NAUGATUCK — Two months after turning 18 years old in 1944, Robert Burns enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
“I joined the Navy because we were at war and that was the right thing to do at the time,” said the 91-year-old Burns, a Naugatuck High School graduate and longtime burgess in the borough.
Burns will be recognized for his years of service to his country and community on Dec. 7 when he will be inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.
Three months after he joined the Navy, Burns found himself aboard a landing craft infantry ship, which were used to bring soldiers ashore during an invasion.
During Operation Dragoon, originally known as Operation Anvil, on Aug. 15, 1944, Burns was part of the Allied forces that stormed Côte d’Azur in southern France. The operation came 10 days after the Allied forces stormed Normandy Beach.
“In that invasion my job was to go ashore with a lifeline for Army troops getting off and going ashore,” Burns said. “After we got the troops ashore, I came back to the ship and got behind a deck gun.”
Although dangerous, Burns volunteered for the mission.
“I volunteered to go into that. I was the only one on the ship that volunteered,” Burns said.
Burns was part of the first wave of the operation.
“That’s why, on my medals, I have a little arrowhead I wear. It shows I was the first ashore. We were in the first wave with the troops,” Burns said.
Burns said he waited by the shore for four hours in order to pick up any casualties before heading back to Pozzuoli, Italy, which was where the Allied troops were stationed.
“While we were laying off there we had one shell come over and almost hit us. An 88 shell from the Germans. We survived that,” Burns said.
The soldiers aboard the ship Burns served on were part of the Army’s 45th Infantry and 3rd Infantry Division. Among the 3rd Infantry Division was Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of WWII. Murphy went on to become an actor after the war.
“I may have seen Audie Murphy and didn’t even know him because those days even the heroes, you wouldn’t know who they were. One after another they went to shore. Everybody was the same,” Burns said.
Burns continued to sail with his ship, bringing troops back and forth from Italy to the front lines in southern France, before receiving a brief reprieve from the battle on Sept. 12, 1944. He was chosen as one of five men to go to Vatican City in Italy. While there Burns, a Catholic, met Pope Pius XII, who immediately recognized him as part of the Navy.
“He was in his popemobile and he came by and stopped. I was there. He said to me, ‘American sailor?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I didn’t even have a hat on or anything,” Burns said.
Once the war began to wind down, the ship Burns served on headed back to America.
Although the Allied forces had won, and returning soldiers were treated well, America was still in shock over the number of men lost, Burns recalled.
“Everything was bad here in the United States because we had a lot of boys get killed over there. The moral in this country was real bad,” Burns said.
In 1950, the Korean War began and Burns once again answered his country’s call for service.
Although he could have declined, since he had already served his time, Burns chose to go war again for one simple reason.
“I was still in the Navy,” said Burns, who served aboard a minesweeper during the war.
After leaving the Navy, Burns still had a desire to serve and turned his energy to local politics.
Burns served for 21 years on Naugatuck’s Welfare Board before filling a vacancy on the Board of Mayor and Burgesses. He has been re-elected every election since, making him the longest serving public official in the borough.
“I like government. I like to see Naugatuck progress. That’s very important to me. I feel that I can help,” Burns said “I think it is an honor to serve and I am very thankful for the people of Naugatuck for re-electing me every time I run.”
Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson Emily Hein said the Hall of Fame is meant to recognize veterans who have served their country and their community.
“These veterans have been leaders in a variety of areas such as arts, education, public service, volunteer activities, and community and business leadership. Most importantly, they have all made a significant impact on the lives of others and in their communities,” Hein said.
Burns was nominated for the Hall of Fame by Air Force veteran Robert Genovese, a Naugatuck resident and Hall of Fame member.
“He is the one who showed me, and many veterans, the importance of continuing our service to God and country and our communities and families. He has always led by example and still does,” said Genovese about Burns during Naugatuck’s Veterans Day ceremony. “He gives his all to get the job done.”
Burns is among 10 veterans who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame during a 5 p.m. ceremony in the atrium of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The public is welcome to attend.
Burns said he is proud and honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“That’s quite a promotion. It’s nice to be recognized like that,” Burns said. “This was all done without me even knowing it was being done. I’m happy I am going to be recognized. I really am.”