Offutt Airman continues Grandfather’s World War II legacy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Carlos J. Treviño
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

“You are standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Good, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing command chief, as he spoke with the newcomers of the 379th AEW during an early morning briefing.

Good was referring to the history the 379th Bombardment Group made during World War II in the skies over Europe. The assertion by the command chief held a deep meaning for one Airman in attendance that morning.

Capt. Shawn, an RC-135 Rivet Joint pilot with Offutt's 55th Wing and currently assigned to the 763rd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, recalled those words and thought about his grandfather, 2nd Lt. Harry Burdette, a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th BG who was once based at Kimbolton Airfield, England.

 “I remember being in that briefing and having a sense of pride knowing that one of those giants he was referring to was my grandfather,” Shawn said. “There's a reason they were called the Greatest Generation, and it's because of the personal sacrifices they made for our country.”

The great generation of Airmen from the 379th BG, with the Triangle K painted on their B-17s’ tails, came to be known as the “Grand Slam Wing” after being awarded the unprecedented 8th Air Force Operational Grand Slam title for operations during May 1944.  The title recognized the 379th BG for achieving the best bombing results (greatest percent of bombs on target), greatest tonnage of bombs dropped on target, largest number of aircraft attacking, lowest losses of aircraft and lowest abortive rate of aircraft dispatched.

Shawn’s grandfather, Burdette, was born in 1921 in Ohio and grew up there and in West Virginia before enlisting as a private in the Army in May 1942. Soon thereafter, he received an appointment to become an aviation cadet, earning his flight wings and an officer’s commission. His aviation training would take him to what is now Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, which is also Shawn’s hometown.

Like his grandfather and his father, Richard Burdette, a retired Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who now works as a civilian contractor T-6 Texan II pilot instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, Shawn’s destiny as an aviator seemed certain. 

“I grew up around it (flying),” he said. “When I was a kid I never really wanted to do anything else. It was never a question; I really wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force.”

The T-6, it seems, has always also always been part of the family. Harry Burdette flew the original in the skies above San Antonio, Texas, during his cadet training. 

“Flying the AT-6 was a joy to fly,” Burdette wrote in his memoirs.

Shawn echoed his grandfather’s sentiment 73 years later in the T-6 Texan II as he flew the descendant of the AT-6.

Burdette’s memoirs offered Jensen a unique insight into his grandfather’s early experiences in the Air Force, including a harrowing tale that every pilot trains to overcome, but hopes to never face.

In March 1943, when Cadet Burdette advanced to flying the P-36 Hawk, a disaster occurred; Burdette experienced an engine failure, causing him to parachute out of the stalled aircraft.

During his egress, he was struck by the aircraft’s radio antenna, knocking him unconscious.

“Either the Lord had an angel pull my rip cord or I had a hand on the handle and pulled it involuntarily when I hit the aircraft’s antenna,” Burdette wrote.

Burdette attributes his rapid rescue to another cadet flying a nearby AT-6 who radioed for help.

“Two days before my accident, another cadet must have had a similar accident with the exception that he didn’t get out and was killed,” Burdette wrote, reflecting on the event.

After graduating in March 1943, he was assigned to fly the P-51 Mustang, but all P-51s were grounded for repairs and modifications. After six weeks of waiting, he was reassigned to train on the B-17.

After crossing the Atlantic in September 1943 in a convoy of U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine ships, Burdette was based at Kimbolton Airfield, England, where he was assigned to the 379th BG to fly their Triangle K-marked B-17s.

The Triangle K emblem holds a special meaning for the Burdette family according to Shawn’s father, Richard.

The first time Shawn went to Al Udeid, he told me that he was wearing the same 379th patch that my dad had worn in WWII. I was thrilled to hear of that connection,” Richard said. “I was even more thrilled to learn that the Triangle K from Kimbolton was still being worn. When I told my 90-year old mother, she said that Shawn’s grandfather would be watching over him.”


Harry Burdette passed away in 2008 shortly before Shawn graduated from Baylor University as a member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. He went on to receive his commission and the opportunity to train as an U.S. Air Force pilot.

Shawn carries his grandfather’s autobiography with him and refers back to it when he compares his current experience flying the RC-135 Rivet Joint, a reconnaissance aircraft that provides near real time on-scene intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities, to his grandfather’s B-17 bomber.

“He flew in an unpressurized B-17 above 30,000 feet,” Richard said. “They had to wear heated flight suits, which they plugged into the aircraft’s electrical system.”

“The RC-135 has a vitally important mission, just not as tip-of-the-spear as compared to a bomber,” Shawn said. “We provide a lot of valuable intelligence and play a very valuable part in the fight. We play a contingency role where we support the troops on the ground.”

On Burdette’s fourth mission over enemy territory, his B-17 was shot down and half of his crew was killed or missing in action while the other five members became prisoners-of-war at a camp near Barth, Germany.

According to his memoirs, Allied POWs in his camp were treated well by their captors. Still, Burdette went into captivity weighing 170 pounds; 18 months later he weighed 129 pounds when he and his fellow POWs were liberated by Allied forces. 

Living in a deployed environment, Shawn is reminded of his grandfather on an almost daily basis.

“It’s cool knowing that we are both in the same expeditionary wing,” he said. “When I walk around and see the Triangle K, I get goosebumps and always think of my grandfather. I see them everywhere; it’s a very humbling feeling.”

As a tribute to his grandfather’s service as a B-17 pilot, Shawn wears the 379th Expeditionary Operations Group patch on his flight suit.

“The 379th EOG heritage patch is the patch I like to wear; I love that patch for it has the B-17 on it,” he said.

Shawn is not sure if his assignment to the 379th AEW is fate, but believes his grandfather would think as much.

“I think he (his grandfather) would probably say so,” he said. “It’s cool knowing that I am following in his footsteps and doing the same thing he was doing, but supporting a different mission and playing a different role in that same wing.”

Shawn reflects on the path he and his late grandfather share every time he sees the historical Triangle K around AUAB.

“I do believe he is up in heaven looking down on me,” he added.