It was a full house in the Monticello High School auditorium on May 17 as friends, family, military and legislative representatives came together to honor Private First Class Robert C. Burke, an 18-year-old Monticello Marine who was gunned down in the Vietnam War 50 years ago to the day.
One of those who attended was Marine veteran Bill Jung, who fought in the same battle that claimed the life of Burke. Jung said the drive from out of state was the least he could do.
"You know, we lost a lot of guys out there and then some of the survivors died later in the war. I think in 12 days we had about 71 killed and 247 wounded," said the Minnesota man who served six years as a Marine.
"I’m 70. There’s a lot of guys who are gone now – heart attacks, cancer – so there’s not that many left. I don’t usually go to things like this, but I just told my wife, ‘it would be nice if there was one living veteran there who was there on the battlefield," added Jung.
The 18-year-old Burke is credited with saving the lives of up to three dozen fellow Marines during the war’s Operation Allen Brook in 1968 before being killed. Two years later the Monticello native was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the youngest of that conflict to receive that honor.
Burke’s former teacher, Ron Nolte, focused more on Burke’s life than his heroic death as he detailed Burke’s upbringing, brief military career, and the 23-month process that led to the posthumous issuing of the Medal of Honor.
Nolte noted a first request for the award was turned down by Congress.
"After months of delays in Congress, Col. (Ernest) Fitzgerald was finally notified that perhaps, a lesser award, like the Silver Star, might be more appropriate," according to Nolte.
For Fitzgerald, that was certainly not commensurate with Private Burke’s efforts. On the second try he submitted the request through the Department of the Navy.
"The Navy wholeheartedly endorsed the recognition and forwarded it to Congress where it was approved. Altogether, this delay took 23 months," he said.
In 1970, the Burke family was flown to Washington, D.C. to receive his Medal of Honor at the White House from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. PFC Burke’s mother Helen hit it off with Agnew’s wife at a reception that followed, and the two were overheard "talking animatedly about...making noodles," claimed Nolte.
"The Burke family had been treated royally, but what a price they had paid. They had to face the rest of their lives without Robert," he added.
Early in Monticello
Nolte described Burke as a practical joker growing up who especially liked playing jokes on Helen, with whom he was extremely close. It included routinely tightening his thermos at the end of a work day so she could not open it.
He was protective of not only his siblings, but of the underdog as well.
"If Robert saw someone being bullied or picked on, he made it his business. The altercation was soon over. He was a very effective peacemaker," commented Nolte. "I’m told that he had an outstanding right hook."
"Robert was an outstanding brother. He taught Marilyn how to ride a bike, John to drive a car and handle himself in a scrap," said the retired Monticello instructor. "I think that one of Robert’s high school teachers summed it up pretty well. When asked about him, he said, ‘Robert was a good boy with a big heart that tried to do the right thing.’"
To Burke, the right thing was dropping out of high school early to enlist in the Marines, something that had been on his heart for a while. He later earned his GED while in the military.
Even though he had a knack for guns – as a youth Robert grew adept at shooting tin cans off fence posts – it was his mechanical bent that was of use first in the military. But a shortage of soldiers led to many, even mechanics, being reassigned to fighting units. That included Robert, who received a majority of his training as a machine gunner after arriving in Asia.
On May 17, 1968, with his fellow Marines pinned down in the hamlet of Le Nam, Burke went on several charges that held the opposition at bay long enough to save as many as three dozen fellow soldiers, according to his Medal of Honor Citation, which was read at Thursday’s commemoration service by Monticello Alderman Cochran Keating.
"Private Burke then fearlessly moved from one position to another, quelling the hostile fire until his weapon malfunctioned," he read. "Obtaining a casualty’s rifle and hand grenades, he advanced further into the midst of the enemy. Observing that a fellow Marine had cleared his malfunctioning machine gun he grasped the weapon and moved into a dangerously exposed area and saturated the hostile fire until he fell mortally wounded."
The citation sums up Burke’s effort when it closes with, "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."
Nolte described Burke as "a Marine’s Marine," adding that "although hero is just four letters, it is a huge word."
Area Senator Chapin Rose was among those attending, and presented the family with proclamations from the Illinois General Assembly and Governor Bruce Rauner, who declared March 17 as Private First Class Robert C. Burke Day in Illinois.
Davis brings up Burke in D.C.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville) recognized Medal of Honor Recipient Burke on the House Floor ahead of the memorial service for the 50th anniversary of Operation Allen Brook in Vietnam. Davis was unable to attend the event taking place today in Monticello due to Congress being in session.
Rep. Davis’ remarks:
"Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commemorate Private First Class Robert Burke from the United States Marine Corps, who gave the ultimate sacrifice 50 years ago during Operation Allen Brook in Le Nam, Vietnam. For his bravery, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the age of 18, he is the youngest Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam war. Private Burke enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1967, while he was still a student at Monticello High School in Piatt County, Illinois. He was sent to the Republic of Vietnam with India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines, where he was assigned as a machine gunner. During Operation Allen Brook on May 17, 1968, Private Burke and his company came under intense fire from the well-concealed North Vietnamese.
"With several of his fellow marines wounded, Private Burke spared no time. He immediately used his machine gun to launch several one-man assaults against the enemy, allowing upwards of three dozen casualties to be evacuated. He relentlessly delivered fire to the enemy, even obtaining a casualty’s rifle when his own malfunctioned. He continued to advance in defense of his brothers in arms until he was mortally wounded. No words of gratitude can properly express how thankful the American people and the Congress are for Private Burke’s selfless actions that saved the lives of so many. Private Burke gave his life for his friends and for his country. He is the truest example of bravery, and I am proud to honor him today."