World War II veteran pilot Dale Burgess still volunteers for his country

In 1944, Dale Burgess volunteered to fly a P-38 Fighter during World War II. In 2013, Burgess, 91, defines senior volunteerism— never mind back and leg pain, heart surgery two years ago and related health problems.

Veteran Dale Burgess, from Ann Arbor, Mich., spends his days volunteering at the Red Cross, Michigan’s Yankee Air Museum, the VA Hospital, his church and Alpha House— an organization helping homeless families in Washtenaw County— and, of course, he has helped neighbors for ever.

These days, he doesn’t look or walk like the wavy-haired fighter pilot who once scrambled to his fighter plane, defending the world against Japanese imperialism.

He’s a quiet, unassuming man who walks slowly due to bad knees, a bad back and other health problems. He grew up during a time most people can’t imagine: before the Internet, cell phones and television. He wears corduroy pants and sweaters over dress shirts (or a suit and tie), lived through the Great Depression and remembers gasoline at 17 cents per gallon… and 70 years ago, he proudly wore a military uniform and fought for the United States.

At 19, while attending Central Michigan University, he volunteered for the aviation cadet program after the U.S. entered World War II.

“I wanted to be a pilot,” Burgess said, “and the cadet program gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream.” He was called up for cadet training in November 1942 and went overseas in January 1944 after extensive training.

World War II experience at a glance

As 1st Lt. Dale Burgess, he flew a P-38 in the 432nd Fighter Squadron of the 475th Fighter Group, a highly decorated group fighting against Imperial Japan in the western Pacific and the first unit made up entirely of Lockheed P-38s.

The P-38 was a twin-engine fighter with two tails, four .50-caliber machine guns and could carry a 2,000-pound bomb or a 1,000-pound bomb with an extra external fuel tank.

At 21, Burgess and his squadron were escorting bombers like the B-24 and B-25 to the island of Borneo.

“Flying out of New Guinea, we escorted long-range bombers,” he said. “When we finally secured a base in the Philippines, we flew as far north as the island of Formosa (Taiwan).”

He remembers flying with fellow pilot P.J. Dahl when Dahl’s tail section was sheared off during a collision with another P-38 during the Battle of Ormoc Bay in the Philippines.

“Dahl bailed out and played dead in the water, hoping the Japanese would quit shooting at him,” he said. “We didn’t know if they killed him. We weren’t in a position to mount a rescue operation.”

Dahl survived and with the help of local Filipinos, made a month-long trek through the jungle. “A month later, Dahl walked into camp carrying a monkey the Filipinos gave him,” he said. “Dahl named the monkey Ormoc. We couldn’t believe he made it back alive.”

While serving in the Pacific, Burgess’ fighter group trained with world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. During World War II, Lindbergh worked as a civilian adviser evaluating pilot performance. He taught pilots how to conserve fuel for long-range missions by reducing their engine’s revolutions per minute and increasing manifold pressure.

“Lindbergh always came back with more fuel than us,” Burgess said, “which most of us didn’t appreciate because it meant longer missions in the small cockpit. As a civilian adviser, he wasn’t supposed to fly on combat missions with us, but he did.”

Burgess eventually flew 131 missions, engaging in aerial combat against the Japanese and destroying transport ships, trains, bridges and military installations.

He returned to the U.S. in May 1945 and married the love of his life (the late) Betty John Burgess. He went back to college on the G.I. Bill and earned a degree in chemical engineering at Michigan State University (Class of 1949).

He spent the next 35 years working for the state of Michigan as a factory inspector, making workplaces safer for employees. But he stayed in the Reserves and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1982 and from his job with the state in 1984.

The Senior Volunteer

Burgess never stopped working though. Since “retiring,” he has made volunteering his life’s work. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “I love my country and volunteering for the community is a way that I can continue to help others.”

Every Friday he drives the bloodmobile for the Red Cross, transporting blood from Detroit to Washtenaw County hospitals.

To stay close to the aviation industry, he volunteers two to three days a week at Willow Run Airport’s Yankee Air Museum in Wayne County, Mich. In the 1940s, Willow Run played a vital role in testing World War II aircraft produced at the famed Willow Run Assembly Plant.

Burgess is also an usher at Ann Arbor’s West Side Methodist Church. To raise money for his church, he directs cars that park in the church’s parking lot on football Saturdays when the University of Michigan Wolverines play nearby at Michigan Stadium.

The church co-sponsors Alpha House — a facility that provides temporary housing for homeless families in transition. He volunteers there to help make the homeless families comfortable.

He still attends annual reunions of the 475th Fighter Group, except for the one held in 2011, when he underwent emergency heart surgery the day before the reunion. Only a few members of his fighter group are still alive to attend, but many family members attend in their absence because of the friendships made over the years.

When it comes to senior citizen volunteerism and what motivates him, Burgess shared his philosophy with THE LAST COLUMNIST:

“I couldn’t just retire and fly off into the sunset the way some people do at my age. I have to stay busy and volunteering to make the world a better place is how I have always lived my life.”

Contrary to the old saying, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” Burgess, a soldier from a time and place few appreciate, doesn’t know how to fade away from serving his country.

Do you love or hate THE LAST COLUMNIST? Why does it exist? Did it give you something to talk about with your family or friends? Please leave comments or send email to B52@thelastcolumnist.com

Great Lakes

About THE LAST COLUMNIST