Medal of Honor Monday: Army Staff Sgt. Herbert Burr
When it came to tank warfare, Army Staff Sgt. Herbert Hoover Burr seemed fearless. He saved the day twice during World War II during separate actions that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.
Burr was born to Maurice and Edna Burr on Sept. 13, 1920, in St. Joseph, Missouri. He had five brothers and two sisters and attended the town’s Central High School before moving to nearby Kansas City when he was 17.
Burr told a reporter at the St. Joseph Gazette that he had tried to join every branch of the military when he was young, including the National Guard, but they all turned him down because he had bad teeth. However, by early 1942, when the U.S. war machine was in full swing, he was drafted into the Army. He trained as a tank gunner and was eventually sent to fight in France with Company C of the 41st Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division.
Burr’s bravery was evident throughout his time in Europe. On Jan. 15, 1945, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross for saving an injured soldier from a burning tank in Belgium. He then put the fire out and drove that tank back to U.S. lines.
What earned him the Medal of Honor happened about two months later, on March 19, 1945, near Dorrmoschel, Germany. Burr told the St. Joseph Gazette that he was in one of three Allied tanks moving through the area. The first tank was knocked out on the outskirts of town; the second was told to hold its position, and Burr’s was told to explore the area.
A short time later, Burr’s tank was hit by an enemy bazooka shell. The blast severely wounded the platoon sergeant, killed two men in its turret and forced the rest of the crew to abandon the vehicle.
“The big gun was over the top of the tank, and I couldn’t get out,” he told a reporter for the St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette in 1988. “I couldn’t hear anything, but I could feel the vibrations and I knew the tank was running. I wasn’t about to jump out with that guy with the bazooka out there.”
Burr, who was the tank’s bow gunner, had been deafened but was otherwise uninjured, so he immediately climbed into the driver’s seat and kept the tank moving into town. But as he made a left turn, he realized it was the wrong choice — an 88-mm anti-tank gun was facing him at point-blank range.
“I guess there was not supposed to be a left turn there,” Burr told the News-Press/Gazette reporter. “Well, it was too damn late to back up.”
Even though there were no other crew members in the tank to man its guns, Burr made the bold move to directly charge the German weapon. It would have been easy for the Germans to take him out — Burr’s Medal of Honor citation said the anti-tank gun was fully manned and only needed someone to pull the lanyard to send off a shell. But the German’s were so surprised by Burr’s unexpected and daring run toward them that he was able to drive his tank completely over it, destroying the weapon and causing its crew to flee in confusion.
Burr kept going, sideswiping and overturning a German truck before whipping back around and returning to his company’s line.
Burr then climbed out of the tank and rank through sniper fire to find some medics, who had been looking for him. Burr pointed them toward one of his injured comrades, who was still alive in the tank’s turret. Unfortunately, that man didn’t survive the ordeal, the Gazette reported.
Burr’s fearlessness and determination quickly earned him a Medal of Honor nomination, which allowed for him to be transferred back to the U.S., according to the St. Joseph Gazette. He was sent to serve as an instructor at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then at a war college in Washington, D.C.
Burr received the Medal of Honor on Aug. 23, 1945, from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony that honored 27 other war heroes. Burr’s parents and his wife, Verna, were in attendance.
To add to his accolades, Burr also received the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1946 — Great Britain’s second highest military decoration at the time — and the Luxembourg Croix de Guerre — a rare foreign decoration bestowed on Allied troops — in 1947.
Burr was discharged from the Army after the war and returned to Kansas City. He and his wife went on to have three sons and a daughter.
Burr worked in construction and as a painter for the federal government until he retired in 1986. He was a member of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the 11th Armored Division Association and was content to live a quiet life, according to a 1984 Kansas City Times article. Burr’s son, Jack, said his father didn’t like to talk about the war much and loved fishing.
Burr moved to Urbana, Missouri, in 1988. He died two years later, on Feb. 8, 1990, at a hospital near his home. He was buried in Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense
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