American Hero

BY Susan Taylor Block

The year was 1945; the place was Germany. Already wounded John J. Burney Jr. refused to quit in his battalions dangerous quest to seize the heights near Ingelfingen. Still 1945 Burney was wounded again on April 18 at Aronsdorf when enemy fire ripped through his body resulting in five surgeries that still left him with enough shrapnel to feel today at age 83.

Among other awards he received three Purple Hearts the Bronze Star and honorary citizenship to the city of Jebsheim for his many brave deeds done in only two years of war service 1943-1945.

Born in 1924 Burney is the son of Judge John J. Burney and Effie Barefoot Burney. The family lived at 1704 Orange Street but in his bachelor days John Burney Sr. lived on the far south end of Wrightsville Beach in a cottage called “The Mullet House” that he shared with other young men. Oddly enough the Orange Street house provided a continual reminder of the beach.

“The beach car track was near our home ” says John Burney Jr. “In the summer the beach car came from Lumina the old pavilion that sat north of what is today the Oceanic Pier. I remember the beach car coming by around 11 oclock on Saturday nights. I could hear the drunks singing.

“The beach car was longer than the streetcar and the route went all the way from Lumina to Front and Princess streets and back. It was painted a bright orange-yellow.

“When I was a child the cars provided some juvenile amusement. We put pennies on the track and the wheels would mash them flat. Sometimes we pulled the lever and cut off electricity to the streetcar so it couldnt move then we ran away.”

As with most Wilmington natives Wrightsville Beach is woven into the fabric of Burneys memories. “I grew up going there. Many times I went with other boys. We used to go swimming sometimes north of Johnnie Mercers Pier. We wore our regular clothes to the beach and then changed into our bathing suits in the dunes that used to be there. After we swam we changed back into our clothes and went home.”

Burney experienced Lumina from the days of silent movies until its demise in 1973. “The first thing I remember about Lumina is that my aunt Ava Barefoot and her fianc Price Benton took me there and we watched movies over the water from the balcony. I went to Childrens Night on Wednesdays at Lumina every week in the summer for several years.

“Back yonder the Wilmington Exchange Club sponsored the Traffic Boys Picnic at Lumina. I was 12 years old and a traffic boy at Isaac Bear School on Market Street. We all boarded the beach car at 13th and Princess streets and went to Lumina where they served us soft drinks hot dogs and ice cream. Then we swam and played games. The Exchange Club organized all kind of competitions for us that day too like arm wrestling tournaments.

“Then when I was a teenager I went to dances there on Wednesday nights. It was dressy. I wore a coat and tie and the girls had to wear evening dresses to even get in. We did the box step and the jitterbug the Big Apple and the Little Apple. Two of my favorite performers were Glenn Miller and Cab Calloway. All the big bands came to Lumina just prior to WWII. Tuck Savage was the bouncer then. He was a great big tall man that my Daddy knew well.

“Lumina was a great place to go and meet people. There were folks from all over who came there everybody from Wilmington people who lived in little towns nearby and whole train loads of visitors from Atlanta and other cities.”

Before and after graduating from New Hanover High School in 1943 Burney worked as a lifeguard at Lumina. “Relmon Robinson owned Lumina when I worked there ” he recalls. He was a football coach at the high school. Relmon kept Lumina tidied up and ran the snack bar. His brother Ennis ran the bathhouse and rented out bathing suits. His brother-in-law Hersey worked at Lumina too. A Mr. Frownfelter ran a real shooting gallery at Lumina at the time.”

Burney learned to swim in the ocean and in the chilly waters of the old downtown YMCA at 305 Market Street. “I worked at Lumina during part of World War II ” he says. “Victor Gore was also a lifeguard. We got to see all the girls there.

“They had an Officers Training School at Camp Davis and there were thousands of soldiers there. Camp Davis was built at Holly Ridge. I went up to see the site when it was announced and there were only about 10 houses in that little town. Then it became Boom Town when the men began to arrive.

“Many of them came to Lumina on the weekends. Victor and I pulled a lot of drinking soldiers out of the ocean. I remember one of them was holding onto a jetty and wouldnt let go for me to pull him to shore. He was already bloody from the barnacles. I finally got him to grab onto a buoy I carried whenever I swam out to make rescues. He recovered.”

After the summer crowds disappeared net fishing kept Burney busy at Lumina. “In the fall when the mullets started running Relmon Robinson posted an employee high up on the roof of the pavilion to watch for the mullet runs. When the man spotted the fish schools Relmon and Ennis Robinson and their father would take nets out by boat and surround the fish with them. I helped pull the nets in.

“Sometimes there were so many fish we had to ask people on the beach to help us haul them in. The Robinsons sold most of them to downtown fish markets but saved some to cook on the beach. At that time people built fires on the beach. We cooked the fish and sweet potatoes right there on the strand.”

With World War II in progress Burney took on other jobs too. The shipyard located on the Cape Fear River near Sunset Park operated 24 hours a day and the sound of it could be heard in the Burney residence near 17th and Orange streets. A multitude of employees was required to run it and many of them had to be transported from other towns. Gas was rationed so an enterprising man named Fitzhugh Formyduval began running truck-hauled trailers to provide mass transport. John Burney worked as one of his drivers. “We went everywhere from Carolina Beach to Camp Davis to Hallsboro and almost to Elizabethtown. We also took laundry workers to Camp Davis. I worked three shifts and sometimes slept in the truck between them ” he says.

