Veteran R.V. Burgin Fought In 'The Pacific'

R.V. Burgin is an 87-year-old veteran of World War II. For nearly four decades, he found it too painful to talk about his experiences. This weekend, his story is one of those shared in the HBO miniseries, The Pacific.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On Sunday, HBO starts a new series that's a companion to the acclaimed "Band of Brothers." "The Pacific" follows a company of U.S. Marines from Guadalcanal, in 1942, to Okinawa in 1945, men who battle tenacious Japanese forces amid the heat, humidity and malaria on tropical islands that were anything but paradise. Today, we'd like to hear from those of you who can tell us about your war in the Pacific theater. Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

In the TV series, Martin McCann plays R.V. Burgin, who joined K Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines in 1943 and participated in some of the most difficult battles of the Pacific war. He earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart on Okinawa. In this scene, right after the war, he and his buddies talk about their plans.

(Soundbite of TV series, "The Pacific")

Mr. MARTIN McCANN (Actor): (as R.V. Burgin) I suppose I'm going to have to get a job too.

Mr. RAMI MALEK (Actor): (as Merriell "Snafu" Shelton) Doing what?

Mr. McCANN: (as R.V. Burgin) I don't know, anything between digging ditches and owning a bank.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCANN: (as R.V. Burgin) First I got to get Florence home.

Mr. MALEK: (as Merriell "Snafu" Shelton) Florence from Melbourne?

Mr. McCANN: (as R.V. Burgin) Mm-hmm.

Mr. MALEK: (as Merriell "Snafu" Shelton) You're shipping her all the way over here, this is the first we hear about it?

Mr. McCANN: (as R.V. Burgin) Oh, Snafu, she's in Okinawa. I figured it could be bad luck to talk about it now.

Mr. MALEK: (as Merriell "Snafu" Shelton) Well, when is she coming?

Mr. McCANN: (as R.V. Burgin) I don't know. I can't go there, but she's been at sea. I guess I'm going to find out soon enough whether I'm getting married or not.

CONAN: R.V. Burgin did marry his Australian girl, Florence. They now live in Lancaster, Texas. And R.V. Burgin joins us now from Dallas. He has a new book out called "Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. R.V. BURGIN (Author, "Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific"): Thank you.

CONAN: And I know you've seen part of "The Pacific." Did they get it right?

Mr. BURGIN: What I've seen, they've done an excellent job.

CONAN: And you've only seen the very beginning.

Mr. BURGIN: I saw the two episodes of it. I saw the last episode, episode 10, and I've seen the first episode, "Guadalcanal."

CONAN: And so episode 10, that's from that scene that we just played. That's from that particular episode.

Mr. BURGIN: The episode 10, I believe, is where we're going home...

CONAN: Yes. And I...

Mr. BURGIN: ...after we came back from the - yes.

CONAN: And was it difficult to watch?

Mr. BURGIN: No, sir. It wasn't. But I did feel like that they did such a good job that I felt like I was right there with them in the battle.

CONAN: That could be very intense.

Mr. BURGIN: Yes.

CONAN: Can you tell us, you joined the company, they were off Guadalcanal by that point, training in Australia for the next invasion. And it must have seemed, at that time, that there was always a next invasion.

Mr. BURGIN: Absolutely. They go from one island to the next. They called it island hopping. And I got some very, very good training with the Guadalcanal men that had just came off of Guadalcanal. And I always considered that an advanced course, because they got a lot of training before I do end up with the 1st Marine Division, but being with those veterans that had been there and done that, that was really something.

And I give them credit even till today for me still being alive and being here, because they would sit around and tell stories, what happened and how it happened, when it happened. And I listened and I asked questions because I knew that there was - that we will be going into something just as bad or maybe worse. And so I wanted all the details that I could find. And I think that those guys - I was so very fortunate of being with them for - I was with them for about nine months before we hit New Britain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So you did get a chance to absorb a lot of their -nevertheless, when you hit New Britain, the reality of it has got to be different than anything you've ever done in training.

Mr. BURGIN: Absolutely. It's altogether a different ball game when you get in to combat. And I don't think there's a human being living that can visualize what combat is like unless he's been there. You can see movies and you watch it and all that kind of stuff, but at the same time, it's absolutely different from being there in the mix.

CONAN: In your book, "The Islands of the Damned," there's a picture of Marines on an island called Peleliu, and three of them are looking forward and one of them is turned around looking back behind.

Mr. BURGIN: Right.

CONAN: Why was that?

