personal interview with U.S. Air Force Veteran and Togetherweserved.com Member:|
SMSgt James Burns U.S. Air Force (Ret) (1959-1979)
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
My dad served as a Sergeant in the US Army during World War II. He trained troops of the 82nd Airborne Division how to parachute into combat. While he did not see combat himself, many of those he trained were in the thick of battle, beginning with a night-jump behind enemy lines on D-Day and later when the division was surrounded at the Battle of the Bulge. I am very proud of my dad's military service.
Three of my best friends in high school and I had decided to drop out of school in our senior year and join the US Navy. I had gotten married about half way through my senior year and when I told my parents and my wife's parents of my plans to join the Navy, they convinced me to finish high school first, so that's what I did. My buddies were already in the Navy when I graduated from high school and since I grew up as an airplane nut and always had an interest in military aircraft, I went my own way by joining the US Air Force in June 1959. I was following my dream. It also provided me with a way to support my wife.
WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
All through basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, I felt assured I was well on my way to my goal of being a jet fighter mechanic. I had no reason to doubt that was my destiny when I was sent to Sheppard AFB, Texas to await my tech school assignment. After about three weeks at Sheppard and checking the bulletin board postings each day for my name and school assignment, it finally showed up. There it was 'Helicopter Mechanic School'. How could that be! That's not something I even thought of, least ways signed up for. I was going to be a jet fighter mechanic. Needless to say I was very disappointed but off I went to the class I had been ordered to attend. Even if this was not what I wanted, I was determined to study hard and be a good mechanic, albeit on rotary wing aircraft.
After about two weeks of school, one of the instructors told us what we should expect once we got out of school and to our assigned unit. He told us a lot about working in an operational unit and during his talk, he mentioned that there was a good chance we could end up on flying status as a crew chief. That really caught my attention. I had never even thought about getting to fly as a crew member. This totally changed my attitude about my assigned career field.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
I was assigned to fly aboard a HH-43B's (Huskie) Air Rescue Unit from Nakhon Phanom, Thailand for five month TDY in 1964 . While it was not actual combat missions during that time, our crew made a number of rescues during some dangerous conditions.
From 1967-1968, I flew a combat tour with the 20th Helicopter Squadron 'Green Hornets' flying on the UH-1F/P's (Huey).
I had a second combat tour from 1969-1970 at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand with the 21st Special Operations Squadron on the CH-3E (Jolly Green Giant) helicopters. Both combat tour were in support of MACV SOG Special Forces and the 'Secret War' in Laos.
Our mission was inserting MACV SOG teams into landing zones (LZs) in enemy areas of Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam and the extracting them, often under fire, when their presence became known to the enemy.
During these two tours, I accumulated 476 hours of combat flying time and 85 hours of combat support flying time and was awarded five Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star and thirteen Air Medals for my combat action.
My military career summary can be found at the following internet site: http://www.rotorheadsrus.us/documents/41.html
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
The two combat tours have to stand out the most, with several specific missions leaving lasting memories. Getting our MACV SOG teams out safely from enemy held territory, after they had been in fire fights and on the run, involved a few minutes of terror and fear followed by the euphoric high of successfully completing the extraction.
I also participated in many rescues of both military and civilian survivors of accidents during peace time, all of which were very rewarding as well.
WERE ANY OF THE MEDALS OR AWARDS YOU RECEIVED FOR VALOR? IF YES, COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THIS WAS EARNED?
I was received five separate awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross. One in particular was received for actions on September 18, 1969, for counterinsurgency operations in hostile territory airlifting ground forces to safety.
[Editors Note: SMSgt Burns has provided a description of counterinsurgency operations in Laos on 19 September 1969, published separately at his own website. Click the link opposite to read that full description. SMSgt Burns received a total of 5 Distinguished Flying Cross awards during his career.]
Distinguished Flying Cross Award Citation
Fourth Oak Leaf Cluster
Staff Sergeant James W. Burns - US Air Force
Citation: Staff Sergeant James W. Burns distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as a Ch-3E Helicopter Flight Engineer in Southeast Asia on 18 September 1969. On that date while engaged in a highly sensitive counterinsurgency mission deep in hostile territory, Sergeant Burns, even though his helicopter was seriously damaged by over fourteen hits from hostile ground fire during the first sortie, repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire for over three hours and airlifted seventy troops to a place of safety. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Sergeant Burns reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
First and foremost this has to be my wife, without her support and ability to continue to raise and care for our family during my many absences, I could not have had a service career.
Of my fellow service members I think the individual who had the biggest impact would be my first NCOIC, Al Reed. He led by example with his can-do attitude, dedication to duty, and his ability to share his experience in the helicopter maintenance field, all of which were leading reasons that I stayed in the Air Force.
Beyond Al Reed, there are the numerous pilots and fellow flight engineers, door gunners (too many to list by name) that I shared flight crew duties. It was because of their courage, professionalism, training and dedication, I made it back to base safely after each mission.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
During my service career I obtained my Bachelors degree in Social Physiology and was planning a post retirement career counseling, however while I was looking for employment in that field I took a temporary job at a convenience store. After thirty years, I'm still with the convenience store chain, Tom Thumb Food Stores, a division of Kroger, as a Vice President in our division.
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
It gave me a strong sense of responsibly and dedication to my family, my country, my employers and my employees. Even though my 'retirement' career has nothing to do with my Air Force career field, I credit my leadership experience and training in the Air Force directly to my success in my current career field. The principles of dedication, honestly, leadership and the experiences working with people from all walks of life that I gained during my Air Force career apply to all walks of life.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
It's said that you can leave (or retire) from the service, but the service never leaves you. I find that to be very true and Togetherweserved.com is a place that makes me feel right at home. Togetherweserved.com has provided a place where all veterans of all services can re-connect with those with whom they have served. It brought me back to my service roots and gave me and three of my fellow Air Force 21st SOS Flight Engineers ideas for our website, rotorheadsrus.us, where we have given our fellow USAF helicopter maintainers and crew members a place to re-connect, share our stories and photos - a hanger or sorts to park our experiences. Togetherweserved.com provides the same opportunity for all service members. By being a member of Togetherweserved.com I have a place to share my career assignments, photos and experiences and an easy way for others to re-connect by units of assignment.
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