A Tribute to WWII Veterans: Burnett Severson

Jon Urness

Mickelsons-Martin American Legion Post 313 said farewell to Burnett Severson, a WWII Veteran and 63 year member of the Post. Military Rights with full honor guard were presented on Monday February 10th at Vermont Lutheran Church. 

“Burnett is the second WWII Veteran called to the last bugle in the past four months,” commented Commander Dennis J Wood, “With only Larry Michaelis as the last remaining WWII Veteran of the Post.”


Veteran’s Day 1944. On that day sixty years ago, Armistice Day, as it was called then, local soldiers were spread all over the globe fighting the Axis Powers of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. 

Over in Europe, Norman Sale was having a tough time of it with the Germans during the bloody battle for the city of Aachen, just inside Germany near the Belgian border. Maurice “Mutz” Skalet, an armored infantryman, was only a few kilometers south of Norman, slugging it out in the Battle of the Huertgen Forest. His brother Gil, in training, would be joining the fray in a couple of months. Young Art Rettenmund had landed on the beaches at Anzio, Italy and was now marching northward. 

Another local boy, Joe Trainor had been killed in action earlier that year at Normandy on D-Day. William Trainor, an infantryman with the 32nd Division, was in the South Pacific and mercifully did not know his own tragic fate on December 21, 1944. Art Dietrich had bailed out of a doomed B-17 bomber behind German lines that summer and made his way back with the help of French resistance fighters. On Armistice Day 1944, Larry Michaelis, a Screaming Eagle with the 101st Airborne, would soon be coming off the line after 72 days of combat in Holland during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden.

Jerome Deneen, a radioman with General Patton’s 5th Infantry Division, had been cut down trying to take a fortified position on the Moselle River in France. Now he lay in a shallow, unmarked and forgotten grave in German-held territory. Joseph Wilkins, an airman with the 445th Heavy Bomber Group, suffered a similar fate in February that year and was buried in Holland. Ole Dalby was in the midst of a string of 47 bombing runs over Europe as a waist-gunner in a B-24 Liberator. And so it was on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1944…just to mention a few of the many area soldiers away from home sixty years ago.

And Burnett Severson, a handsome young farm boy from the Town of Vermont, was about to embark on an adventure that would put him in the witness seat of the terrible devastation of war in the South Pacific. Burnett, who now lives with his wife Marie, in their home on Moen Valley Road, just south of Black Earth, was in the midst of Air Force training on that Veteran’s Day sixty years ago. After being drafted in August of 1944, Burnett was shipped around from Texas, to Colorado, then down to Florida and finally nearer to home in Illinois. Airmen in those days were dual trained. That is, they were trained for at least two jobs should the need arise for them to relieve an injured crewman. Burnett’s primary skill was as an aircraft mechanic and secondly as a waist-gunner in a B-29 bomber.

On election Day 2004, just a few days before Veteran’s Day, Burnett spread out dozens of dog-eared and sometimes faded black and white photographs that in their own way told the story of his three-and-a-half years as an airman with the 28th Squadron of the 19th Bomber Group in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. But before he could start telling old war stories as depicted in the old photos, Burnett paused to reflect on some of the sights and experiences he witnessed that could not possibly be communicated even with the best of photography. 

“ About a week after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, our crew flew over,” Burnett recalls. “If you’ve ever seen a forest fire…just a few twigs left standing…that’s what it looked like. Other than a few walls left standing or a bridge or two, that was it.”

To this day, the awful feelings of that flight still seem fresh in Burnett’s memory. And the entire crew was feeling the same emotions.

“I suppose we were at about 30,000 feet but I’ll never forget it. We were about half-way over Hiroshima and our Captain Bradley said over the radio-Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

“I think we were all just sick,” Burnett says.

 The sickness had not come from radiation fallout but rather from mixed human emotions of both pity and hatred for their Japanese enemy. Burnett then recalls an incident after the war had ended and his crew had flown to Tokyo. They had a layover there for a few days and someone from the supply depot had dropped a glass jar of mayonnaise on the street.

