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Wife of POW tells their painful story

At 1:15 one October morning in 1945, there’s a knock on Pernina Burke’s hotel door.  “Man!  He looked good!  We talked all night.”  They had not seen each other since September 1941. Major Edward Burke had regained some of the 110 pounds lost while imprisoned.  “Perky” Burke and two other Brainerd women were in Clinton, IA expecting to meet their ex-POW husbands in the morning — but not this early and not at the front door but at the train station.    At 7 o’clock breakfast, the men scarf up their steaks before the women finish their juice and toast. For six weeks the men had been eating regularly; yet, in their minds they were starving.  Ed later said the feeling of starvation never left; he regulated his eating, but many of the men became obese.    In a few days, after the men’s medical checkups at the Clinton hospital, Perky and Ed return by bus to Brainerd, where they are met by her mother and their two children – and a crowd.    Ed immediately takes Marionne’s and Perry’s hands, leaves the crowd and buys his children ice cream cones.  A city-wide celebration came days later.  “At first after Ed’s return, it was a high for us.  He was alive and home.”   Unlike help available for today’s returning troubled veterans, there was virtually none at that time.  Ed was basically told he had shell shock and to “get over it.”      Not only had starvation physiologically aged him twenty or more years; Ed never again slept well, never got over having nightmares that the enemy was after him, and never discussed his experience with anyone who had not endured the same.  One available detail:  In prison camp each prisoner received one blanket made of peanut husk.  Two or three emaciated prisoners would sometimes fit into a bunk for warmth – more blankets and body heat.  In an uncleaned previous horse transport, Ed endured a “Hell Ship” from Cabanatuan Prison Camp in the Philippines to Umeda Bunsho Camp  #2 in Osaka, Japan.   One bucket of drinking water was lowered daily through the hatch.    One bucket served as sanitation facilities for the crammed-in men – many had dysentery.  There was no fresh air. Hell Ships lacked wartime’s “gentlemen’s agreement” to mark POW transport with a white cross.  Ed’s transport was in 1942 – before U.S. rebuilt naval forces sadly sank several unmarked Hell Ships.  The men’s return encouraged socializing.  Ed’s “celebrity status” brought unexpected invitations and visitors day and night.  A month after his return, Perky foresaw problems when she realized Ed always left an inch of liquor in the bottle – for the morning. “I think he was allergic to the stuff, but he craved it.  The men had pride, which didn’t let them quit drinking.”  Alcoholism meant lost jobs.  The Burkes moved to St. Cloud after losing their house in Brainerd – her much loved Victorian – in which they’d hoped to rear their three children and to grow old.  They always moved into houses needing fix-up, which she enjoyed doing.  Ed did his part also, but in retrospect, Perky says, “I didn’t have an understanding of what it was to be tired and sick.  Blessed with marvelous health, I had no inkling what he was going through.”  As an adult, Perky has enjoyed great health – until three years ago when cardiac arrest prompted a helicopter ride to Abbot-Northwestern.  Of her condition at that time, she quipped, “I wasn’t sick.  I was a breath away from death.  But I wasn’t sick.”  She recuperated and feels fine.  She had cheated death for the second time– as a seven year old with pneumonia, she had not been expected to survive.    The Burkes met in 1935 while employed at the Farm Credit Administration in Brainerd.  Ed, who could type, take shorthand and had completed two years of law school, held a permanent position.  Believing co-workers should not date, he waited until the end of Perky’s six-week stint to ask her out.  Perky didn’t expect their dating to become serious, “After all,” she says, “He was a Catlikker.”  Nineteen year old Pernina Oliver converted to Catholicism, sewed her white velvet wedding dress, and in September 1937 became Mrs. Edward Burke.  Perky treasures early childhood memories on Hackensack’s Ten Mile Lake with her maternal grandmother, two aunts and two uncles.  “Everyone felt so sorry for me because I had no dad.  I didn’t know what that was.  I had everyone wrapped around my finger!” Her parents lived in the country, owned livestock and a saw mill.  Six weeks before Perky’s birth, her father died in a saw mill accident.  Four months before his death, a two-year old daughter had died.  Often dreaming of coming events, Perky’s mother had dreamt the child would drown in the well.  Perky’s father built a secure well cover.  The child drowned in a wash boiler.  In the five and a half years her parents were married, they lost three children—two blue babies had died shortly after birth.   