The Last Days of Lt. John P. Burns

21st Pursuit Squadron, Dalirig Airstrip, Bukidnon

Lt. Burns was a fighter pilot with the 21st pursuit squadron based in Del Monte, Bukidnon.  The events of his life in Mindanao were recorded by Lt. Burns in a leather bound diary.  How the diary ended up in the hands of the Burns family turned out to be a story in itself.

John Patterson Burns was born on September 22, 1917, in Mansfield, Ohio, and graduated from Uniontown High School in 1936.

In June 1940, he graduated from Ohio University with a degree in electrical engineering and a commission in the Infantry of the Army Reserve. Burns received his wings from Kelly Field on February 7, 1941, in the class of 41A, fulfilling a childhood ambition.

He was subsequently assigned to the 21st Pursuit Squadron of the 35th Pursuit Group at Hamilton Field, California, where he served until his squadron and the sister 34th Pursuit Squadron were ordered in October 1941 to “PLUM”, the code name for the Philippines.

On November 1, 1941 the 21st Pursuit Squadron left San Francisco by ship for the Philippine Islands, arriving in Manila Harbor November 20, twenty two years after his first visit there.

FEAF Unit Dispositions 1941 (littlerock.af.mil)

His diary left us with a first person account as to what happened to the remnants of the battered Far East Air Force (FEAF) in Mindanao in 1942. The FEAF was the military aviation organization of the United States Army in the Philippines just prior to and at the beginning of World War II.

Following are some of the entries in Burns’ diary relating to his adventures in the Philippines:

November 1, 1941

“Left San Francisco at noon on the S.S. President Coolidge. An awful day to be starting to go someplace and not know where. Under the Golden Gate bridge at last; by boat, damn.”

November 21, 1941

“Reported to Nichols Field this morning and N.F. is PLUM for the present. We are to be someplace in the P.I.’s. We are not happy about it.”

Nichols Field was just south of Manila, where the 17th Pursuit was then based. Because the movement of American pilots from the US to the Philippines was “top secret” evidently the 21st and 34th Pursuit pilots still thought that PLUM was a base in the Philippines to which they were being assigned.

November 29, 1941

“Today we went on a 24 hr. alert. Available at all times. Moving within three days. All planes fully loaded and charged at all times. Looks like they mean business. Called to field at 9:00 p. Practice.”

Maj. Gen. Lewis P. Brereton, FEAF CG (NARA)

FEAF Commander Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton had issued an order putting the FEAF on a “readiness” alert. The pursuit pilots including the 21st and the 17th at Nichols Field were put on one hour’s notice to take off in their combat-ready P-40Es and intercept in the event of a Japanese attack.

December 8, 1941


“Two alerts before daylight. War started. Had patrol about noon. Moved to C.F. just before dark. C.F. bombed to hell and while we were patrolling over N.F. No air defense at C.F. Complete surprise.”

C.F. =  Clark Field

April 7, 1942


“Up early, left for Cebu before daylight. Spent day there in Civilization [sic], it doesn’t seem possible, good food, no bombers. I felt like a kid with a new toy. Left for Del Monte, arriving at dusk.”

April 8, 1942

“Today starts the 5th month of this mess and a new era for me. It is wonderful here. Hardly know a war is going on. Food much better as a whole than Bataan.”

The Japanese had not yet invaded Mindanao; it had been barely a month since General Douglas MacArthur took a ride on a B-17 bomber to Australia from Del Monte.

April 11, 1942

“Day quiet. At supper time 10 B-25s and 3 B-17Es came in. Going to do a bit of bombing then back and chance to move on south. I hope I get it. Was a wonderful sight to see them come in.”

One of the B-17Es of the Royce Special Mission in the Philippines that became America’s first aerial counter-offensive against Japan. (defensemedianetwork.com)

At about 5:00 that afternoon, the personnel at the Del Monte Field were startled when three B-17s and 10  twin engine  bombers (B-25’s) a type they had never seen before approached the field and came in to land.

Headed by Maj. Gen. Ralph Royce, they were on a special mission from Australia to raid targets on Cebu (Central Philippines), Mindanao, and Luzon (for the B-17s). The pursuit pilots were to provide support for their operations.

Capt. Frank P. Bostrom (center), led three B-17s on the Royce special mission. He piloted one of 12 B-17s that arrived over Pearl Harbor from the US just in time for the Japanese attack. With no ammunition on his B-17,  Bostrom played tag around Oahu with Japanese fighters before landing safely on a golf course. Bostrom would come back to Del Monte 1 airfield on March 17, 1942 and piloted the B-17E that brought Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family to Australia on the last leg of their Breakout from Corregidor in one of the most celebrated escape stories of World War II.
(U.S. Air Force photo)

[On April 12, 1942] Japanese floatplanes–Mitsubishi “Petes”-operating in pairs appeared over Del Monte field in the early morning and made unsuccessful bombing attempts on the three B-17s on the ground. In the afternoon they reappeared and again dropped their small bombs on the B-17s, hitting one and damaging two.