“There was glass and mayonnaise all over the place but those little Japanese kids came running and licked up every bit of that mess. They took the broken glass and all. We have no idea what starvation is all about,” Burnett concludes.

While in Tokyo Burnett remembers seeing General Douglas MacArthur on a number of occasions and it also provided a reminder of the state of the Japanese defeat. 

“Every time MacArthur would come out the Japanese got down on their hands and knees and bowed down to beat the devil,” Burnett remembers.

Burnett was based at North Field on the Island of Guam from just a few weeks before the war ended in August of 1945 to early in 1947. He was able to come home for brief visits two times during his tour of the South Pacific. One time to get married. He achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant and after 28 missions in the giant B-29 he was made crew chief. While stationed at North Field, Burnett had what in those days they might have called a little “racket” going on. One that would account for the piles of black and white photos that Burnett lays out on the dining room table today.

“Me and a few other guys had a little darkroom made up there at North Field,” Burnett snickers. “It was a dollar a roll and ten cents a print to make pictures for all the guys. The only problem was, we were using government equipment and supplies. Our Captain was a heck of a good guy, a West Pointer, but just like the rest of us. He came around one day and said somebody was getting wise to us and we better shut ‘er down.”

Among those old photos are some real gems. The happiest shows Burnett and two of his pals that he remembers as Tommy and Burr Head, at a Tokyo club celebrating either the end of the war or just being alive and young. The three comrades are pictured arm-in-arm with mischievous smiles, hoisting clear-glass bottles of Miller High Life. Another shows Burnett in his flight suit and parachute ready for take-off. Another has young Severson straddling the fuselage of a big B-29 and riding it like a horse. As a reminder of the war just ended, Burnett has photos of crashed Japanese Zeroes and Val Dive Bombers. 

“Where do you suppose some of the parts on those Jap planes came from?” Burnett asks in bewilderment. “Well, the props on some of ‘em were made in Flint, Michigan…figure that one out.”

Other old photos show how the Japanese and Philippine people lived such primitive lives with wooden-wheeled carts and oxen. One shot depicts an endless line of Japanese POW’s being sent for processing. Burnett even has a picture of what they called SUICIDE CLIFF. He explains that it was an area of caves where fanatical Japanese soldiers held out for more than 30 years after the war ended. 

The saddest of photographs is actually one of Burnett and his 11 fellow crewmembers spread out in front of their B-29. It’s the classic bomber crew and plane photo often seen from World War II. Beaming airmen in all their gear with their beloved ship in the background. But as Burnett goes through the line-up of old buddies, he pauses here and there to mention that, yeah that’s old so and so, he was killed. And there’s another guy that didn’t make it home.

While Burnett never fired his 50-caliber machine gun at an attacking Zero or was fired upon himself, there were dangers. During the War and the time of occupation, even the aircraft mechanics had to fly a minimum of four hours a month in flight missions. In one particular month Burnett had his time in so one of his pals took his place on the crew roster. 

By god that plane got blown up. Nobody knows what really happened. It just blew up,” the fortunate Staff Sergeant claims today. Burnett speculates that perhaps there was a fuel leak and a spark. The crewmen were so afraid of sparks that they weren’t even allowed to use flashlights on the planes. But somehow, the plane that should have been carrying Burnett, ended in a fireball.

Today Burnett figures the time he spent in service was a good experience that he wouldn’t have wanted to miss. 

“Sure we were away from home a long time but I wasn’t the only one though. We were all in the same boat,” the former World War II airman now reflects.

In all, he made the trip back and forth to Guam three times but he’ll never forget the anticipation and finally the sighting of the Golden Gate Bridge as he returned home. 

“When we saw that Golden Gate Bridge in the distance the co-pilot radioed…there she is…and he’d give her a little more gas,” Burnett now says with a smile. “It was good to be home!”

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