At three months old, Perky was brought by her grieving mother to the child’s Swedish  grandmother.  Managing a saw mill, tending to livestock and caring for a newborn proved too  heavy a load. Lacking a strong mother-daughter bond, Perky says, “But it’s understandable after all she had been through.     Taught to read by aunts and uncles before school age, she thrived.   She moved to Brainerd with her mother and stepfather after their marriage in 1925.  Leaving grandma was traumatic, but Perky excelled. Starting high school at age twelve, she was graduated from Brainerd High when barely sixteen.  “I was too young to date, so I kept busy.”   It was a sad day for Perky when her grandmother’s house was sold in 1952.  Perky swam in “the best lake in the world” for 90 of her 94 years as her own cabin on Ten Mile Lake was sold in 2010.  Believing all men should have military training, Ed had joined the newly formed Brainerd National Guard unit in 1936.  “Besides, he earned a dollar every time he drilled.” Ed had quickly become sergeant, studied and become Second Lieutenant.  In February of 1941, he left Brainerd for training in Fort Lewis, Washington, where he became First Lieutenant and Commander of “A” Company.  His promotion to Captain came in December of 1941. In July 1941 – two weeks after Perky and their two children joined him in Washington – Ed got notice of overseas duty.  In September he left with the 194th Tank Battalion to the Philippine Islands.  Required before Ed’s departure, settling the PX account left Ed with $35; Perky, $35 and two children.       To supplement the government’s monthly stipend, she went to work for $7 per week at a credit bureau.  Alone the second day on the job, Perky learned that secretaries at the state capitol earned $90 per month.  The next day she gave notice and went to work at the capitol.        Affordable babysitters proved scarce.  Although not on welfare, Perky lucked out boarding Marionne and Perry with Jessie Lloyd, who boarded welfare children on her farm. After work on Wednesdays, Perky drove to the farm, shared supper, bathed and read to her children before putting them to bed, and then she visited with Jessie.  At one point Jessie needed to raise the fee from $35 per month to $40; however, she offered to waive the increase if Perky would help – if needed – in her husband’s absence during the work week.  “The agreement worked out well, and we kept in touch for several years.  It was a marvelous place with farm kids!”   Meanwhile in the Philippines, Ed and a sergeant were on their way home from church when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941.  Ed was hit in the posterior.  “He could have been evacuated to Australia that day, but he said, ‘No.  My men need me.’” That same month daughter Marionne turned three and son Perry turned two.    On December 26th, at the Agno River during the Battle of Luzon, Ed’s company met enemy fire.  One of Ed’s four gunshot wounds was in the cervical vertebrae, which caused temporary paralysis – for a few days he could neither talk nor move.  Two of his men were killed.  Because he didn’t answer their calls, the rest believed Ed to be dead.  They had to leave – or all would die.  During mop-up operations the next day, the enemy found him, beat him with bamboo poles and imprisoned him, but because he was an officer, did not kill him.             Major Besson, a fellow American prisoner, tended Ed’s wounds.  Between December 27, 1941 and April 9, 1942, Ed was held in Pasay schoolhouse, in a prison compound and in an abandoned hospital. At one point the enemy had planned to amputate one of Ed’s infected feet.  However, some time after the April 9th American surrender, when Ed was transferred to Cabanatuan prison camp, he was treated with sulfa. He told Perky that had he known how sick the sulfa would make him, he’d have chosen amputation.    His feet later gave him little trouble. Cabanatuan prison camp gave Ed one sad plus:  his men were there too – survivors of the Bataan Death March.  Entering the camp on crutches, Ed was seen by one of his men who backed away and stammered, “You’re…..You’re dead!”  Ed’s men were astonished and delighted to see him.          In May of 1942 – five months after his capture – Perky received a War Department letter stating her husband was MIA.  “I feared he was dead but hoped he was alive.”  Hearing of atrocities bestowed POWs, she and her friends hoped their men were not prisoners.  Hoping for  any word concerning Ed, she listened to late night radio news.    “I never gave up.  How can you give up?  There’s nothing to do but go on.”   She kept on working for the needed paycheck and kept on caring for her children.  “What you need to do is keep busy.”  Daily routine didn’t change.  Acquainted with officers and their wives, she and co-worker friends sometimes attended weekend formal dinner dances at Fort Lewis.  “I had to do something,” she says.  