It’s not every master sergeant who retires from the Air Force after 37 years who receives a Meritorious Service Award from the President of the United States or a personal note on White House stationery signed by the President.
Fred Burger, who lives in Prairie Creek subdivision, east of Punta Gorda is one of those rare people. The letter he received reads:
THE WHITE HOUSE, Washington
February 28, 1995
“MSgt. Frederick R. Burger, USAF
137-23 168th Street
Jamaica, New York 11434
Dear Master Sergeant Burger:
I am please to join with your family and friends in congratulating you on your retirement from the United States Air Force. You have served our country with distinction and honor, and you can be proud of your contributions to our national security and to peace around the world.
Hillary and I are delighted to send best wishes as you celebrate this milestone and your years of military service.
The President’s response to Burger’s nearly four decades of service in the military is a far cry from the reception he received when he was drafted into the Army in 1956.
“I graduated from high school in New York City as an aviation mechanic. I went to work for Durham Aircraft that had an operation at Meniola on Long Island New York. It’s where I worked until I was drafted,” the 75-year-old Punta Gorda resident explained.
“After boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga. I was sent to the 3rd Division Aviation Battalion at Fort Benning in 1957 and eventually worked on Army helicopters. “When I arrived the flight commander assigned me to fix an old Army truck that hadn’t passed inspection. When I got finished repairing it, the truck passed inspection with flying colors.”
It wasn’t long before he was working on Army helicopters. Burger’s first helicopter job was changing the oil on an H-13 copter. He found a sticker on the chopper that indicated it had been put together by Durham Aviation, the company he worked for in civilian life before joining the Army.
“The Army didn’t waste money by sending draftees to school. However, it spent money sending me to Single Rotor Helicopter School. I passed the course third in the class with a 98. something,” he recalled with a smile. “I was the only black engine mechanic in the unit.”
Before he completed his 37 years, 9 months and 15 days in the military Burger worked as an aviation mechanic on F-102 jet fighters, H-13, H-19, H-34, H-60 and HD-helicopters. In addition, he repaired the engines on Flying Box Cars, C-119s, and KC-97 tankers.
“I got out of the Army in 1958 and the next year I went to work in the Air Force ART’s Program. Civilians, who were also members of the Air Force Reserve, were put in charge of a training programs to teach Air Force enlisted men how to maintain helicopters and airplanes,” Burger said.
They were still in the military reserve and were given a rank, just like the people they trained. Five days a week Burger and other civilian employees of the Air Force arrived on base as teachers.
The bone he has to pick with the military is the very slow pace of advancement for blacks in the service decades ago.
“It took me 20 years to go from Airman 1st to Master Sergeant. Seventeen years later, when I retired, I was still a Master Sergeant,” he said somewhat unhappily. “Even though I had been sent to Spain as a technical advisor to the Spanish Air Force on aviation engines the highest rank I obtained was Master Sergeant. I was also sent to Germany on a mission to keep the KC-97 tankers in the air. We were gassing up our fighter planes that were flying from the U.S. to Europe and were nearly flying on empty when they reached Europe.”
Another point that wasn’t wasted on Burger, his superior always sent him the worse of the worst to train as engine mechanics. He isn’t sure if it was because he was black or his boss figured he couldn’t do it.
“I end up training six deadbeats, according to my superior, when I was working at Floyd Bennett Field in New York City in the ART’s Program,” he recalled. “I tried to treat them like human beings, the way you would want to be treated. After a while they became part of the ‘A-Team.'”
The “A-Team” was the top aircraft engine mechanics on base.
At one point Burger flew aboard a giant C-5 transport to Alaska and picked up an H-60 helicopter and delivered it back to the states. IThere was nothing inside the huge transport plane.
“What I remember most about the flight to Alaska, it was summer and we arrived at base — I don’t recall where — at 11 p.m. It was still light. Ground crew members were playing basketball on the court on base at that hour,” he said.
In 1995 his outfit held a retirement party for him at West Hampton Beach Air Force Base in New York after nearly four decades of association with the military. He retired to Florida 20 years ago.
“Growing up in New York I’ve seen enough cold weather in my life. I wanted to find a place where it was warm most of the year and Punta Gorda fit my bill,” Burger said. “I found a five-acre tract in Prairie Creek subdivision, east of town, and contracted my own home with a swimming pool. When you grow up in New York you appreciate living out in the country talking to the birds and bees.”
Name: Frederick R. Burger
D.O.B: 12 April 1935
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 27 June 1956
Discharged: 8 May 1995
Rank: Master Sergeant
Unit: 3rd Division, 514th Troop Command
Commendation: Presidential Commendation from President Bill Clinton on 12 Feb. 1995
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Burger’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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