Accepting employment as a soda jerk gave Burney a chance to know Carolina Beach too. “After the war began someone knocked at the front door early one morning and Daddy went to answer it. The visitor was Mr. J. M. Hall the pharmacist who owned Halls Drug Store at Fifth and Castle streets. They talked for a few minutes and then Daddy came back to my bedroom. Get out of bed he said. Doc Hall has opened a drugstore at Carolina Beach and he wants you to work there as a soda jerk.”

The young man also worked at Mr. J. M. Halls store on Market Street between 16th and 17th streets just two blocks from the Burney residence. “I was a soda jerk there too ” he remembers “but I also worked outside hoppin curbs. It was old-fashioned curb service and I would take orders go inside get what they wanted hook a tray to the side of the customers car then put the food and drink there for them. The Market Street store was open until 11 oclock at night.”

John Burney was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served in the infantry in France and Germany. He still suffers from the “fire and ice” of World War II: His feet froze in France during the Battle of Jebsheim resulting in nerve damage that causes him excruciating pain today. Following the 1945 battle in Germany in which he received life-threatening wounds he was transferred to an American hospital in Nancy France where he stayed for approximately three months (April through July). Meanwhile he kept in touch with his parents in Wilmington through V-mail or Victory Mail a wartime form of weight and space-reduced correspondence.

During his hospitalization in France his first cousin Wilbur Corbett of Wilmington surprised him when he came to his room in a “rolling chair.” Corbett suffered severe injuries too and was still under hospital care. He would continue his recuperation in Wilmington at Airlie his parents home. When Burney finally returned to Wilmington it was on a hospital ship the John L. Clem.

Life brightened up quickly for Burney after he settled back in with his family on Orange Street. He began going to Lumina again and met his wife Betty Evans on Wrightsville Beach. “My cousin Graham Barefoot introduced us ” he says. “I was officially home on furlough from the hospital and was wearing my uniform. Betty and I were married two years later in 1947.

“I began school at Wake Forest College that year at its old location near Raleigh. Betty and I rented a house on campus that had been made from old Army barracks. I worked during school as a salesman for Block Shirts a company based in Wilmington. I sold shirts to individuals took orders and then delivered the shirts. Thanks to the Block family I made lots of money selling shirts. I remember gabardine sport shirts were brand new and very popular. They sold for $5 and I could sell them as fast they would ship them to me.”

Burney graduated from Wake Forest College in 1950 with a B.S. degree. A year later he received his L.L.D. from Wake Forest Law School. During the summers in between he worked as a lifeguard at Station One for $25 a month. After law school graduation he went into practice with Col. Royce McClelland a World War I and World War II veteran who had been his fathers law partner in the 1920s and 1930s. Burney served as District Solicitor of the Eighth Solicitorial District (Columbus New Hanover Pender and Brunswick counties) from 1954 to 1963 and was elected to the N.C. Senate in 1967 where he served three two-year terms.

During his active career “Attorney Burney” made television lawyers pale. His mental gymnastics couched by a down-home drawl and clothes at least as rumpled as Matlocks were occasionally underestimated by the opposition. Once an opposing attorney representing a group of young men accused of breaking into a local country club bragged to him “Im going to tear you up in court.” As soon as the proceedings began Burney stood tall stared hard at the accused and said “Okay all you boys that broke into the country club stand up!” Spontaneously each one of them stood up at the same time and the case was closed.

Burney deft at politics of all sorts once even managed to get by with calling a dog to the stand. Putting his arm in the large dogs mouth he proved the canine was not a “vicious animal.” Combatants accused Burney of drugging the dog. He still denies it but with a smile.

His most dramatic moment occurred in 1969 on the floor of the N.C. General Assembly when he arrived with a pitchfork he had spray-painted gold. Impaled on the fork was a bill he vehemently opposed. Burney longtime owner of a farm stood square and exhibited his typical economy of words: “This bill stinks so badly Im not even going to touch it.” The bill did not pass and Burney was voted “Most Influential State Senator” that year.

Even in the midst of heavy state politics Wrightsville Beach beckoned. “One year my fellow legislator Herman Moore of Mecklenburg County flew about 30 of us down from Raleigh to Lumina for a shrimparoo. Donald Sneeden and the Trask family provided and prepared the food. We all ate plenty of shrimp and Silver Queen corn then got in the plane and flew back to Raleigh.”

Today Burney has been officially retired for five years from his law practice and politics but still keeps a hand in things. He also stays busy keeping abreast of developments at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) a school he has worked tirelessly to improve since the days when it was Wilmington College. And the old farmer still picks up a pitchfork every now and then.

But family is and always has been primary for him. Betty and John Burney have now been married for 61 years. They have three children Jay Shaw and Deborah Burney and four grandchildren.

So when you walk past the site of his beloved Lumina drive down the John J. Burney Jr. Freeway or visit Burney Hall at UNCW remember this man. Remember him as a teenage lifeguard saving soldiers from themselves and from the undertow. Remember him as a worthy member of “The Greatest Generation ” knowingly risking his life again and again for the sake of freedom during World War II. And remember with a smile the colorful and effective mover and shaker he was and is today.