John Burr was born in Massachusetts in 1919. His family was in banking and brokerage. He lived in nice circumstances. He spent one year in public school during the Depression [Annotator's Note: Great Depression; a global economic depression that lasted through the 1930s]. He liked riding horses and skiing. He liked high school, but he did not have to do a lot of work. Most of the kids did not do their homework. There were 11 kids in his class. They had wonderful teachers. They all went to college. He graduated high school in 1938. He went to college to be a naval architect. He changed to French and romance languages. He went to Harvard University [Annotator’s Note: in Cambridge, Massachusetts]. Everyone was very patriotic. He was in school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor [Annotator's Note: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941]. He wanted to go into submarines after this.
John Burr joined the Naval ROTC [Annotator's Note: Reserve Officer Training Corps] in college. He was always interested in the water and sailing. In those days, people were very patriotic and sincere. If you went into submarine service, one out of five would die. Things were relaxed in the Navy. No one on board respected the officers. The officers were extra baggage when they first got on the ship. The head of the crew was the chief of the boat. The enlisted men would be nice if the new officers asked for help. Burr was assigned to the S17 submarine when the Germans were sinking ships in the Caribbean. When he was assigned to Panama, they left New Orleans [Annotator’s Note: New Orleans, Louisiana]. They had staterooms with bunks. There was one crew member assigned to bring meals and clean the bunks. The crew ate in shifts. They had two 12-hour shifts. There were not enough bunks for everyone because there was always someone on watch. There were only 17 inches between the bunks. One of his first jobs was in the commissary. They ate good food like steak. The torpedo man used to sleep on the torpedoes.
John Burr was on watch and he could spot anything on watch at night. He wanted to be on his watch at least five minutes early. He was a diving instructor. They had to learn to dive quickly. They had to clear the bridge and everyone jumped down to the control room. The senior officer had to close the hatch. They had to quickly close the air intake so it would not go into the engines. They would dive quickly and then put the periscope up. They did not have radar until 1942. It was short-range. [Annotator’s Note: Burr describes how the radar worked]. He was assigned to the USS Dolphin [Annotator’s Note: USS Dolphin (SS-169)] in 1943. They wanted a watch officer on the USS Crevalle [Annotator’s Note: USS USS Crevalle (SS-291)]. He met up with the Crevalle in Honolulu [Annotator’s Note: Honolulu, Hawaii]. He went on his first war patrol with them. They were in the Sea of Japan next to Korea when they went next to a mine. The Russians and the Japanese had running lights. They sank a couple of small destroyers. They had something get tangled in the propellor when a boat was in front of them and one was behind them chasing them.
John Burr remembers they went into the Sea of Japan as a group of nine submarines. They were surprised to see the Russians and Japanese with running lights. They spotted the enemy and determined the speed, course, and angle of the bow and whether or not they could intercept. They had to determine if the ship was zig-zagging [Annotator's Note: a naval anti-submarine maneuver] and if they could get the pattern. They had to put the torpedo in and flood it. It is dangerous to have a torpedo armed in the tube because it could detonate. They had to be within four thousand yards of the target. Burr had two captains that he did not like. They were grumpy. His other captains were smart, thoughtful, and tough. They were in the Sea of Japan for about eight days. His captain let him use the periscope, and he could see quite a lot. They ran up against some minefields. They came home shortly after the war patrol in June 1945. They returned to Hawaii and then the United States after they heard the war was over. Burr was the senior officer on the ship. He had to stay aboard the ship while the others went on vacations.
John Burr wrote letters to his wife. They would get mail sporadically. They wrote letters and would give them to the postmaster who would take them to the ship that handled the mail. He got his mail about once a month. He would dive flat. They were seriously depth charged [Annotator's Note: also called a depth bomb; an anti-submarine explosive munition resembling a metal barrel or drum] quite a few times on the patrol in the Sea of Japan. The boat he was on was supposed to be able to dive 600 feet. They would try to get below the salinity line. They went down 525 feet to release electric torpedoes. They had to do this to escape the range of their own torpedo. They sunk two small destroyers. Burr did not worry when they experienced the depth charges. He never felt threatened. They sprung a couple of leaks. They were never held down. His captain had a nice wife. He was a very intelligent fellow who was willing to share responsibility so everyone knew what they were supposed to do. If a man knows what he is doing, he will not be afraid. He had some good friends. After the war, they all seemed to evaporate because they were all from different parts of the country. In his day people were patriotic. They had to save democracy and their country. He hopes they use the history of the war to get further down the road. Liberty is not free, you have to fight for it.
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