Hometown hero: Alone in a burning tank in WWII, Herbert Hoover Burr kept fighting

The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.

On March 19, 1945, just outside the German village of Dörrmoschel, an American tank, already ablaze from a rocket strike, rounded a corner and and surprised an enemy anti-tank gun crew in the road.

Point-blank range. Surprised the tank driver, too. All the Germans had to do was pull the lanyard and blast a shell — big enough to blow up a building — into the tank. But they didn’t. Probably because the tank was so badly damaged it didn’t appear to pose much of a threat.

What they didn’t know: The 24-year-old soldier driving the tank was a scrappy Kansas City house painter who liked to drink beer and fight.

No, Herbert Hoover Burr, alone in that tank, did not have a working gun. But at that point in that day and in a war that had gone so long, he didn’t need one. He dropped the hammer and headed straight for the German 88 mm anti-tank gun.

“So unexpected and daring was his assault that he was able to drive his tank completely over the gun, demolishing it and causing its crew to flee in confusion,” said the citation for the Medal of Honor that Burr received for actions that day.

After running over the German gun, Staff Sgt. Burr smashed a German truck. He then climbed out of the burning tank and ran through sniper fire to direct medics to his wounded platoon sergeant.

“The bold, fearless determination of S/Sgt. Burr, his skill and courageous devotion to duty, resulted in the completion of his mission in the face of seemingly impossible odds,” the citation concluded.

After the war, Burr returned home and went back to painting houses with his brothers. He and his wife raised a family.

His son remembers Burr as a tough, blue-collar guy who worked hard and then went to tip a few after work.

“I remember my mother often telling me that it was supper time and for me to go down to the bar and get Dad,” Jack Burr said.

Herb Burr, who was born in St. Joseph, seldom talked about anything to do the war. But he did like to wear that medal on special occasions, such as presidential inaugurations. He attended several. But not Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964.

“They didn’t invite the Medal of Honor winners for that one and that made Dad mad because he voted for that guy,” said Fran Burr, Jack’s wife.

“But, no, he didn’t talk about the war. You had to pull it out of him.”

It really wasn’t until years later that the family learned the story behind the medal. How after the rocket strike, everyone bailed from the tank. And that Burr climbed back in alone. Jack Burr wasn’t surprised in the least to learn what his father did that day — charging solo headlong into a scrape.

“He didn’t take a lot of guff,” Jack said. “He was a scrapper.”

Jack then laughed and told about the time his father was introduced by Audie Murphy, one of America’s most decorated heroes of World War II.

“He said Dad was the first to win the Medal of Honor for careless and reckless driving,” Jack said.

Burr’s actions on that March day in 1945 were not his first to be honored. Two months earlier, his tank had been hit and set aflame. According to newspaper clippings, “(Burr) pulled a mortally wounded driver from a flaming tank and beat out the flames after first taking out the remainder of the crew, all wounded, and himself then driving the flaming tank to a comparatively safe shelter.”

For his actions that day, he won the Distinguished Service Cross.

A general once asked Burr how he managed to see that much action and not get wounded.

“Well,” Burr answered, “I didn’t listen to you guys.”

In 1979, more than three decades after the war ended, Burr finally sat down with The Star and talked about his time as a tank sergeant in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.

“I volunteered before the war and they wouldn’t take me,” he said. “I had bad teeth. Can you believe that? Then after the war started they decided they wanted me, but I didn’t want them.”

But he couldn’t buck the draft and soon found himself in the Mojave Desert learning to drive a tank. He took that training to battlefields in France, Belgium and Germany.

Any glory for what he did, he said, was fleeting, thankfully.

“You more or less want to forget about it,” he said. “It doesn’t bring back any great memories.

“Yes, it had to be done. You didn’t want Hitler and his bunch of idiots over there.”

As for his medals, he said he was glad he had them. “But I sure wouldn’t want to go through it again.”

Toward the end of his life, after his wife died, he sometimes jolted awake from a nap.

“I knew he was back there, back to the war, back to that time,” Fran said.

Herbert Hoover Burr died on Feb. 8, 1990. Fran and Jack described him as a gregarious, happy-go-lucky guy who would help anyone on the side of the road and who could always come up with a limerick.

“He wasn’t a Medal of Honor winner to us,” Fran said. “He was just Dad.”

Jack nodded.

“He was happiest fishing.”

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

Burr’s Medal of Honor citation

“He displayed conspicuous gallantry during action when the tank in which he was bow gunner was hit by an enemy rocket, which severely wounded the platoon sergeant and forced the remainder of the crew to abandon the vehicle. Deafened, but otherwise unhurt, S/Sgt. Burr immediately climbed into the driver’s seat and continued on the mission of entering the town to reconnoiter road conditions. As he rounded a turn he encountered an 88 mm antitank gun at point-blank range. Realizing that he had no crew, no one to man the tank’s guns, he heroically chose to disregard his personal safety in a direct charge on the German weapon. At considerable speed he headed straight for the loaded gun, which was fully manned by enemy troops who had only to pull the lanyard to send a shell into his vehicle. So unexpected and daring was his assault that he was able to drive his tank completely over the gun, demolishing it and causing its crew to flee in confusion. He then skillfully sideswiped a large truck, overturned it, and wheeling his lumbering vehicle, returned to his company. When medical personnel who had been summoned to treat the wounded sergeant could not locate him, the valiant soldier ran through a hail of sniper fire to direct them to his stricken comrade. The bold, fearless determination of S/Sgt. Burr, his skill and courageous devotion to duty, resulted in the completion of his mission in the face of seemingly impossible odds.”

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