TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - For a guy who wanted to perform his patriotic duty in World War II as an aerial gunner on a B-52 bomber, longtime Tahoe resident Thomas "Tom" Burns sure spent a lot of time underwater.
Fate is fickle and no less so in time of war. During his training at a U.S. Air Force base in Florida, Tom slipped and fell 5 feet from an aircraft. Burns was shaken up in the fall, but the tough 23-year-old tried to walk it off. Hours later, he was found passed out from a ruptured spleen and rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery. Tom's wife and mother were notified that he was dying, and a priest was called to give last rites. Tom survived, but after four long months of rehabilitation the Navy offered him a choice - honorable discharge or limited duty with no chance to serve as an aerial gunner.
Disappointed, Burns chose limited duty so he could remain in the military, but he put in a request for submarine duty. If he couldn't fly the wild blue yonder, he would tackle the deep blue sea. Ironically, "limited duty" meant a three-month stint at a commando training camp in San Bruno, Calif. The primitive camp was a converted horse race track where servicemen were bunked in old horse stalls. When his training ended, Burns shipped to Guam as a "Seabee" (the Navy's version of the Army Corp. of Engineers), right after U.S. forces regained the island back from Japanese occupation. In short order Tom suffered a serious head wound from an exploding land mine. The doctor offered him a stick of wood to bite on while he sutured the wound without Novocain. Tom was at the hospital with his head in bandages when an army general toured the infirmary awarding Purple Heart medals to injured soldiers. Burns stood tall and proud when the officer gave him the honored decoration bestowed on those who have suffered serious wounds in battle. But when Burns was asked his name and rank, he responded, "Burns, Seaman 1st Class, Navy," the captain trailing the general exclaimed, "You're not even in the Army!" and quickly retrieved the medal.
World War II ended in 1945, but Burns' military career was just beginning. He was finally ordered to submarine school at Groton, Conn., where he made the cut. In the first week, instructors at the school culled 375 men out of the 400 they had initially accepted - Tom's intelligence and determination got him through, he finished second in his class. He spent the next two decades as a submariner, rising through the ranks from a Coxswain to Radioman Chief. During the extended Cold War that followed the Second World War, submarines were a vital part of the strategic cat and mouse game the United States played with the Soviet Union. Burns spent many years on the USS Rasher, which played an important role deploying marines and special forces for covert infiltration along the coasts of Korea and Vietnam.
Before the development of nuclear-powered submarines, conventional subs had to surface every 72 hours for air so the diesel generators could recharge the ship's batteries. A few years before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Tom was aboard the submarine USS Grayback as it patrolled close along the Soviet coastline gathering intelligence. At one point the sub was forced to surface for air in enemy waters. Suddenly and without warning, two Soviet fighter jets came swooping down on the sub with guns ablaze. The Diving Officer immediately ordered an emergency crash dive. Radioman Burns was Chief of the Watch at that moment and responsible for relaying the submarine commander's orders. The bridge was quickly cleared and the ship began to dive, but something was wrong. Burns noticed a warning light that indicated a hatch wasn't secure, meaning the submarine was not airtight.
There were four crewmen trapped in the "pipe" leading from the bridge to the sub's interior. The lanyard of one of the men had been caught in the rim of the hatch as it was slammed shut behind them, breaking the seal. Burns countered his commander's order and brought the boat back to the surface despite the hostile MIGs. Within moments the men were rescued, the hatch resealed, and the boat underwater before the jets could attack again. Tom Burns' quick thinking and attention to detail had saved the men in the pipe, and possibly the integrity of the submarine itself.
After retiring from McClellan Air Base near Sacramento in 1987, Tom Burns moved to Kings Beach where he lived for 15 years. In 2003, Tom relocated to Florida where he married the new love of his life, Betty Merrill. Tom Burns died on May 31, 2012, just two months before his 92nd birthday. On this Veterans Day, I salute Tom Burns and all the veterans who guard our freedom.
- Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark's new blog at www.tahoenuggets.com