“When the draft started, there wasn’t any work here, and I just went up and volunteered,” said Burnett, a 95-year-old Cordova native. “I thought I was smart, I reckon. I thought we never was going to war.”
Burnett was in Florida with the 31st Infantry Division in December 1941 when U.S. participation in World War II was sealed.
“They were building an armory and we were supposed to parade there. While we were getting ready for the parade, that’s when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We knew then that it was a war,” Burnett said.
Burnett spent nearly five years of his life in service to his country.
He completed the stringent training necessary to become a paratrooper.
Burnett was assigned to the 503d Parachute Regimental Combat Team, which primarily saw action in the Southwest Pacific Theater.
Toward the end of the war, he was part of the U.S. forces that retook the island of Corregidor from the Japanese.
Nearly 1,000 American and Filipino soldiers had been killed and more than 10,000 had been taken as prisoners of war when Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942.
Three years later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur called for an attack by air and by sea to retake “The Rock.”
“We jumped in there and surprised them, and we took the island back,” Burnett said.
The Japanese had the advantage from their position on Topside, the elevated head of the tadpole-shaped island.
However, they were not expecting the use of paratroopers and were also caught off guard during the naval bombardment.
“The ships bombed Corregidor before we jumped. Somebody said their leader was killed. They got all stirred up and went underground. They could’ve just picked us off easily if they hadn’t,” Burnett said.
One of the only pictures Burnett has of himself in battle during the war shows him preparing to fire a 75mm shell into one of the caves where Japanese forces were attempting to hide as American infantrymen descended on them.
“What I’d do is put a shell in the cave in case they were in there and then I’d shoot the sides and the top to cave it in,” he said.
Burnett was in the mountains on the Filipino island of Negros when the war officially ended.
“A fella came up through there and said, ‘The war has ended. Japan has surrendered.’ I couldn’t believe it. I went back down to the headquarters and they had the radio going. Sure enough, Japan had surrendered,” Burnett said.
Burnett was discharged on Christmas Day 1945.
The Army took Burnett and his fellow Southerners as far as Mississippi. From there, it was up to them to find their own way home.
The first bus that headed out was full. Burnett was waiting on an afternoon bus when a Carbon Hill native approached him with the greeting, “You’re from Walker County, aren’t you?”
A stranger had offered the men a ride home if they could round up several other soldiers and $15.
“He brought me right through the middle of town and let me out. I think we had a man from Jasper, one from Carbon Hill and another from Dora,” Burnett said.
After the war, Burnett found work in the cloth room at Indian Head Mill in Cordova, where his father had once worked for two weeks without pay before the mill bosses would hire him.
He moved on to other jobs in the Birmingham area before an opening for a rural mail carrier became available in Cordova.
Burnett, who believes in voting for the right man for the job instead of a party, had to get the approval of several staunch Republicans in order to secure the position from which he would eventually retire.
“I had to go to Birmingham to meet with the state man, a Republican. He asked me, ‘Are you a Republican?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to lie to you, but I voted for Eisenhower.’ He said, ‘That’s good enough,’’ Burnett said.