URBANA, Ill. — His father was the first black man — and still the only one — elected to a countywide office in Champaign County, may have been the first African American elected a state’s attorney in Illinois history, and later was appointed a U.S. attorney for a large section of downstate Illinois.
But it’s not for his government or legal service that Steve Burgess wants to honor his father, the late James R. Burgess Jr.
He wants him to be recognized primarily for his dad’s role in a largely unknown part of American military history, as a leader of the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African American armored unit to enter battle in World War II.
Burgess wants the federal courthouse in Urbana to be named for his father.
“I know I’m facing an uphill battle,” said Steve Burgess, who lives in Urbana and works at the Black Dog Smoke and Ale House. “In the beginning I thought it was as simple as contacting the (General Services Administration), but I found out, no, it literally takes an act of Congress.”
A spokesman for Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, said the congressman’s staff is working with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s staff on Burgess’ request.
“My feeling is that based on his military experience I think anyone can grasp what he did as a veteran,” Burgess said of his father, who died on June 22, 1997.
The 761st, which was the subject of the 2004 book “Brothers in Arms,” written by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had been organized primarily as a public relations effort to build support in the African American community for the war. But in 1944, as Gen. George Patton was facing manpower shortages and after almost two years of stateside training, the 761st entered the European Theatre.
Patton, who had expressed doubts about the fighting abilities of African Americans, told his mostly black unit (with white brass): “Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don’t care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you.”
Twenty-nine-year-old First Lt. James Burgess of Chicago was the commander of one of its six companies.
Steve Burgess said his father rarely talked about his time in the service.
“He really didn’t talk about it at all,” he said. “I heard a little bit about segregation in the South (the elder Burgess grew up in rural Tennessee) and somewhat about segregation in the Army but not any details. I really didn’t hear any war stories.”
But through books, newspaper accounts and documents obtained from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Steve Burgess has compiled an outline of his father’s 20-plus years in the Army, including several years in Europe during and after the war.
The book, “Come Out Fighting” (the motto of the 761st), written by Trezzvant W. Anderson, a reporter with the Associated Negro Press who was assigned to the unit, presents the most detailed picture of the battalion including its role in the Battle of the Bulge, and of James Burgess.
According to one of Anderson’s tales, in the last weeks of the European war in the spring of 1945, Burgess led a force that made the deepest eastern penetration up to that time — close to the Czechoslovakian border — of all Allied forces.
They encountered little resistance and hundreds of starving Russian prisoners freed from Nazi prison camps, a sure sign to the Allied commanders that the war was near an end.
“Tattered clothing, bare feet, emaciated limbs, all marked the appearance of these former soldiers and workers of the Soviet, who saw their salvation in the coming of the ‘Amerikaneestsis’’ whom they were hardly able to greet because there bodies were so frail, thin, tired and worn. Hunger marked their countenances, with cheek-bones showing through their skin, and some of them so weak they could hardly walk, and being supported from falling by the arms of comrades who were equally as weak as they,” Anderson wrote.
Later, he recounts an occasion when Burgess’ company encountered a group of fully armed German officers and troops who quickly surrendered. Burgess also took enemy prisoners from a house next to his command post.
The most dramatic of the tales detailed how Burgess’ unit drove into Austria two days before the end of the war in Europe and was the first unit of the 761st to meet the Russians advancing from the east. The same day Burgess encountered a Sherman tank submerged in the Steyr River and, perhaps thinking soldiers were inside, acted to tug it out.
“Without hesitation the intrepid Chicagoan, whose calm ‘Line up and follow me!’ had become a byword command in the 761st, dived into the chilling waters, fully clothed, and hooked a steel cable from another tank onto the submerged vehicle, and it was pulled out to safety and further use,” Johnson wrote.
“The odd thing about that,” said Steve Burgess, “is that my father couldn’t swim. I don’t know how that happened.”
After the end of the war, according to his personnel records, Burgess remained stationed on and off in Europe until at least 1952. He entered Army intelligence and German language school during that time. In 1953 he was in a Russian language school. By the time he retired from the Army in 1962, his records show he had a “top secret” clearance.
“People in town who I talked to and who reviewed these records with me said there’s probably a lot of stuff I’m never going to find out,” said Steve Burgess. “He was an intelligence research officer for quite a while.”
Soon after leaving the service in 1962, the elder Burgess moved his wife and two sons to Champaign so that he could attend law school at the University of Illinois. Three years later he graduated, the only black in his class.
The family moved to Chicago, where James Burgess worked a few different legal jobs, including a stint in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. He returned to Champaign in 1969, going to work for Democratic State’s Attorney Larry Johnson. He was elected state’s attorney in 1972 when Johnson challenged Edward Madigan in a race for Congress. Burgess lost his bid for re-election in 1976 to Republican Thomas Difanis, now the presiding judge in Champaign County.
U.S. District Judge Harold Baker, who sits in the courthouse that Steve Burgess wants to have renamed for his father, has several connections to the elder Burgess.
“Jim Burgess was a fine man and I had him as a student at the law school,” said Baker, also a military veteran. “He was what we called in the Navy a Mustang. He came up through the ranks and was in Patton’s Army, which was unusual for an African American in those days.”
Baker agreed that Steve Burgess faces “an uphill effort” to get the courthouse named for his father. In Illinois, for example, federal courthouses are named for the late Sen. Everett Dirksen and former Reps. Paul Findley, Melvin Price and Kenneth Gray.
“They don’t name courthouses ordinarily for U.S. attorneys,” Baker said. “They name them for congressmen or senators or judges who get shot.”
Steve Burgess, 52, admits he caused his parents problems and didn’t follow his father either into the service or into law. He said he had a “Roots moment” a few years before his father’s death when they took a trip to Putnam County, Tenn., where his father had grown up.
“My dad always said that he was going to write a book. The title was going to be ‘My Odyssey.’ He apparently wanted to relate everything that had happened in his lifetime,” Steve Burgess said. “As he was dying he dictated a lot of stuff to the hospice people who came to the house. I have no idea what happened to all of that. My mom (who died in 2006) had no clue. He didn’t want her to know what he was talking about.
“I sure wish I had a chance to hear all those stories.”
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
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