Both men were on grueling military marches. John marched 130 miles due north to Gettysburg with the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Leigh marched 250 miles due north to the Chinese border with other Korean War prisoners.
John Burns marched through searing summer heat and driving downpours. Desperate for rest, his night-time accommodations were less than ideal. One of his fellow marchers wrote: “When it was raining at the end of the day’s march, the men would lie down in the water and sleep soundly. I never knew what a man was able to endure.”
Freezing temperatures and brutal captors also pushed Leigh Whitaker to the limits of human endurance. Kept on a constant march with other POW’s, his bed was the frozen turf, his menu a small daily ration of sorghum and millet. He dropped to 80 pounds, barely staying alive.
John was a strong and sturdy farm boy from Pennsylvania. His brother wrote: “When fourteen years old, John took his place in the field with the men — and wouldn’t allow any man to do more work than he. On the long march to Gettysburg, he would carry another soldier’s knapsack or gun in addition to his own, easing the burden of a weaker brother not so able to stand the hard marching.”
As an army medic, Leigh’s help to his fellow marchers was being resourceful in a hostile environment with no supplies. He used maggots to clean the wounds of fellow prisoners. And he cured one prisoner’s infected wrist by cutting a potato in half and strapping the open side to the wrist.
Faith was fundamental to survival for many soldiers. Despite heat and rain, the cadence and confidence of the Gettysburg marchers were strengthened by singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. And it was indeed a hymn, one aimed squarely at undoing slavery — “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” And women, too.
Leigh’s unit — 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Division — was overrun by a pre-dawn attack south of Seoul, Leigh being one of 40 surviving the initial attack. When they were lined up in front of a machine gun, some began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. “We all found God then,” Leigh said.
The execution order was stayed, the 40 men more valued as prisoners. And on the death march north to the Yalu River, Leigh said that the man marching next to him kept repeating the 23rd Psalm. “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” was only too real for the marchers — and thus “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me” intensely comforting.
Leigh also used humor to bolster his spirits. A quick-witted quipster, he was my brother’s best buddy in high school and a natural to be the play-by-play announcer for home football games. Whenever there was a gang tackle on the far side of the field, Leigh would credit my brother with the tackle — “… and that’s another jarring tackle by number 66, Bucky Burns.” Leigh was that kind of guy — and used his warmth and wit to bolster sagging spirits on those long, grim marches in Korea.
But no matter how resourceful or helpful or religious the men on either of these marches were, there was a somber sense of foreboding that went with them every step of the way. In John’s case at Gettysburg, his unit was thrown into the climactic battle in the Wheat Field, a notorious field of death for both sides where the wheat ran red with blood. John’s 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers suffered a 47 percent casualty rate. And Leigh’s POW marchers in Korea had dwindled from 700 to 262, a fatality rate of well over 50 percent.
The horrors of battle that John Burns, my ancestral cousin, witnessed during the Civil War “awakened the deepest religious feelings in his soul, and he determined to enter the Christian ministry.” A graduate of Monmouth College Seminary in Illinois, John pastored churches in Iowa and Massachusetts before succumbing to Bright’s Disease at the young age of 38.
For three years, Leigh Whitaker’s family back in Cincinnati knew no more than the initial telegram they received — “The Secretary of the Army expresses his deep regret that PFC Charles L. Whitaker has been missing in action since July 12, 1950.” What a joy it was for me — a teenager listening to my bedside radio late at night — to hear a final list of released POW’s being read, one of the last names being “Charles Leigh Whitaker, Cincinnati, Ohio.” I jumped out of bed and woke everyone up — “Leigh’s coming home.”
Leigh married a high school classmate, their two children being the 1963 National Poster Children for Muscular Dystrophy. I have the photo of Leigh and his beautiful family at the White House with President John F. Kennedy to promote that year’s fundraising Telethon.
These are the stories of just two of the men and women who have sacrificed time, effort, and often their lives to defend — and define — this great nation. The next time you take an evening stroll around the block, or hike a hill, trek a woodsy path, think of John and Leigh and their fellow soldiers on marches filled with hardship, danger and death.
They marched so that we might walk.
James F. Burns, a native of Ohio, is a retired professor at the University of Florida.