Burton Lewis was born in Chicago, Illinois in April 1925. He grew up and was educated in Chicago. He received a master's degree in civil engineering. Only one of Lewis' three siblings survived. He was close to his surviving sister. His parents were Jewish immigrants from what is today Belarus. Growing up in the Great Depression, Lewis' father was a tailor. Work for him was intermittent during those rough years. Lewis' sister also helped support the family during that time. Lewis knew little of the hardships as he always had food and clothes. Lewis was listening to a football game when the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced. He erroneously felt the war would be over without affecting him.
Burton Lewis attempted to join the Navy V-12 program [Annotator's Note: V-12 Navy College Training Program] for continuation of his education and resulting induction as a Navy ensign after completion. Physical limitations precluded that. Instead, he was drafted and received his basic training. Granted leave afterward, he returned and was assigned to the 606th Army Engineer Camouflage Battalion. They were preparing for overseas deployment. He was one of the last to join the outfit in November 1944. By early December, the battalion was headed to Boston to sail in a large convoy which was destined for Le Havre and then Camp Lucky Strike. It was cold and muddy. Lewis was in Headquarters Company working as a draftsman. Not only did the battalion run camouflage but also developed maps. The commanding officer was camouflage advisor for the 9th Army. The battalion was sent to Dieppe where the officers were billeted comfortably unlike the enlisted men. Lewis had to guard a bad boy of the company prior to shipping out to Germany.
Burton Lewis entered Germany and helped set up a factory to manufacture netting in preparation for the crossing of the Elbe River [Annotator's Note: Lewis was a clerk in Headquarters Company, 606th Army Engineer Camouflage Battalion]. He supervised a group of local women who did the work. There were no problems working with the local populace. He was in Maastricht [Annotator’s Note: Maastricht, Netherlands] when the Nazi surrender of southern Holland occurred. It was a joyous time. The local people advised Burton that the war would not end with the German surrender but would continue as the Russians had to be fought. Burton remained in the Army Reserves because he thought that might occur. After the final surrender of the Nazi government, word came that Burton's outfit would be shipped to the Pacific. They were to help finish that war. Rumors spread that a million American casualties would result as Japanese military and civilians defended their islands. Burton has no sympathy for people who posit that the atomic bombs should not have been dropped. Many more Japanese would have died had the invasion of their home islands happened. Soon after the end of the Pacific war, Burton transited through Camp Lucky Strike in preparation for a trip home aboard the General Gordon [Annotator's Note: USS General W. H. Gordon (AP-117)]. The ship was overloaded with veterans returning home. They landed in Norfolk, Virginia in June 1945 while the war was still raging in the Pacific. Upon his return, he had a month's leave and then went to Camp Shelby in Mississippi. The atomic bombs were dropped during this period and the war with Japan ended. Burton was sent to Camp Gruber in Oklahoma where he was named acting battalion sergeant major. The battalion was downsized to a company and sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Burton rose through the ranks to staff sergeant when he was discharged from active duty the following April. He joined the Army Reserves at that point. Burton enrolled in college to attend civil engineering classes. His time in the Army had prepared him for the required summer surveying camp. He had to live in the field and have KP [Annotator's Note: kitchen patrol or kitchen police] like in the Army. He received his civil engineering diploma from the Illinois Institute of Technology in January 1948. He applied for a commission and became a second lieutenant of civil engineers in early 1948. During the Korean War, he remained in the Reserves and continued to attend summer camps each year. In 1957, he was transferred to a relatively inactive brigade in San Francisco and continued to earn his points. He retired in 1967 as a lieutenant colonel. His veteran benefits have assisted him in retirement. He had a serious incident during a hospital stay when his throat was punctured. After rehab, he recovered his ability to eat and talk. Along the years, Burton obtained a master's degree from the University of Illinois. The G.I. Bill assisted him in that effort. He was pleased with that veteran benefit. It financially allowed people to attend college who might not otherwise been able to do so. Burton never experienced anti-Semitism will in the military. He only generally knew what was happening to the European Jews prior to liberation of the concentration camps. Perhaps some of his parents' family was impacted by the Holocaust, but Burton does not have information on that.
Burton Lewis had no experience with the integration of the armed forces following World War 2. When the Air Force separated from the Army in the late 1940s, the 863rd Aviation Engineering Battalion remained with the Army Corps of Engineers. In the middle 1950s, the battalion was moved to the 416th Engineering Brigade. That unit still exists and participated in the Gulf War. Burton witnessed tremendous advances in engineering and materials since World War 2. He largely held adjutant roles with his battalion and subsequent brigade.
Burton Lewis served during the war because it was what every 18 year old did. He was lucky to have an engineering education. He was interested in joining the Navy because of its program that allowed him to complete his education. Illinois Tech had a large naval presence. Carrier landings were practiced on Lake Michigan. Burton was not aware of the Army having any similar education continuation program. Burton has done extensive travel over the years. He has voyaged on freighters and even walked across England. In retrospect, Burton's most significant memory of World War 2 was an observation of a German ordnance storage area late in the war. The vast amount of material that remained there surprised him. He used some of the material while there and took some home as souvenirs. He eventually got rid of all of it. World War 2 brought him into the military and allowed him to meet friends along the way. He has kept in contact with many of them. They held reunions. His service means a great deal to him today. Historians have lauded those who served, but the younger generation may have too many years of separation to appreciate what happened. People in the service and those who worked in industry both deserve recognition. Burton remained in the Army Reserves after World War 2 contemplating a potential war with Russia. Institutions like The National WWII Museum are important to teach lessons to the young about what happened during that period. Burton has taken the Gary Sinise trip to the WWII Museum. He was happy to see all the young people in the WWII Museum.
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