Other activities were church, Wednesday overnights with her children and going shopping with the babysitter.   After working a year in Olympia, Perky was well situated; however, she felt the children should know their own people and returned to Brainerd in October 1942.    On December 14, 1942, Perky received word of Ed’s POW status.  A shortwave radio operator’s phone call was confirmed by a later phone call and telegram from the War Department.  Hope rose that Ed was alive and the children still had a dad.  Almost a year had passed since he was taken prisoner.  Back in her hometown, Perky ran a daycare center for a few months before working at a local defense plant making bolts for airplanes.  Her wages rose from 65 to 75 cents per hour.  A 54-hour work week was not unusual.  One work stretch lasted six weeks and three days – with no days off.      Perky joined the Brainerd Drum and Bugle Corps in 1943, was a member for eight years, and participated in the 1949 Mardi Gras parade.  In the 1945 celebration of V-J Day, the group wore white boots, yellow-fringed red skirts, and cowgirl hats (the only uniform all members had clean that day) and marched throughout Brainerd.  “We went everywhere.  Wherever our drum major took us.  We ended up at the Legion.” In contrast to conditions American POWs endured, Camp Ripley’s German POWs attended one or two formal dances at the Brainerd armory.   Asked by Camp Ripley brass, Perky and other “war wives” wore long gowns and served as hostesses.  For these “lock down” events, the American guards were in uniform; the prisoners’ uniforms were neat and clean, and shoes were polished.  Formal introductions were made.  Most of the Germans spoke fairly good English. “This was a far cry from the treatment American prisoners got in Germany,” says Perky.  “We didn’t have to be so nice to them.” After October 1945, life for the Burkes didn’t always run smoothly – until a five-year period of sobriety. For 3 ½ of those five years, the Burkes operated a Board and Care Home for men from the St. Cloud Vets’ Hospital.  Unlike the Burkes, the boarders had television in their duplex half.  Winter meant a 5 o’clock rising for Perky and Ed; while he tended the two coal furnaces, she made breakfast for everyone.   At 8 a.m. Ed reported to work at St. Johns College, where he oversaw all ROTC military materiel.  The children reported to school.  Perky washed, ironed, cooked and cleaned for the eight boarders plus cared for her growing family.  “I loved those years! Busy, busy.  Hardly had time to breathe.  His sobriety was a big, big part of it.”  A grinning Perky adds, “It was good that Ed came home from the war, as I was plum-full of babies.”  Their last three children were born during those years. With low profit outweighing their exhaustive efforts, they closed the Board and Care in 1957 and rented out the other duplex half.   In the meantime, Ed had taken a position with the National Federation of Independent Business, which required his visiting small businesses – including taverns – in Minnesota’s northern half.  A week after closing the Board and Care Home, Ed walked into a bar to watch a football game.  He asked for a bottle of Coke, but was given a bottle of beer.  He figured one wouldn’t matter.  “That was it,” says Perky. It started again.  Ed called every night at 7 o’clock — a half hour late meant he was drinking.  Every three or four weeks he would get sick, and Perky would have to pick him up wherever he was.  To make sure bills were paid, she took a telephone sales job at Sears.  Her 80-year-old babysitter came to the house at 11 a.m. to welcome the youngest child from half-day kindergarten.       On Perky’s return from work one night, the sitter said Ed had called.  He was in Moorhead.  Knowing he would end up in the hospital in two days if she didn’t get him, she told Ed, “I will be there on the 12:30 bus.  In pitch darkness, the bus let her off in front of the motel, where her repeated bell ringing produced no one.  She eventually asked a stranger, who walked in and rang the bell, if he’s going to Moorhead and for a ride into town.  Maybe Ed is at the bus depot.   En route, the man asked, “What is a girl like you doing out here without a car”? “I came to meet my alcoholic husband.” No Ed at the depot.  While eating at a restaurant across from the bus depot, this man said, “Mrs. Burke, I, too, am alcoholic – two years dry.”  He didn’t know why he had had a drink that day and had planned to buy a bottle and get soused.  Knowing he faced a well-deserved reprimand but that all would end up okay, he added, “ I’m going home sober.”      Back at the motel that Ed had named, they learned he had stayed somewhere else. When she found Ed, he was so shaky that he could barely bring his juice to his mouth.  “You’re going to the hospital,” said Perky.  He signed himself in. Perky said she would visit on weekends when possible.  