Veteran tugs at heartstrings

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

He still sticks to his mantra “Marines don’t cry.”

But Ron Burbridge had to ask approximately 200 eighth-graders and their teachers to keep a secret Monday morning.

The 84-year-old Burbridge, who still fits into his uniform, had the attention of the Hays Middle School students in the HMS library for nearly 90 minutes while talking about his experiences in the Korean War.

More than once, the retired major stopped while talking about incidents that brought back memories -- some of them good, some of them not so pleasant.

"It took me 40 years to talk about this," said Burbridge, who joined the Marines in 1948 and served for five years, during the time of the Korean War.

He used maps and pictures on an overhead projector as reference points.

He told stories ranging from missing the birth of his firstborn child to the difficulty of fighting in mountainous terrain, from incidences in ordinary living that still give him flashbacks to carrying their injured and dead along with them.

"The Marine Corps has a tradition," he said. "We don't leave any wounded, and we don't leave any dead. They came with us."

Anyone sitting near Burbridge on Monday just might have caught a glimpse of a tear.

"Now, remember, Marines don't cry," he told the audience more than once.

A member of the Chosin Few, Burbridge was a survivor of the lop-sided battle at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea where 15,000 Americans had to try to hold off 120,000 Chinese infantrymen.

Burbridge, who now lives in Russell near his lone surviving child -- daughter Diana Morris -- gave the students a little history of the war, intermingled with personal stories that included a tight bond with fellow soldiers.

Debbie Ermoian, eighth-grade social studies teacher at HMS, heard from a friend that Burbridge has given such talks before.

"He doesn't want people to forget the Korean War," said Ermoian, who said she thought it would be a unique learning experience for her students to have him visit HMS.

She was right.

Nary a cough nor sneeze could be heard among the student section sitting on the floor. There was little, if any, shuffling of bodies as students looked at Burbridge in awe.

"They were mesmerized, weren't they?" Ermoian said after the presentation.

Ermoian said she occasionally gets speakers to come to the school and thought this was a once-in-a-long-while type of deal.

"Soldiers are soldiers," she said. "And the kids have respect for them. But to hear from someone who fought in this war, that long ago ... I think they really got something out of this."

Following the talk, several students scattered to get back to class. Others remained behind, however, some shaking Burbridge's hand and others taking pictures with him.

Many had Tootsie Rolls in their hands, compliments of Burbridge.

Burbridge brought a large dish of the candy for the students in reference to a famous story from the battles in the Chosin Reservoir.

The code word for 60 millimeter mortar shells was "Tootsie Rolls," and after one of the soldiers radioed for more "Tootsie Rolls," U.S. planes dropped crates of candy rather than ammunition the next morning.

Burbridge said it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because their food had frozen in the 20- to 50-below-zero temperatures, and the sugar from the candy gave the soldiers energy necessary to keep fighting.

"Those Tootsie Rolls saved our lives," Brubridge said. "We were as happy to get those as we were the ammunition."

Burbridge has continued his lifelong bond with members of his platoon. He is the lone remaining survivor of his four-member fire team, but he still attends reunions with other squad members.

"You definitely build a bond (with soldiers)," he said, this time his eyes gleaming. "They're the only ones who know what you went through, and you went through it with them."