Ed Burke of Mattituck is a secret sort of hero.
Just shy of his 92nd birthday in August, the retired New York City firefighter still works out at a Riverhead gym three days a week. He’s a family man, with four grown sons and two grown daughters.
But until he was honored for his service at a meeting of the Mattituck Gun Club in mid-June, few people knew he was a decorated B-17 pilot who flew 35 bombing missions over Germany during World War II.
“We were all very lucky. You’d see the plane next to you disintegrate … flak got to it. By the grace of God, we got back,” Mr. Burke said as he reflected on his service just before the Fourth of July in the living room of the house he built for his family on Bay Avenue in the 1960s.
Gun club member Scott Walter was among those honoring Mr. Burke, who shoots at the trap range each week and recently won the club’s C Class trap championship.
“He kept it very quiet,” said Mr. Walter. “His daughter said he never tells the story. I was surprised when I heard it.”
Mr. Burke, who was raised in Flushing, Queens, was drafted into the Army in 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I happened to be 21 and available,” he said.
He was inducted as a private in the 187th Field Artillery in Vermont, but later took the test to become an Air Cadet in the Army Air Force. The Air Force did not become a separate branch of the service until after the war.
He spent more than a year training to be a pilot in Texas and California before he was assigned a crew of nine other cadets, who would serve with him in the cramped quarters.
The new crew flew to Great Britain to begin their work in late 1943.
Mr. Burke’s daughter, Debbie Stasiukiewicz Burke, once toured a B-17 plane in an aeronautic museum with her father, and was shocked that 10 men could handle being in such cramped quarters.
“There’s the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, nose gunner, top turret gunner, radio operator, two waist gunners, a ball turret gunner and a tail gunner,” Mr. Burke said, listing the crew positions as if by second nature. They called the B-17 a flying fortress. It lived up to its name.
“It was so well armed, and it had so many 50 caliber machine guns,” he said. “The runs lasted up to 10 hours, depending on how deep the penetration was.”
Crew members wore silk gloves under their leather gloves to keep from freezing, and the ball turret gunners, who sat in a small bubble on the bottom of the plane, had it the worst. The temperatures were so cold that sometimes their internal organs would begin to freeze, and they were often the easiest targets for anti-aircraft fire. “The temperature was only minus 50 degrees at 47,000 feet,” Mr. Burke said.
But the cold was hardly the worst part of the experience. Mr. Burke’s navigator, Leonard Tew of Texas, was killed by flak on one bombing run, and the crew was ordered to continue working with just nine men.
“He was a wonderful kid, 19 years old,” he remembered.
But with just one casualty, theirs was a lucky crew. The rest of the men all survived the war and kept in touch for years afterward.
Avoiding enemy anti-aircraft fire wasn’t the only treacherous aspect of the work. The newly designed planes, designed by Boeing just before the war, weren’t without bugs. On one bombing run, a bomb didn’t drop, but remained hanging, stuck on one bracket.
“You can’t land like that. If it drops on the ground, you blow up,” said Mr. Burke, who entered the bomb bay and kicked the bomb out, risking the danger that it would detonate on impact with his foot.
“You had to be young and crazy to do something like that at 27,000 feet with the bomb bay door open,” he said.
Mr. Burke received numerous medals for his service. He declined to name them himself, but said they’re all listed on his military separation papers. That document says he won the American Defense Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Europe Africa Middle East Campaign Ribbon, Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters and a Distinguished Unit Citation.
“That and a buck fifty will get you on the subway,” he said.