Veterans

December 7, 2016
 

Born during the Pearl Harbor attack: A veteran shares his remarkable story

Katie Lange
DOD News

David Burpee as a child.

It was dark at Pearl Harbor’s Tripler Hospital on the evening of Dec. 7, 1941. The bombings by the Japanese had stopped, but the fear of more attacks continued. Window blinds were still drawn and lights were still out. The injured and dying lay everywhere.

It was an extraordinary time — especially for one young mother who gave birth in that chaos.

“There was a baby born in the evening, in the dark. They had a flashlight. That’s what [the nurse] used to illuminate for the doctor,” said Winnie Woll, the daughter of Army Pearl Harbor nurse Teresa Stauffer Foster. “This baby came into life when all these other people around were dying.”

When Woll first told me the story, I was a bit shocked, but I was even more curious to find out who that baby was. It turned out that he was one of two infants born that day. The military pretty much became the theme for his whole life.

“My name is David Burpee. I’m a retired Army colonel, and I was born at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.”

That’s probably a great icebreaker at parties, right?

When I told colleagues I would be interviewing Burpee, many jokingly asked whether we would discuss what he remembered from that day. Clearly, the answer is nothing, but he can definitely recall the details from the story his parents told him.

Left: David Burpee as a cowboy bicyclist. Right: Burpee with his soldier father, Harry.

Mom and Dad
Burpee’s father, Harry, had enlisted into the Army Signal Corps and was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii before being sent to Wake Island to help install bomber beacons.

“On the way out, his sergeant talked to the commander and said, ‘Don’t forget, Sergeant Burpee is going to have a baby. You’re going to send him back, right?'” Burpee recounted. Apparently, it took a while for that promise to be kept, but eventually, his dad was shipped back.

“He was halfway in between Wake and Hawaii when the attack occurred. His unit was all shot up in Hawaii, and everybody on Wake was killed or captured and died in a prison camp,” Burpee said, referring to the Japanese attack on Wake Island around the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack.

As for Burpee’s mother, Amney? She’d been in Tripler for three days already, expecting his arrival.

“Three times, during the day I was born, they had to move her — from one maternity ward to a makeshift maternity ward to just a regular ward — because they were bringing in the wounded so fast,” Burpee said.

Much like many Americans who were intimately involved in World War II, Burpee’s mom seldom discussed her experience.

“It was strange — she was like a soldier who had really been on the front lines. They’re the ones who don’t talk about it much, and she didn’t either,” he said.

Retired Army Col. David Burpee.

Not alone
Perhaps the most fun details Burpee can recall from the story of his birth? He had a nickname from Day 1 — and he wasn’t the only baby.
“There was one other child, a male, born in Tripler that day,” he said. “There were privacy concerns as well as wartime concerns, so rather than release names, they gave the babies nicknames.”

The other child was born during the attack, so his nickname was ‘Blitz,’ and Burpee was born after the attack, later at night once things had quieted down. His nickname was ‘Blackout.'”

Three weeks after the attack, because of concerns of a land invasion, officials moved all female civilians and children onto a troop transport to take them to California. So “Blackout’s” stint on Hawaii didn’t last long, but in time he came to appreciate its significance.

“I think the first time … was [when] I was in high school, and a local newspaper found out that I was a Dec. 7, 1941, baby,” he remembered.
“So they came out and did an interview. And I thought, ‘OK, that’s kind of interesting.'”

A military life
Burpee went on to become a lifelong Army man himself, rising to the rank of colonel during a 28-year career that included a combat tour in Vietnam.

Burpee served in several public affairs positions, too, including as the media officer when U.S. Central Command formed. He was the personal public affairs advisor to NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe during the Gulf War. He also worked at the Pentagon’s press room and for the Office of Secretary of Defense before he retired in 1993.

“I loved every minute of it. One job was better than the next,” Burpee said. “For me, it’s been the interaction with the people, … being exposed to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, because most of my time has been spent in joint or unified or international commands. It’s really very gratifying to see.”

Harry and Amney Burpee enjoying their youth together.

As for that other baby — Blitz? Burpee said his name is Stan, he lives in Oregon, and while they’ve never met in person, they have talked. Both men will be returning to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary in December, so maybe they’ll get a chance to meet.

Though his parents have since passed, Burpee plans on returning to the scene of his birth to attend the remembrance ceremonies at Hickam Field, where his parents had lived.

“Myself, the wife and several other members of the family — nine of us total — are going back to Hawaii to celebrate the birthday and honor those whose lives were lost,” he said.

Burpee doesn’t want any media attention on him there, he said, because he’s not the one to honor — the men and women who lived, died and fought that day are. But it’s still a pretty cool story to tell, right?




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