Memorial service planned for PFC Burke

Most people in Monticello have heard of Private First Class Robert C. Burke. The local American Legion post bears his name, as does the park that surrounds the town swimming pool. His photo and brief but distinguished military record are spelled out in a display at the Piatt County Courthouse.

But many do not know the details of his heroism, one that not only saved some three dozen soldiers in Vietnam, but took Burke’s life at 18 years old and made him the youngest ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“He was 18 years, 10 months and six days old,” remembers his sister, Marilyn Spurlock.

On the 50th anniversary of his death as a Marine taking part in Operation Allen Brook during the Vietnam War, a commemoration service for PFC Burke will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17 in the Monticello High School Auditorium, 1 Sage Drive in Monticello.

“Everyone needs to hear his story,” said Ron Nolte, a retired social studies instructor who taught Burke and many of his seven siblings at Monticello High School. “We’re going to talk about the details of how the family was notified, and of them going to Washington, D.C. for the (Congressional Medal of Honor) ceremony.”

Burke left MHS before graduating in order to enlist in the Marines on May 16 of 1967.

“He wanted to be a Marine at a young age. He wanted to make a difference,” remembers Spurlock. “He always said the Marines were the best, so that’s what he wanted to be.”

After completing basic training and being promoted to Private First Class, Burke was a motor vehicle mechanic at Camp Pendleton prior to being sent to Vietnam in February of 1968. Three months later while serving as a machine gunner, his battalion found themselves pinned down by enemy fire in Le Nam in Southern Qang Nam Province.

Burke went on a charge and is credited with saving up to three dozen injured Marines with a single handed assault against North Vietnamese forces before being gunned down.

“It wasn’t just a split second decision. He did this several times throughout the battle. It wasn’t just one time. He stepped forward over and over,” added Spurlock.

Documentation with his Medal of Honor – which along with other honors, including a Purple Heart, is on display at the courthouse – says Burke “fearlessly moved from one position to another, quelling the hostile fire until his weapon malfunctioned. Obtaining a casualty’s rifle and hand grenades, he advanced further into the midst of the enemy fire in an assault against another pocket of resistance.”

“Private Burke’s gallant actions upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country,” it continued.

Thursday’s commemoration will start with the presentation of colors, Pledge of Allegiance and playing of the national anthem, continue with the story of PFC Burke as read by Nolte, and end with the playing of taps.

Monticello Mayor Larry Stoner will serve as emcee, commenting, “I am totally honored.”

Spurlock hopes attendance is heavy not to hear about a war hero, but to listen to stories about a boy who made a difference.

“I think the thing I want people to walk away knowing is what a difference one person can make in so many lives when they stand up for what they believe. I truly believe that’s what happened with Robert,” she said.


 

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