Georgianne Burlage, 64, was born a decade after World War II, and, like many in her generation whose fathers served in the war, she had grown up listening to stories that her father would share. Burlage, a retired Denton ISD teacher, said her father was always grateful that he survived, but that he was often reserved.
“He’d always say, ‘I’m not a hero. ... I served my country,” Burlage said. “They needed me.”
Her father, George Burlage, who enlisted in the Marine Corps as a military police officer in 1939, wasn’t the type of person to boast about his service or what he experienced, Georgianne said. After he retired from the military, neither would her father put back on the uniform he had worn for two decades.
An avid writer in his life and career, George went on to serve as a combat correspondent after WWII, where he wrote for Leatherneck, a Marine Corps magazine, during the Korean War. When he retired, George, a native of Visalia, California, moved to Denton, where he studied journalism at North Texas State College, and worked as the regional editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle from 1960 to 1963.
Georgianne, a journalism and history teacher of nearly four decades between Corpus Christi and Denton, said she considers herself fortunate that her father was a journalist. George, who spent a total of 40 months as a prisoner of war, had written about life, she said, and the experiences he had leading up to his liberation in 1945.
While her father may have never fully recovered from the brutalities of war, his writings served as a form of therapy for those difficult times, which were often hard for him to talk about, Georgianne said.
“My experiences were hard to discuss and even harder to explain,” George said in his writings. “I had witnessed torture, execution, and brutality and watched my friends die one by one. … This was difficult for people to understand.”
Described as unassuming, George had kept his military medals and telegrams from his service hidden inside an old shoe box and a Kroger plastic shopping bag. But when she discovered the remnants of her father’s past, Georgianne says he didn’t seem to care whether or even how his mementos were stored.
“That’s just the way he was,” Georgianne said.
However, a few years before her father died at the age of 90 in 2008, Georgianne said she was able to organize his medals into a shadow box for keepsake and preservation.
As of Sept. 30, about 389,292 out of the 16 million veterans who survived World War II are still alive today, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay. The department anticipates that the last surviving veterans of the war will continue to dwindle over the next two decades until about mid-2040.
In 2017, when Georgianne retired from 28 years of teaching in Denton schools, she opted to use a portion of her stipend to pursue a better understanding about her father’s life and service in WWII. She traveled to the Philippines with Valor Tours, a historical military tour operator, on a trip designed for those who served in the war and their descendants.
“I got to go to the 75th anniversary of the fall of the Philippines,” Georgianne said. “We were recognized as descendants and were having a big ceremony when the Filipino president [Rodrigo Duterte] showed up.”
The biggest takeaway from her trip, Georgianne said, was being able to visit where her father served, and where he and other service members were taken after their capture in the Battle of Corregidor in 1942.
An estimated 11,000 American and Filipino service members were captured by the Japanese army after the fall of Corregidor in early May 1942. Upward of 4,000 of those service members, including George, were marched through the streets of Manila to prison camps, Georgianne said.
Georgianne said her father, who was attached to the 4th Marine Regiment, was taken to Bilibid Prison. Of the 1,487 regiment members who were captured on Corregidor, an estimated 32% died in captivity, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
In his writings, George said it was “disturbing” to witness the American flag being lowered by the Japanese army. Despite the nightmare that ensued, he remained steadfast in his view that the U.S. military would “eventually succeed.”
“The loss of freedom was abrupt,” George wrote. “I decided quickly that although my body had been captured, my mind was still free. No one could capture my mind.”
Ronald Marcello, a WWII and POW historian and the former director of the Oral History Program at the University of North Texas, said the experience of prisoners of war, like George, was based on survival. Surviving an enemy prison camp depended on two factors, he said — the will to live, and pure luck.
“First of all, you have to obey Japanese rules,” Marcello said. “They’ve got the guns, they make the rules and they don’t care whether you live or die because you disgraced yourself by surrendering.”
George acknowledged in his writings that while he survived what “most did not,” his survival was never guaranteed.
“No blueprints or rules existed for survival,” he wrote. “There was no roadmap to get you from sunrise to sunset. What you did today to survive could get you killed tomorrow.”
George was transferred between various prison camps while in the Philippines, and he narrowly escaped death when he was transferred from the Palawan prison camp to Las Piñas, also known as Nichols Field, in Manila. Georgianne said her father, who worked as a prison laborer in the war, always said he had a “bad feeling” about the Palawan camp because it was just “too isolated.”
“There was a massacre in that camp in December of ’44, and [139 Americans] were killed,” Georgianne said. “But [George] had a feeling that it was going to happen.”
Although Bilibid Prison is still in operation as a penitentiary, Georgianne was able to visit other memorial sites at the ruins of Corregidor, Bataan and Subic Bay. Many prisoners were transported aboard the Japanese "hell ships" from Subic Bay, Georgianne said, but her father was transferred between labor camps from a port in Manila.
The prisoner transport ships were not identified by the Japanese military as having Allied POWs onboard, Marcello said. For those aboard the rusty hell ships, there was the lurking danger of being torpedoed by an American submarine, Marcello said.
“Any Japanese merchant ship was considered fair game by 1944,” Marcello said. “A lot of those ships went down, taking the prisoners with them.”
More than 21,000 Allied POWs were killed or injured aboard the hell ships because they were fired on by U.S. submarines and bombardiers, according to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
George, who endured routine bombing and torpedo attacks during transit, spent 38 days beneath the ship’s deck, Georgianne said, where more than 1,000 prisoners sat back-to-back in near to complete darkness. When the Americans were flying back to recapture the Philippines, her father was held in one of 38 hell ships bound for Japan when the convoy was attacked by unsuspecting Allies.
