It was 1939. Europe was becoming a giant battlefield and the world was teetering on the brink of its second great war. Hitler’s Nazi Army was invading country after country and everyone, including a recent high school graduate named Edward Burke, was wondering when—not if—the United States would get involved.
In an effort to prepare for his imminent future in military service, Burke decided to enroll in Xavier’s ROTC program and enter the Army as an officer.
On May 24, 1942, Burke graduated from Xavier and was commissioned a second lieutenant, and on May 25 he reported for active duty. He quickly found himself serving as a commander for a tank destroyer battalion. He stormed Normandy on D-Day in 1944, joining with other Allied forces to free the French towns of Brest, St. Lo and Vire.
Fast forward to 2012. Burke, now 92, points to a black-and-white portrait on a wall in his living room. The framed photograph shows a man in his early 20s, who smiles enthusiastically in his Army uniform.
“That picture was taken last week,” he says, standing level with the photo. He laughs. “Can’t see any differences, can you?”
The portrait was taken nearly 70 years ago, but Burke’s white hair doesn’t distract from his light blue eyes, which stand out, even in the black-and-white photo. Burke already has dozens of awards for his service during WWII, but this past summer, the French government awarded him the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal. The medal is the highest honor that the French government awards to foreign military servicemen. It was presented to Burke for his efforts to liberate France during the Nazi occupation—an effort the French government began in 2004 during the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
When the war ended, Burke was discharged and returned to Cincinnati. He arrived home just after Christmas, and five days later he married his high school sweetheart.
“When I was in the Army, she wrote me a letter every day,” he says. “Now, I’m happy to have 16 grandchildren and 16 great-great grandchildren to keep me company.“