Mr. BURGIN: The Japs are notorious from hiding in caves or anything else that they can hide in and they let you pass and then they come in from the rear and attack you that way. So there's normally someone in your squad or platoon that's always looking back to make sure that something doesn't happen from the rear.

CONAN: And that was - is that one of the lessons you learned along the way or is that one of the ones you learned...

Mr. BURGIN: Yes. That's - yes, that is one of the things that the Guadalcanal men was very adamant about, that watch your rear, not only your flanks in the front, but watch the rear because they're always trying to sneak in behind you.

CONAN: Valuable advice.

Mr. BURGIN: Very valuable advice.

CONAN: You fought in some of the most inhospitable places imaginable -Cape Gloucester on New Britain. You describe it as perhaps the wettest place on earth.

Mr. BURGIN: That is exactly right. I've never been on anything in my life that it rained as much as it did on New Britain. We landed there on January the 1st. The 1st Division, the 7th Marines, they landed on the 26th of December, 1942. But the 5th Regiment was in reserve and we didn't land until January 1st, 1944.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. BURGIN: And from January 1st until May 4th, whenever we sail -either May 4th or May 6th - when we sail for Pavuvu in the Russell Islands for recreation and regrouping, I think I stayed wet 90 percent of the time that I was on that island. And the rest of the men did, too.

CONAN: And those are circumstances under which - it's almost unfathomable - you're constantly wet in the tremendous heat and you're trying to fight through triple canopy jungle. This is - these are impossible circumstances.

Mr. BURGIN: When you're going through those jungles, sometimes you can't see three or four feet in either - in any direction. And you don't see the guy on your left or the guy on your right, and you think sometimes, hell, I'm the only guy fighting this war out here. You feel all alone. But you know he's there real close.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. BURGIN: And the thing about jungle warfare, you're right on top of them before you ever know they exist. And that's not a good thing.

CONAN: And that's not a good thing. And these - we look at these places on a map of the vastness of the Pacific - well, New Britain, a pretty large island, but Peleliu certainly is not, at least in the larger scheme of things. But that means nothing in the confines of an area that you're fighting over. Peleliu, everybody thought was going to be over in two or three days.

Mr. BURGIN: We didn't have any intel at all along Peleliu. They absolutely did not know what we were getting into. Our division commander, regimental commanders, battalion commanders, all thought we'd be out of there in two to three days at most. Good gosh, they didn't even have a clue what was on that island.

Actually, there was over 500 caves on that island and it was a coral island. It was only six miles long and two miles wide. But they had over 500 caves in there. And they had one cave in there that I particular took notice of that would house over 1,500 Japs in it. So we had to close those caves one by one. And the only way you could do that is either with satchel charges or take 75 howser(ph) and fire until you closed it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Satchel charge - essentially a big bomb.

Mr. BURGIN: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BURGIN: That's exactly what it is.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're speaking with R.V. Burgin, a veteran of the 1st Marine Division, who fought through two years of the war in the Pacific. He's one of the Marines whose story is told in the HBO series, "The Pacific," that debuts on Sunday night.

We'll start with John(ph). John's calling us from Poplar Bluff in Missouri.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I was just a little bit curious. Your fellow there was a Marine. My father served in the Navy and was at Guadalcanal and was actually sunk in the Vincennes. And I'm real curious as to find out what he thinks of the night that the Astoria, the Quincy, the Vincennes, and the Chicago all went down.

CONAN: That's the Battle of Savo Island shortly after the invasion of Guadalcanal. And I think, R.V. Burgin, you had not joined the - you were still but stateside at that point.

Mr. BURGIN: That's correct. I didn't join the Marine Corps until November 13th, 1942.

CONAN: And, John...

Mr. BURGIN: And that was about the time that Guadalcanal was - about a month after that is when Guadalcanal was secured.

CONAN: And the Battle of Savo Island was the greatest defeat of the United States Navy in the Second World War, excepting Pearl Harbor with a lot less excuse.

JOHN: And with essentially a lot less notice. Quite frankly, it seems as though it's something that's never really been covered by film or documentary.

I just do have one story for the Marine there. After my father spent close to 24 hours in the water, he was finally landed there, at Guadalcanal, and had to fight with the Marines for the next six weeks because he was - he was in the Navy. And at that point in time, the Marines, the Navy were sister forces. The Marines, as I know it, didn't even exist until after the war as a separate branch of the service.

