Wilbur A. “Willie” Burton, 75, served in the Navy from 1961 to 1974 with several tours of duty in Vietnam. Today he serves as commander of American Legion Post 19 in Benton and is active in several other veterans organizations.
“I’ve been post commander of the local American Legion for the past five years,” he said. He said he joined “10 or 15 years ago” and is now a life member of the organization, which, according to its website legion.org, promotes “patriotism, a strong national security, support for all veterans and a strong desire to turn today’s youth into tomorrow’s leaders.”
Burton is also a life member of the Disabled American Veterans, Greater Little Rock Chapter 7, and a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2256 in Benton.
Burton was born in Richmond, Virginia, where he was raised on a farm.
“I dropped out of high school when I was fixing to go into 10th grade,” he said. “I enlisted in the Navy in 1961.
“I did my basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station [in Illinois] and was sent to San Diego Naval Base,” he said. “I was ordered aboard ship in Long Beach, [California]. The ship wasn’t there. … It was in Bremerton, Washington, in dry dock.”
Burton said he finally got aboard the ship.
“That was the first time I had been on a ship at sea, where you could not see land anywhere,” he said. “It was pretty rough … waves 15 to 20 feet high. We took the ship back to Long Beach, where we were in port for three weeks. Then I got aboard a WestPac (Western Pacific) cruiser bound for Vietnam.
“I celebrated my 19th birthday in South Vietnam … at the mouth of the Saigon River,” he said. “I had a good job. I was a boatswain’s mate. I loved it. I got plenty of fresh air.
“I didn’t even know where Vietnam was,” he said. “There were some troops already over there, but not like what it would be shortly thereafter.
“I was told to take a boat up the river and pick up some Vietnam dignitaries and bring them back,” he said.
“I was enjoying what I was doing,” Burton said. “I was in the process of coming around when I heard a big mosquitolike sound coming near my ear. … It was a bullet. I had to find a way to get the heck outta there.
“That’s something I’ll never forget. It’s still with me today. That’s one reason I don’t like for people to walk up behind me. It’s like a flashback.”
He said his first “real assignment” was aboard the USS Ozbourn DD-846.
“It carried 289 sailors, not including officers. I spent almost three years on that ship,” he said.
“I had a good time. I loved the rough waters. I made several trips to Vietnam aboard that ship,” Burton said.
“They transferred me off that ship and sent me back to the States. I reported to San Francisco, where I was told I would be going back to Vietnam but not aboard my old ship. I was told I would be running a boat carrying Marines and ammunition up and down rivers in Vietnam,” he said.
“I saw action during that time,” Burton said. “I never was wounded by enemy fire, but our boat — a Mike boat (a mechanized landing craft) — was hit. I did what I was told to do … picked up a lot of body bags. I did that for nine months and was sent back to the States.
“You never knew where you were going. They did give me some leave, and I went home to Virginia. Everything had changed. That was in 1965-66. I thought I had a girlfriend there, but that didn’t happen. She thought I had changed. … ‘You’re too crazy,’ she told me. So I went back to base.”
Burton said it came time for his first enlistment to be up, and they asked him if he wanted to re-enlist.
“I told them, ‘I don’t mind going back,’” he said.
Another tour to Vietnam took him to Da Nang.
“I ran a PT (patrol torpedo) boat this time. I knew every boat they had. Then I ran another Mike boat carrying aviation fuel to a Huey (helicopter) outpost,” Burton said.
“We started up river and heard gunfire. That was Puff, the Magic Dragon, one of our planes that could shoot 3,000 to 5,000 rounds a minute. It was time to move out. We went back up to Da Nang,” he said.
“It was 1974 and I was told, ‘You’re going home.’ I went back to the States. I had one more month on my second enlistment. My orders were to report to the naval station at San Francisco,” Burton said.
“I had been called everything but a human [by war protesters] … spit at … had things thrown at me. I reported for duty, and they asked me, ‘Do you want to re-enlist?’ I said, ‘No, I just want to get away from these people,’” he said.
“I got out in 1974 after 14 years of service. I was discharged as an E-5. I went to San Diego, where I had friends. I decided I would go to school … find a profession in something I would enjoy. I became an automobile mechanic and did that until 1979,” Burton said.
“I met a woman in San Diego. Her name was Wanda, and she was totally blind,” he said.
“We got along like cats and dogs. She ended up being my wife. We got married in 1978. … She passed away five years ago. She had two daughters by a previous marriage, and I had one daughter by a previous marriage. My stepdaughters now live in Wyoming and San Diego, and my daughter lives in Virginia,” Burton said.
“We got married in California, but she wanted to move away from there. I asked her, ‘Where?’ and she said, ‘Anyplace but here,’” he said.
“She told me to get out a map of the United States. She told me to flip a quarter, and wherever it landed was where she wanted to move. It landed on Little Rock, Arkansas,” he said.
“We left San Diego and headed for Arkansas,” Burton said, smiling.
“It took us a couple of years to get here. We’d stop and I’d work awhile; then we would move on. We found a place we liked here in Saline County … a trailer home. We paid $100 a month, and I maintained the property. I bought a lawn mower and Weed Eater and ended up starting my own lawn-service business. That was in the 1990s, and I did that for 15 years. I mowed grass all over Benton. I made a good living,” he said.
“One day, I happened to be working near a site where they were building a house. That was in 2000-2001. There was nothing but women over there. I went up to the house and asked about it. It was a Women Build event for Habitat for Humanity,” Burton said.
“That was the first time I had ever heard of Habitat for Humanity. They told me all about it and who I should contact. The next thing I knew, I was putting in an application for a Habitat for Humanity house. I went home and told my wife about it. I said, ‘We’re going to be getting our own home,’” he said.
“I put in my sweat equity, especially putting in the lawn,” Burton said. He said he had invited then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet, to the build.
“I went to his office at the Capitol and was able to talk to her,” Burton said. “She told me he could not come, but she would. She showed up at 9 a.m. and stayed until noon. She helped put up the sides to that shed out back.
“That was in June 2002,” Burton said. “The house was finished in September, and I handed my wife the keys. I told her, ‘This is your house.’ She got real emotional. Since then, I have helped build other Habitat for Humanity houses.”
Christina Chen, director of communications and development for Habitat for Humanity of Saline County, said the Burtons
“received the fourth Habitat home built in Saline County.”
“Willie decided to apply for the program with his wife because of the people involved with Habitat,” she said.
Burton has told her “his favorite part was watching the walls go up and the house becoming a home,” Chen said.
Burton still lives in the same house he helped build in Benton. He now relies on the help of his service dog, Buddy, a
2 1/2-year-old golden retriever.
“He has no gold in him,” Burton said, laughing as he pointed to Buddy, who has a shiny, ebony-black coat. “He is all owner-trained.”
Burton continues his work with the American Legion, even though he has some health problems.
“I go where I can,” he said.
He said he plans to attend a dinner for veterans Saturday when Searcy Elks Lodge 2247 will present its eighth annual Veterans Dinner at 4 p.m. at the lodge, 3708 Evans Drive in Searcy.
“All veterans are invited,” Burton said.