Person County man remembers his service, nuclear tests


One month after the German surrender and two months before the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Burley Dunn of the Providence community was drafted into the United States Army Infantry. He was trained to fight the Japanese, but he had no clue how his service would turn out.

Born Jan. 18, 1927, Dunn grew up in the Great Depression. He said much of his family’s food was grown in their own garden.

“We grew sweet potatoes and tomatoes and other things,” Dunn said. “I had chores to do – my job was to feed the hogs. I would feed them five gallons of tomatoes as quick as they could eat them.”

As a teenager, Dunn sold vegetables at the Longhurst Mercantile Store and to the people in Longhurst Village.

During Christmas time, he would sell Christmas cards as well, making a 33 percent commission.

“I could sell,” Dunn explained.

When he was 15, Dunn’s father, William Albert Dunn died. As his brothers Wallace, Harry and Alfred were all fighting in the war, Burley became the man of the house. Wallace was serving as a gunner in the Naval Air Force in the Pacific, Harry was serving as a Merchant Marine and Alfred was fighting in France.

In high school at Bethel Hill School, Dunn played as a pitcher on the baseball team and boasted a 17-1 record, recording one no-hitter.

After graduating in May 1945, Dunn was drafted June 1 and sent to basic training at Camp Croft in South Carolina.

“Summer time – the hottest place I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “Infantry training was rough. They issued us a M1 rifle with a bayonet on it for training. One thing I didn’t like too good was when they made us go into a foxhole with our rifle and have a tank roll over top of us. I guess they wanted us to get used to what was going to happen to us. They were fixing to ship us to the south Pacific to fight the Japanese.”

After he finished basic training, Dunn was sent to Fort Bragg for field artillery training.

While at Fort Bragg, Dunn served as a typist and messenger where he had to complete morning reports – noting who was present at training and who wasn’t.

He said he had taken typing classes in school and was able to type 65 words per minute, which got him his job.

Dunn was also awarded a Sharpshooter Rifleman medal for his accuracy with his rifle in training

While Dunn was in training, he said the FBI investigated his character.

“The came to my stepfather’s store and they investigated me,” Dunn said. “They asked all kinds of questions about my character and reputation. For the job I was taking, you had to be a genuine citizen and everything.”

Dunn was selected to move to Washington D.C. to serve as a clerk typist and messenger for the Departments of the Army and Navy.

“I was staying in a hotel, but I was in the Army,” he said. “Hawthorn Hotel – I’ll never forget it, just a few blocks from the White House.”

As a messenger, Dunn delivered confidential papers to officers in the Pentagon.

While working in Washington D.C., Dunn inadvertently met President Harry Truman.

“I didn’t know he was coming through there,” Dunn said. “I was standing in the doorway near my office. He had two bodyguards and he said ‘soldier, what is your job here?’ I told him I was a clerk typist and a messenger. He said ‘what’s a messenger?” I told him I deliver confidential papers to the Pentagon. I should have shook his hand, but I didn’t – I was surprised. He caught me off guard because no one said he was coming through there.”

Dunn was later placed on TDY (temporary duty) for the Navy and assigned to serve as a typist and messenger on Joint Task Force 1, part of Operation Crossroads, the second ever nuclear bomb test and the first to test nuclear bombs on naval warships on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Joint Task Force 1 spent five days on a troop train to San Francisco where they joined their fleet of more than 150 ships. Dunn boarded the USS Mount McKinley – the Joint Task Group flagship and headquarters for Operation Crossroads.

Dunn said it was so hot in the Pacific that sailors could fry an egg on the deck of the ship.

When the soldiers got to Bikini Atoll, the native Bikinians were moved off the island for the tests to be conducted.

“While we were on the island, one day my friend and I decided to walk around the island to see what we could see,” Dunn said. “We walked up and found a pillbox that had Japanese writing on it – so the Japanese had been there.”

Dunn said there was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “Some scientists said some of us could be killed and all that mess. A bunch of baloney I reckon – it didn’t happen.”

However, Dunn said he likely lost his sense of smell while he was on the boat after the testing.

On July 1, 1946, the first bomb, nicknamed Gilda after a Rita Hayworth character, was dropped and detonated 520 feet over the target fleet of more than 90 ships, sinking five.

The second test came 24 days later. The weapon was suspended underwater and sank 10 ships.

After returning to Washingon D.C. following the tests, Dunn was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he worked in the personnel office.

“They put me in charge of people who were going to be discharged,” Dunn said. “I had to get their names and put them on the bulletin board and notify them - I even discharged myself!”

Dunn received a lot of freedom while at Fort Knox.

“Keith S. Lain, the commanding officer, I was his pet.” he said. “He gave me a jeep to drive. I could take the guys to the movies. I would go pick up his wife sometimes when she wanted to play bridge. He trusted me and I thought a lot of him. He’d give me passes for four or five days and I’d catch a bus and come to Roxboro.”

Despite this freedom, they wouldn’t let him see the gold.

“I tried to look at the gold but they wouldn’t let me” he said. “I said ‘I want to see if it was here because someone told me it was all gone and used up.’”

Eighteen months after being drafted, Dunn was discharged - Dec. 31, 1946.

After being discharged, Dunn returned to North Carolina and went to Elon College where he studied physical education, health and biology and he played two years on the football and baseball teams.

He graduated from Elon in 30 months after going to summer school three times.

He began his career at Bailey High School in Edgecombe County where he taught one year before returning to Person County.

Dunn taught and coached at Mt. Tirzah High School until it closed and moved to Helena High School.

While teaching biology at Helena, Dunn organized the team’s first football team and coached boys and girls basketball, baseball and football.

After three years at Helena, he moved to become principal at Solomon Lea School in Leasburg for one year before returning to Person County again.

He was principal of Hurdle Mills School, Bushy Fork School and ended his career as an assistant principal at Southern Junior High School when he retired at 55 years old.

While he was teaching and serving as an administrator, Dunn sold insurance part time for Allstate with the help of his wife, Susie “Doodle” Braddy Dunn.

Burley met Susie on a blind date while she was working as a nurse at Person Memorial Hospital.

“A friend of mine told me there’s a cute little girl over at the hospital and asked if I wanted to meet her and I said yes,” he said. “She was working the second shift so she got off at 11. I said ‘that’s alright’ and I picked her up and we went and got hamburgers in South Boston.”

The pair dated two years before getting married in 1952.

He credits Doodle for a lot of his success in insurance.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said. “She helped me. She would take numbers and information and I would sell it.”

Burley and Doodle had two children, Robin and Susan, and two grandchildren.

Burley and Doodle were married 65 years before her passing.

Dunn stayed active, playing softball until he was 62.

“I could still hit the ball and throw it, but I couldn’t run fast,” he said. “One time, I could’ve had a home run, but I stopped on third base. They said ‘why’d you stop running for?’ I was tired!”

Dunn credits his disposition for his long life and happiness.

He joked with some people that he uses more of his brain than others.

“But really, I never smoked in my life, never had any liquor and haven’t had a beer in 35 years,” he said. “Be happy, have joy in your life, have a good personality, use your common sense, help the needy and don’t worry. Be concerned, but don’t worry or have anxiety. You can’t worry about things – be concerned and think about things sometimes, but worry – it’s dangerous. Play it by ear sometimes.”


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