And as he got up on the beach, he asked the first Marine that he saw for some water and the Marine gave him a canteen of water. And he said, oh, no, no, not water to drink, water to wash with. And the Marine answered, well, wash with it, drink it, do whatever you want with it, but that's all the water you get until you get some more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The Marines are still a part of the Navy. But thank you very much for the call, John. Appreciate it. We're talking with R.V. Burgin about his book "The Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Nancy(ph) on the line. Nancy with us from Lake Oswego in Oregon.

NANCY (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NANCY: I know about that Battle of Peleliu quite a bit. My husband was there. In fact, he was with the 8th Amphibious Tractor Battalion that where the first ones to land. He was a very young man, 23 years old, and he led the battle. He wrote a letter to me about it going in, which was very interesting. I've since lost the letter, sadly. But he led that battle and was killed there.

CONAN: Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that, Nancy.

NANCY: The only thing I'd like people to really know about that was that the general, MacArthur, had asked for that battle to take place because it guarded his flank going forward to the other place to back in to the islands.

CONAN: Back to the Philippines. Yes.

NANCY: And MacArthur just - it's my understanding since then from what I've read that MacArthur just forgot to call off that battle and it was a needless battle.

CONAN: Admiral Nimitz was actually the commander of that particular -obviously in cooperation with General MacArthur. But R.V. Burgin, Peleliu, do you think of it as a battle that was needless?

Mr. BURGIN: Absolutely. Always have thought that. We had damaged the airport to where you couldn't get a plane in or out with the bombings and strafing. And we could have bypassed that island just as easy as we bypassed Truk and Rabaul and let - just starve them out from there. Especially, I feel like that there was a lot of unnecessary deaths there that should have never been. We should have never hit that island, especially since they didn't have any intel on it at all. They didn't know what we was getting into. And normally, we got pretty good intelligence since when we hit an island we know a lot more about it than we did at Peleliu. I don't know what happened there but that was a big goof that they didn't get a little bit more intelligence on that.

CONAN: Admiral Nimitz's biographers regard it as the greatest mistake, his greatest mistake during the Second World War. Nancy, thank you. And again, we're sorry for your loss.

NANCY: Well, he posthumously received the Silver Star Presidential Award and several other things. I was quite bitter at the time because of what I found out about it. There were so - such terrible waste there, young men and (unintelligible) his destractors were hung up. There was all kinds of problems and there were thousands of them killed there.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much.

NANCY: So I just hope that people in the future will realize how wrong the military can be. Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to Richard(ph). Richard calling us from Jacksonville.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes, sir. First, I have a great deal of respect to the man who fought in the Pacific Theatre. And then the only question I have for him is I noticed he kept referring to them as Japs. Do you have any animosity or hard feelings toward the Japanese people or is it just the way you've become accustomed to referring to the people? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Richard.

Mr. BURGIN: No. I don't - yes, I don't have any animosity toward the Japanese people. No, I do not. I've been to Japan. And - but the Japanese soldier, I'll hate his guts as long as I have a breath in my body. You can bet on that.

CONAN: Have you ever met any of the men who you fought against?

Mr. BURGIN: No, sir.

CONAN: Would you?

Mr. BURGIN: Yeah. I would meet. Yeah. I wouldn't have a problem with that.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go next to Kenny(ph). Kenny calling us from Richmond in California.

KENNY (Caller): Hello. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

KENNY: Well, the story I want to tell, my father fought in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was in the Signal Corps, and he didn't like to tell a lot of stories about it. I think it left a lot of really deep, you know, emotional wounds on him. But one story that he did tell - and I don't know if it's apocryphal or not, but he said that he was part of the very first groups to arrive in Japan after they surrendered to set up various communication points, and that when they got to Tokyo, the word was out that they arrived and were going to be driving down this main street. And as they did, all the Japanese lined the street. And as they drove past, they turned their backs.

CONAN: Hmm.

KENNY: And the story has stuck with me. I don't think I've heard it anywhere else. And I don't know quite, you know, if it was apocryphal or not as I said, but it was really quite dramatic.

CONAN: Kenny, thanks very much for the call. No, I've not read that.

KENNY: Welcome.

CONAN: Thank you.

KENNY: Thank you.

CONAN: And R.V. Burgin, we want to thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. BURGIN: You're certainly welcome. My privilege.

CONAN: R.V. Burgin, the author of "Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific." He's one of the characters portrayed in HBO's miniseries "The Pacific," which premieres on Sunday. And he joined us from a studio in Dallas.

Tomorrow at SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ira Flatow will be here with a tour of the biology, geology and history of Missouri caves, plus building a greener building. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll be back with you on Monday with "The History of White People," the new book from historian Nell Painter. Have a great weekend. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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