Centre News

Remembering World War II Veteran Samie Burns ’51

July 3, 2013 By Cindy Long        
Centre College, Sam Burns, WWII, Distinguished Service Cross A 22-year-old Sam Burns displays his Distinguished Service Cross
in this portrait taken after the end of World War II.

Centre College, Sam Burns, WWII, Distinguished Service Cross Sam Burns' daughter, Virginia Burns Fick, accepts her father's flag
from an Honor Guardsman during Burns' service.

Sam Burns ’51, affectionately known as Samie, had lived a successful and fulfilling life when he passed away on May 22 of this year at the age of 90. He raised seven children and one granddaughter with his wife of 63 years, the late Eleanor Womack Burns '51, and after earning his degree at Centre had spent his life as an educator and business owner. But it is the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor, that sets him apart from perhaps any other Centre alum.

Burns entered World War II in 1940 as part of the Springfield, Kentucky,Troop I of the 123rd Cavalry of the Kentucky Army National Guard. His group would later become Battery C of the 106th Anti-Aircraft Battalion. By 1942, after serving in England and Northern Ireland, Burns' battery became part of the invasion force for "Operation Torch" in North Africa, where they were attached to the 1st Armored Division providing anti-aircraft defense.

While stationed in the Tunisian desert, a group of seven German JU 88 dive-bombers began strafing the battery's placement, coming in so low that Burns later said he was nearly overcome by the roaring engines and prop wash. Nevertheless, he jumped into the back of a truck mounted with a 50-caliber machine gun and returned fire as the German planes' bullets traced paths down both sides of the truck.

The planes turned to make another run and, since his gun's mount had only limited maneuverability, Burns had to jump out, turn the truck in the other direction and jump back into the bed of the truck to return fire before the next pass of the speeding planes. This he did over and over again until the gun became so hot it would no longer fire. Burns then grabbed a rifle and began shooting at the last plane still involved in the attack. When the encounter was over, Burns had single-handedly shot down two of the German planes, and the other five flew away, one trailing smoke.

Afterward, when a lieutenant colonel asked him where he was from, Burns answered, "Kentucky, Sir."

"Hell, I might have known," replied the officer.

Months later, Gen. Hap Arnold suggested to his son, Maj. Henry H. Arnold, Burns' company commander at that time, that Burns' should receive a commendation. As a result, Sgt. Burns was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Burns went on to fight many more battles across the European Theater, including Sicily, Anzio, Salerno, Monti Casino, France and Germany. He also earned numerous other medals: a European Theatre Ribbon with Four Bronze Battle Stars, an American Defense Service Medal, a Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

When Sam was laid to rest in Springfield with his mother and her family, the Milburns, he was treated with much-deserved honor and respect for his good life and service to his country. The Marion County Honor Guard fired a 21-gun salute to one of Kentucky's most highly-decorated veterans, and much of the county turned out to pay tribute to their own local hero.

During this year's Fourth of July holiday, we remember all the men and women, especially Centre's own, who have served or are serving their country.

Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail centrenews@centre.edu or contact the Communications Office at 859-238-5748.

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