The Petes were Mitsubishi F1M2 launched from the Imperial Japanese Navy sea plane tender Sanuki Maru that covered the landings of the Kawaguchi Detachment’s 35th Infantry Brigade HQ and the 124th Infantry Regiment in Cebu. (Watch this actual Gun Camera footage of a Mitsubishi FM1 engaged by US Naval Aircraft by clicking on this link)

A Japanese  Mitsubishi F1M Pete (零式水上観測機) , a two seater biplane manned by a pilot and a rear gunner, used by the Japanese as an observation plane, bomber, and fighter.
(Imperial Japanese Navy photo)

Sanuki Maru was  with the light cruiser Kuma, Destroyers Samidare, Murasame and Kiji, the gunboat Busho Maru and two sub-chasers.  The Petes mission was to destroy the American air fields in Del Monte before their bombers could wreak havoc on the Japanese shipping and their invasion of Cebu.

At the satellite fighter strip at Dalirig, eight miles south of Del Monte field, Gus Williams and John Brownewell (17th Pursuit) took off on the morning of April 13th for a strafing mission of Davao. Then they spotted two “Petes” over the area and in a dogfight Brownewell shot one down, but Williams’ “P-40 Something” went into wild gyrations in climbing, then its engine quit. Williams managed to get his malfunctioning ship down safely, however.

About 12:35, a report came in from an observer post that the bothersome Japanese float planes were again approaching the area and that the one P-40 on the field at the time (a P-40E, perhaps Brownewell’s on his return from the Davao mission?) should be used to intercept.

Lt. John P. Burns and the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk he died in when he crashed upon take-off. (pinterest.ph)

As the alert officer had gone for lunch five minutes earlier, Burns was left to take the mission. In his take-off roll, he failed to hold the ship in the center of the 200-foot wide runway and veered off into large rocks that lined both sides of the strip.

The P-40E plunged over the side of the canyon that bordered the field and caught fire. No one could reach him in time and there was no firefighting equipment at the field. Burns burned to death in the cockpit. That evening the chaplain and friends buried him in a little graveyard in a grove of trees.

Unmolested, The Japanese Mitsubishi Petes were able to deliver their bomb load and destroyed a B-17E and damaged two others.

That evening the chaplain and friends buried Burns in a little grave in a grove of trees.

One of the pilots who saw Lt. Burns’ crash wrote this last entry in John’s diary:

April 13, 1942

 “Killed in takeoff in attempt to intercept Jap bombers.  John died quickly and bravely, the way if they have to, all pilots want to die.”

Sadly, he was reportedly on the list of pilots the Royce mission was to evacuate on its return flight to Australia.

In 1949, John’s body was returned home after being disinterred from its original Del Monte grave. He is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, Uniontown, Ohio.

I wonder at times how we keep going here : The 1941-42 Philippines Diary of Lt. John P. Burns, 21st Pursuit Squadron (AirPower History, Winter 2006)

Lt. John Burns diary’s journey home.

According to Rev. Burns, Lt. John Burns’ younger brother, the diary was received in a package in 1945 from an American soldier who had been engaged in the seizure of Buna, New Guinea, from the Japanese in early January 1943.  

The soldier indicated that he had taken the diary off the body of a Japanese soldier killed in the battle.

Following his return to the U.S. at the end of the War, the American soldier–whose name is no longer remembered–was able to locate the Burns family to return the diary.

The Japanese soldier must have been a member of the 41st Infantry Regiment, which on May 9, 1942, had captured the American air base at Del Monte, Mindanao and its satellite fields, ending the Philippines campaign.

The 41st Regiment was subsequently assigned to the New Guinea campaign, arriving in July 1942. It fought its last battle in defense of Buna in early January 1943, at which time the Japanese soldier was evidently killed.

One wonders how the Japanese soldier came into possession of Burns’ diary and why he was carrying it on his body at the time he was killed.  

Burns had been killed in an accident taking off from Dalirig strip, Mindanao, on April 13, 1942, and was buried at nearby Del Monte that evening.

It is likely the chaplain who buried him–probably Joseph V. LaFleur, the chaplain of the 19th Bomb Group who was at Del Monte at the time–found the diary in Burns’ living quarters and kept it for return to the family as part of his duties.

His intention would have been thwarted when he was taken prisoner with the rest of the surrendering American force at Del Monte and turned over the “souvenir” when ordered by the Japanese.

The diary provides an invaluable day-by-day account of the activities of Burns from the time of his departure from the U.S. on November 1, 1940 through April 11, 1942, two days before his death. It is the only contemporary source that exists of the initial operations of the 21st Pursuit Squadron and its subsequent experiences on beach defense and at Bataan Field in January, February, and March 1942.

For full text of the Diary, please click here


Doomed at the Start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-1942 (Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series)
 is a must read book if one must know about the 21st Pursuit squadron in the Philippines during World War 2. 

I also used the book Flying Cadets of World War II for additional references.