While many young men most likely dreaded the draft for World World War II, George Burtner did not.
George, now 91, living in Rocky Mount with his wife, Celine, was so eager to serve his country in 1945 that he enlisted in the Navy at age 17.
Prior to the Navy, George served as a U.S. Merchant Marine for a year. While a Merchant Marine, George worked on ships in the Great Lakes. In the Navy, he worked on three different air craft carriers as an aviation metal smith. His job was to care for everything but the engine and guidance systems on the torpedo bomber planes. He added that these planes were the kind in which George H. Bush was shot down.
George said his service in the Navy ended in April, 1947 when he was no longer needed. As a member of the Navy Reserves, he was called back to duty in February 1951 for Korea. He did the same work as he had during WWII and served on ships in the Atlantic Ocean that were focused on anti-submarine warfare.
George said he enjoyed his time in the service and enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life. Many of those people were university students working on their doctorates.
“It was exciting every day,” he said. “I’d learn something new every day and I worked with some of the most wonderful people.”
He added when there wasn’t work to be done and the ship was moving, the sailors would write letters. When in port, they could play volleyball on the flight deck and swim if the water was clean enough.
After his June 1952 discharge, George returned to work in Pittsburgh where he worked for Carnegie Institute of Technology — now called Carnegie Mellon — to help build and open a cyclotron which was a proton accelerator used for research.
It was in Butler, Pa., where George met his wife of 65 years, Celine. George frequented an auto mechanic shop in which her mother worked and her mother introduced them to each other. The families were neighbors, but the two had not really met before. They married a year or so later.
The couple has three children, Kim Hudson of Roanoke, Kathy Smith of Rocky Mount and George M. Burtner of Newport News. They have three grandchildren and one great-grandson.
In 1964 his family moved to Newport News where he continued his work with the accelerators with NASA physicists. The couple moved again in 1979 to Houston in 1979 for a job opportunity at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
After two years in Texas they moved back to Newport News. Celine returned to nursing and George was again building an accelerator.
After 13 years they retired to Rocky Mount. George said he enjoys woodworking including building instruments such as the dulcimer and hammer dulcimer. Celine enjoys sewing and has been teaching herself to play the guitar.
Celine said she and George are “very happy here, close to their children and grandchildren.”
George added, “I thank the Lord each day for one more day.”
When their daughter, Kathy Smith, was asked about how it felt to have a father who served in WWII, she said, “I’m so very blessed and proud of the whole family.” She added that the family has a long history of military history and that she is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
George’s father served in the Army in WWI. His mother had two brothers that served in WWII. One was in the Army and died in the Battle of the Bulge. The other was in the Navy. George said his uncles were young enough that they were more like brothers than uncles.
George’s two brothers also served in the military. His older brother was in the Army in WWII and served in China and India. His younger brother served in the Navy in Hawaii and Japan.
These days George keeps his military memories alive with monthly American Legion meetings where he has been a member for 17 years.