|Birth: ||Feb. 12, 1916|
North Carolina, USA
|Death: ||Dec. 11, 1944, Germany|
Pvt. Lawrence P. Burkett of Jefferson, NC., was missing in action somewhere in Germany. It was December 1944. Even after the Army amended Burkett's status in 1945 to "killed in action," they hoped he'd come home one day. But gradually, as the years drifted by without any word, they began to believe that he had been killed and would never come home to Ashe County. They were half right. In June 2007, the three Burkett children and Bill's wife, Jean, made the long drive down from the mountains to meet their father's casket at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Bill is 62, Katherine Burkett Gentry is 70 and Gladys Burkett Shatley is 72. It was a bittersweet day. They found it hard not to wonder what life might have been like had their father come home alive. Their mother, Dora, who died in 1994, never remarried. For a long time, she thought he might come home. In her eyes there was nobody for her but him. The Burketts have lived for generations in the mountains along the far northwestern corner of the state. Lawrence Burkett's father, Dave, was a justice of the peace, a county jailer and a farmer. Lawrence grew up to become a carpenter, and his daughters remember that he was often gone a week at a time on jobs, not a surprising thing given how remote Ashe County was in those days, with nearly all its roads dirt. They raised pigs and chickens and like most of their neighbors, tended a big garden. He was a kind man. He loved fishing the mountain streams and ponds, and hunting for raccoons, deer and bear. He was famous throughout the county for his singing voice. On Sundays his bass was the foundation of the choir at Friendship Baptist Church, soaring through gospels such as "I'll Fly Away." In April 1944 he was drafted into the Army and he shipped out that fall for Europe with the 90th Infantry Division. Bill Burkett was just five days old when his dad left, and in the handful of cards and letters that made their way home, it was clear that his father was thinking about him. The young soldier asked his daughters to look out for their mom and for Bill, and he even sent the infant his own letter in a messy handwriting that Bill apparently inherited. "Be a good boy," the soldier wrote. The 90th Infantry got a hard assignment: breaching Germany's defenses near the city of Saarbrcken just over the border from France. His unit had pushed across the frigid Saar River and was defending a bridge near the town of Dillingen when the Germans attacked on December 10, trying to force the Americans back over the river toward France. The next day, a fellow soldier saw Burkett get hit, but the fighting was so fierce the man couldn't get to him. Later he did, and said that the body was cold. By then, Burkett's regiment had lost so many men that fewer than half could fight. The battle was so intense, though, that there was no time to recover the body, and the U.S. soldiers had to move out of the area. As the years stretched on, Dora and the children kept hoping the Army was wrong, but gradually they came to believe that he had died.
With the modest government benefits, and later with a job at a school cafeteria, Dora raised the children on her own, filling in the rough patches with harvests from the family garden. She could make a dollar go a long way. They didn't lack for anything, but they didn't have a lot of extravagant things, either. There are more than 78,000 U.S. troops still missing from World War II, more than the total number killed in Vietnam, but many of the lost are still being recovered. In 2006, members of a German group dedicated to recovering war dead found some shell fragments with a metal detector and started digging. Deeper in the ground were bones and dog tags that said "Burkett." An American team arrived in September, accepted the remains and dog tags and conducted a recovery effort, similar to an archaeological dig. In 12 days of careful digging, they found more remains and bits of U.S. military gear from the era. The remains and artifacts were taken to the military lab in Hawaii for identification, and oral swabs were taken from two of Burkett's cousins to aid in DNA testing. March 30 of this year, the Army gave the Burkett siblings the news and they finally allowed themselves to believe their father had been found. Gladys quickly agreed to give up the burial plot beside her mother, and they began planning the service. But first they had to come down to Raleigh to meet Delta Flight 402. An honor guard from the N.C. National Guard, a casualty assistance officer from Fort Bragg and a group of volunteers from the United Service Organizations gathered at the USO office at the airport, then filed over to the gate and down some stairs to the apron. The pilot, J.C. Porter and co-pilot, Dave Sandstrom, joined the soldiers in a salute as the flag-covered coffin emerged from the cargo hold.
Bill Burkett videotaped the scene. As the coffin reached the bottom of the conveyor, the three siblings and Jean walked up and pressed their palms to it and held each other. The siblings, like their mother so many years ago when the telegram came, were unable to speak. Above, passengers lined the glass wall of the terminal, some taking their own photos and video. Then the honor guard eased the coffin into a white hearse and held a salute until it drove out of sight behind the plane. Their hands came down and Lawrence Burkett was officially home. As the hearse drove away, the Burkett siblings put up their cameras, accepted handshakes and hugs, then climbed back up the stairs into the terminal building.
Inside, more than 200 Delta passengers burst into applause. The clapping continued until the they had all walked past, the honor guard, the USO team and, on legs stiffened by age, the three children who finally had their daddy back. He was buried at the church where he lent his bass voice to the choir, and where his wife still waits for him after all these years. His name remains on the Tablets of the Missing, but it is now marked with a star to indicate his body was found and sent home. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple. He died at age 28.
357th Infantry Regiment
90th Infantry Division
Dora M. Burkett (1909 - 1994)*
Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery
North Carolina, USA
Created by: Elizabeth Reed
Record added: Jun 13, 2007
Find A Grave Memorial# 19863116