They’re our friends, neighbors, people we give a smiling glance to as we pass in the supermarket or share the pews with on Sunday morning.
They appear as average people who mow their lawns, take out their trash and hold the uncanny ability to tell a good story or joke, but, just as the old saying goes, don’t judge these historical action novels by their covers. They are American veterans of war, and, although they won’t be found wearing red capes or leaping over buildings in a single magnificent bound, they are widely considered America’s real “heroes.”
A prime example of such an individual is Colbert’s Paul Burroughs, who was one of the World War II veterans recognized at the July 3 Independence Day celebration in Colbert.
Raised in the small Vineyard Creek Church area of Paoli and born ‘just in time for dinner,’ as his mother would always say, Burroughs had no idea just how crucial the notion of perfect placement and good timing would prove in the life that lay ahead of him.
The year was 1943 and Burroughs, still young and newly married, was drafted into the Army during WWII around the age of 22. A member of the 34th Infantry, the only thing remotely close to a military background he possessed was his time spent working at the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in Gainesville where he was paid $25 a month for doing jobs such as planting kudzu and building fences for farmers.
“We lived in Army barracks and were sometimes under the command of certain lieutenants that were in charge, but aside from that we had nothing to do with the actual military itself,” he said.
Stationed at Camp Blanding in Florida for 17 weeks of basic training and once again living in the Army barracks he had grown so accustomed to in the CCC Camp, he was taught to be combat ready as soon as training was completed.
“They expected us all to be ready for the front lines of combat as soon as our training was over, and once we landed in Naples Italy we didn’t stop until we made it to those front lines!” he said.
Burroughs said the experience of battle was eye opening.
“It was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” he said, carefully depicting what he witnessed through his first experiences of battle. “The terrain we fought on was nothing but a continuation of never-ending hills and valleys. We would push the enemy back, only to have them climb to the top of another hill that we would just have to push them off of. We were constantly on the move from one fox hole to the next, and were always under fire.”
Burroughs, who quickly found himself at the center of enemy attention, was given the specific duty of manning a .30 caliber machine gun on the front line of combat almost immediately after reaching the front lines.
“I had been taught how to shoot the gun in training so I knew I could handle the job, but I also knew I would be the one that all of Italy was trying to shoot at as well!” said Burroughs. “Our infantry took on constant fire from incoming mortar bombs that were aimed primarily at knocking out machine guns like mine, and that’s the main reason I lost my leg.”
Burroughs said his memory of the injury is somewhat cloudy.
“It’s hard to remember all of it,” he said. “But on that one particular day I do remember the first mortar landing a good ways away at the bottom of the mountain. I was having a good day on the gun I guess you could say and had taken out several trucks and things such as that, so as the day progressed the mortars started landing a little closer and closer as they tried to take out my gun.”
It was then, in 1944 and at the helm of his .30 caliber machine gun, Burroughs was struck by a piece of shrapnel that had been dispersed from an incoming mortar, instantly ending his military career and nearly costing him his life.
“I didn’t realize I had been hit until I tried to stand up and my leg gave out from under me,” said Burroughs. “It’s a horrible thing to think about, but if it hadn’t been for me sitting in that exact position I was in at that exact moment in time, I would have ended up like just like the guy next to me that was holding my ammunition. It was nothing but the grace of God that got me out of there alive that day!”
Fortunate for the medics that were able to reach him in time and sedate his aching body with two shots of morphine, Burroughs recalled being transported to a field clinic made solely of an open tent and numerous cots where he and many others lay wounded and waiting for their time to go home.
“Looking back it was just one of those things, and I wouldn’t want to go back through it,” he said.