The convoy sustained significant damages and was forced to temporarily dock to let prisoners recoup their strength and to avoid further attacks by Allied forces. Georgianne said that when the hell ship finally docked in Taiwan, her father was weak as he struggled to stand, let alone walk.
Before the ships departed for Japan, she said, the port was bombed by the Allies.
“It was just one thing after another that happened to them,” Georgianne said.
George wrote that there was no escape from the hell ships after the winches started tightening down the hatch covers — except through eight torpedo-made holes in the side of the ship. The sound of the winches securing and cables being pulled over them, George wrote, was similar to what a coffin lid sounded like when being placed.
“You become helpless … but you are still competing to live,” George wrote.
After the port was bombed, George was transported to Moji, Japan, and then to the Hosokura Mine in the northern mountains of Japan.
The lead and zinc mine, part of the Sendai No. 3 labor camp, was owned and operated during the war by the Mitsubishi Mining Co., now known as the Mitsubishi Materials Corp. About 281 Allied POWs were held prisoner at the labor camp at the time of their liberation, according to the Sendai No. 3-B liberation roster.
In September, Georgianne traveled to Japan as part of the U.S.-Japan POW Friendship Program, which was extended to POWs descendants in recent years, she said, as the population of veterans decreases. The program, now in its ninth year, aims to promote friendship and reconciliation between the two countries.
The trip included meeting with Japanese dignitaries and officials from Mitsubishi and also the opportunity to tour the mine where her father was interned.
Georgianne says the tour, led by officials from Mitsubishi, included visiting the memorial plaque that was erected in honor of POWs like her father. But there was an even rarer moment of reconciliation before the tour began.
“When the [Mitsubishi officials] met us, they bowed and said, ‘Ms. Burlage, we regret the treatment of your father,’” Georgianne said.
As of 2015, Mitsubishi was the only major Japanese corporation to have issued an apology for the use of slave labor during World War II.
Despite past hardships, Georgianne acknowledged that the apology felt sincere.
“I think there was a real spirit of goodwill,” she said. “It was a very genuine, real and honest apology.”
The most meaningful part of the trip, she said, was being presented with her father’s POW record by officials from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, when she initially arrived in Tokyo. She nearly began to cry as she clutched the document.
“This was just too much,” Georgianne said. “My grandparents' names were on it and everything.”
As she looked over the document, Georgianne noticed that the names weren't written in her father’s handwriting. She and her daughter, who was traveling with her, recognized it wasn’t his handwriting when it listed his occupation as “soldier” when, in fact, her father had always been a Marine.
Georgianne says that although she knew her father’s story and what he went through, the moment in her nearly two-year-long journey that brought everything home for her was when she held his POW record.
“It just showed me what really happened,” Georgianne said. “He was captured and there was a record of him … and there it was.”
Marcello said it is uncommon to find WWII-era documents, like George’s POW record, in a well-preserved state almost eight decades later. In his career, Marcello said he hasn’t seen “anything like” what Georgianne was presented with, except for one thing that came to mind.
“I know that in a lot of camps that prisoners were allowed to send home a postcard saying, ‘I am well, I am being treated fairly, I am eating,'” he said. “It was almost like a multiple-choice postcard, and if he didn’t say the right things it didn’t get sent home.”
Georgianne said her father was able to send home four dictated postcards with simple messages: “My health is good, trust all is well. Keep your chin up, and I will try to do the same.”
Her father’s first form of authentic communication arrived via Western Union in the weeks shortly after his liberation on Sept. 2, 1945.
“Safe, well and happy,” Georgianne said as she read her father’s telegram. “Coming home as soon as possible.”
After two years of travel, and a lifetime’s worth of stories, Georgianne, sitting inside her home office, pages through a packed binder of preserved memories and documents that detail her father’s life. Tucked inside the nearly overstuffed, 18-chapter binder are more than 200 pages of photographs and written and typed chronicles that share the firsthand accounts of her father’s story and Georgianne’s journey.
Throughout her life, Georgianne said she would return home from work or school to find her father sitting at the kitchen table, typing away the stories that are now preserved. He would always get a thought, and then he would jot down two, maybe three paragraphs onto his old Royal manual typewriter.
After her father died, Georgianne said she discovered a storage box that was filled with his writings. But other writings were elsewhere — such as a list of “survival tips for surviving enemy prisons,” written on the back of an envelope that was found by happenstance inside a book about Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“Food survival — don’t eat unwashed fruit; Incident — be smarter than the guards,” Georgianne said as she read aloud her father’s advice and examples. “Desperation — self-inflicted injuries — broke 14 arms — got caught when I broke a left-handed man’s right arm.”
George, who went on to to earn a master's degree in public affairs from what is now the University of North Texas, never left an undetermined effort, Georgianne said. While her father returned from the war malnourished, weighing only 100 pounds, Georgianne said he valued the beauty of freedom, which became an expectation for their family to live by.
“He expected that from me and from my daughters … that you are given these gifts,” she said. “He was very much that way.”
Despite the brutality her father experienced, the loss of opportunity and his friends who died along the way, Georgianne says her father refused to allow himself to become consumed with anger. It was the advice he shared when she was going through her divorce, Georgianne said, and how he would speak to her students as a guest speaker at Ryan High School.
“He would say, ‘That was 40 months of my life. … I’m 87 years old now,’” she recalled. “‘It wasn’t a good 40 months, but you put it behind you and you go on … because if you don’t that means they’ve won.'”
She intends to submit the compiled manuscript of her father’s life and military service for consideration to a publisher once it’s complete, she said. She says her only hope is that she can do her father’s story justice.
“If he could read it, I just hope that he would say, ‘Georgianne, that’s a good job. You did really well with that,'” she said. “But, it’s a feeling of pride in what my dad did, too.”