Her step-father’s death at this time prompted a few days visit with her mother.   On Perky’s return, there was Ed.  “That was the advantage of signing yourself in – you could sign yourself out.”  Highly intelligent and a born gentleman, her husband appreciated and insisted on good table manners. Ed could not handle the treatment center’s integration of the addicted and the mentally ill.  Perky said, “I had to say it.  How much better do you think you are when you’re drinking?” He said, “Well, if you think you have to commit me you can do that.  But please not there.” “We’ll take it one day at a time, but I can’t be home to baby you.  I suppose if you want to lie in the gutter you’re entitled to do that.  But I won’t be there with you.  If you’re sober you know that I want you to be here with us.  But if you’re not, there’s no way we can survive as a family.” Seventeen years had passed since Ed’s return from the war.  Never again did he go to treatment, never again did he take another drink.  But he was careful to whom he admitted his alcoholism.  AA commitment followed.  “Blessings out-weigh problems,” says Perky.  “I’m so glad I married that man!”     Perky went to work as secretary in St. Cloud Hospital’s pathology department. “I absolutely loved it.”  During seventeen of the 25 years at the hospital, she also taught medical terminology, transcription and office procedures at St. Cloud Technical College. Retired from the hospital, she was recruited to edit a medical textbook for a law firm, and, when finished, was asked by the firm to stay on and given her choice of hours.  “It was the hardest job I ever had.  I was relieved when I was laid off.”  Temporary jobs followed. “It was an eye opener,” she says about her next job.  By dictating into a computer which printed Braille and English, she taught medical terminology to blind people.  It gratified Perky when one of her students started teaching.   “When I was 80, I decided that was enough.”  Perky retired. In 1968, Ed had encouraged Perky to return to the stage.  Her first audition in 29 years landed her the lead role.  Among the many plays in her 30 years in St. Cloud theaters, she did On Golden Pond – twice, with the same leading man.   A continuing pastime is writing — mainly biographical and for her family.   When she started writing at age seven, her four-line poem was published in a children’s magazine.  Her essays have appeared in various publications, including The Lutheran, St. Anthony Messenger, and Brainerd, Walker and St. Cloud newspapers. She drives from St. Cloud to Sauk Centre for Sinclair Lewis Writing Club’s monthly meetings.  Sharing an amusing essay, she once confessed that she, too, has an addiction.  She is a “fabriholic.”  Like the addicted hiding the forbidden, she hid her excessive purchases of fabric.  Although Perky sewed almost all clothes for herself and their three daughters, 700 yards of fabric remain unused. She spends much time on the phone with family and friends but also reads – mostly military prisoner stories.  “They help me to know Ed better.  Every prisoner has a different story to tell but still the same.  The worst moment for every prisoner was the moment he was taken prisoner.  Then you realize what freedom is all about.”  She pauses.  “You have no control of what you do.”  For about 27 years she has served as chaplain of Ex-POW Department Minnesota and the local Ex-POW chapter.  She tries to keep in contact with ill or bereaved survivors.  Were it possible, she would attend funerals for all ex-POWs throughout the state.  Besides saying prayers at various groups for the local chapter, she is responsible for the Memorial Service at the annual convention of Ex-POW Department Minnesota.   Of this year’s convention held at St. Cloud’s Kelly Inn from April 30 through May 2, she says it was very gratifying to hear how well returning veterans and widows are now treated.   Perky has been widowed since 1970, when 56 year old Ed died of lymphoblastic lymposarcoma – cancer of the lymph nodes.  She feels the seeds for the cancer were planted while he was in prison camp. Located a couple hundred miles from the atomic bomb, the camp was covered with gray ash two or three days later.          She has lost two children.  “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!”  The youngest, Pernina (Nina), died in 2009.  Ten months later son Perry died; his wife had died five months before he did.  Marionne lives in Pennsylvania, Peggy in Golden Valley, MN, Michael in Huston, TX and Patrick in St. Cloud.  For Perky’s 75th birthday, her family fulfilled her long-time wish for a hot air balloon ride.  For her 80th and 90th birthdays they hosted big parties.  This past March, Perky celebrated her 94th birthday by treating fifty family members and friends at Sammy’s Pizza in St. Cloud. Fat-n-sassy  (her word) Perky says, “But, I didn’t pay for any liquor.”

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