NEW ORLEANS — For nearly three-quarters of a century, Burton Madison has spent Memorial Day at his hometown Kansas City’s monument to American soldiers in World War I.
This year, Mr. Madison’s daughter, Deborah Simms, thought it was past time her father saw one of his nation’s major monuments to him and the others who fought in World War II.
So it was that Mr. Madison, who turns 95 years old on June 15 and earned both an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross during 30 bombing missions over Germany, spent this holiday weekend at the National WWII Museum here.
“Every Memorial Day I recognize how lucky I was, and what I think of is all my buddies who didn’t make it back,” he said.
An estimated 576,507 American soldiers have fallen in battle since the American Revolution, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. When Confederate army figures are included, the total rises to 651,031, and tens of thousands more fell victim to disease and other factors while serving in combat theaters.
Mr. Madison’s harrowing experiences are forever in his mind, and they flooded back as he toured the “Road To Berlin” and “Road To Tokyo” exhibits at the National WWII Museum.
“On May 8, ‘44 — President Harry Truman’s birthday — we sent 48 planes against an airplane factory in Brunswick,” he recalled, using the Anglicized term for Braunschweig, which Allied bombing crews called “Little B,” saving the “Big B” moniker for Berlin.
“We got hit heavy all that day,” Mr. Madison said of the anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes that would attack Allied bombers. “Fifteen 10-man crews went down that day; 150 guys who didn’t come back.”
In fact, Mr. Madison, a ball turret gunner on the B-24 bomber, had his own close brush that day when the vulnerable glass bulb he occupied splintered when hit by a 20 mm shell.
Ball turret gunners were suspended in a sort of harness under the fuselage, and the space was too tight for the gunner and his parachute both to squeeze in, which meant Mr. Madison had to point his broken 50 caliber machine guns earthward and scramble back up through an escape hatch into the plane.
“You’re up there at 26,000 feet and it’s 32 [degrees] below out and you’re just trying to keep warm,” Mr. Madison said. “You’re keeping busy, looking for fighters, and when those twin 50 cals got going, it would create a hot spot on your knees.”
Stories like his abound among veterans of all wars, and they are in ample display at the National WWII Museum. Its exhibits are replete with famous moments like President Franklin Roosevelt’s address after Pearl Harbor and lesser known facts, such as that 5,000 sailors perished when German U-boats sank more than 230 merchant vessels along American’s Atlantic seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico.
As if the Wehrmacht soldiers surrounding the 101st Airborne in the Ardennes Forest — the Battle of the Bulge — weren’t enough, visitors learn Mother Nature also menaced American soldiers with temperatures that hit 30 below.
Museum staff dealt with a more than 700,000 visitors last year, and this March shattered their monthly record, when visitors topped 100,000. Memorial Day understandably caps a big annual weekend, one the museum traditionally honors with various symposiums, concerts and moments of silence.
Mr. Madison’s own memories aren’t all as dark as those from May 1944: On one mission, the crew’s assigned co-pilot was Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart.
A high schooler working as a drugstore soda jerk in Kansas City when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mr. Madison had his parents sign for him at a recruiting station before he turned 18 so that he and his two best friends could choose their branch of service. Unfortunately, his buddies learned they were color-blind when they reported for duty and thus the Navy turned them down.
They wound up serving stateside while Mr. Madison found himself as a tech sergeant with the Eighth Air Force at a base south of Norwich, England.
Mr. Madison said he initially preferred the Navy because his late older brother, Donald Madison, had been drafted and wound up in a horse-drawn artillery unit and, “I wanted no part of that.”
Donald Madison would go on to serve in the North African theater and the invasion of Italy. The brothers survived.
“Two lucky guys,” he said.
While it was 74 years ago that Mr. Madison faced his most dire moment in the skies over Europe, this Memorial Day marks the 75th anniversary of the year in which World War II turned decisively in the Allies’ favor.
That wasn’t apparent at the time to those in the thick of it, of course, but in 2018 historians can see how the German surrender at Stalingrad in January 1943, the Americans’ first bloody success against Japanese forces at Guadalcanal, and then forward movement toward Naples in the Mediterranean and Tarawa in the Pacific reflected what would prove a relentless advance.
For Mr. Madison, Memorial Day serves as reminder not so much of the happy ending he and his bands of brothers gave the world but the price they paid in doing so.
It is a reminder that, in the words of famous World War II veteran and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Mr. Madison will forever be “a fugitive from the law of averages.”
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m not a hero. I’m a survivor,” he said.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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