Hempfield woman says father's WWII story stands for all veterans
When the bullets from a German machine gun ripped through his legs just below the knees, Army Pfc. Robert “Chub” Burchell said he stuffed his mouth with mud to keep from screaming and alerting the Germans he was still alive.
His entire unit lay dead before him.
“You will never know what a feeling it is laying out there, shot, where no one can get to you,” a 1945 letter from Burchell to his father reads.
“My dad walked in pain all his life,” said Burchell's only daughter, Carol Lovelace, 64, of Hempfield, reading from the letter that details the pact between her father and his father. The pact kept the wounds of battle secret from their wives.
Lovelace is revisiting the letter mailed 69 years ago as the nation pauses today to remember its veterans. She found a copy of it years ago behind an oil painting of her father, who died 13 years ago.
“I feel that this is timeless and relevant. ... These stories are our history, our present and our future,” she said. “The kid who was so far from family, loved ones and everything he had known, and lying injured on a battlefield ... is the same kid in Afghanistan, and the same kid in any future conflicts.”
The story, she said, “goes to show this country was built on sacrifice.”
Charles Burchell, a foreman at the McKee Glass Co. in Jeannette, didn't tell his wife, or his son's wife, that his son was serving in the infantry on the front lines so they wouldn't worry.
Robert Burchell was part of the D-Day invasion, landing in Normandy, France. Lovelace said her father didn't talk much about that day, except to say “the carnage was terrible.”
D-Day marked a turning point in the war. Allied forces crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944, landing on the beaches of Normandy, to begin liberating Western Europe from Nazi control. Within three months, they had freed northern France and turned toward Germany, where Burchell was wounded.
The letter, between father and son, is unusual, said Michael Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, which has many letters from soldiers in its archives.
“He was obviously close to his father. ... People in those days didn't reveal themselves like that,” Kraus said.
After learning his son received blood at an Army hospital, Charles Burchell visited a local blood bank to replace it.
“They were best friends,” Lovelace said.
“Dad, I want to thank you for keeping my secret and sweating this out with me,” writes Robert Burchell, who said he often “talked” to his father when things got rough.
“I suppose this all sounds a little whacky to you, Dad, but it's the truth,” the letter reads. “When things got extra hot, I used to talk to you. I'd ask you if you thought we would make (it out of) this one and you always used to say, ‘Hell yes.' ”
The war took its toll on her father, Lovelace said.
“From the time he was 21 until he passed away, he had to live with these horrific images,” she said. “Anytime he fell asleep, he was in a foxhole. We had to (prod him with) a broom handle to wake him. He would jump off the couch.”
After the war, Robert Burchell became a welder at the Elliott Co. and retired at age 55. Later in life he was a Sunday school teacher.
“My father was a humble, understated man who didn't ever feel that he had done anything extraordinary,” Lovelace said. “He just thought that he acted as anyone would in the same situation. I guess this is the definition of a soldier.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.