Coast Guard Cmdr. RL Burke at work in his office on base. photo courtesy navy history blog
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Coast Guard Cmdr. RL Burke at work in his office on base. photo courtesy navy history blog

‘Famous forgotten aviator’ remembered with Coast Guard building dedication

By William F. West

Staff Writer

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The late Capt. Richard L. Burke may have been “the Coast Guard’s most famous forgotten aviator” but not any longer.

An online history states that Burke was overlooked as an aviation pioneer, but that changed last Wednesday with the naming of the oldest building on the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base.

The dedication of the Captain Richard L. Burke Historic Base Command Building now stands as a testament to the contributions of the base’s first commander.

According to Dr. William Thiesen, a Coast Guard historian in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, Burke was recognized by U.S. military leaders, prominent politicians and Coast Guard officials as the Coast Guard’s most skillful and experienced air-sea rescue pilot, but he was not remembered in most other respects as a pioneer in aviation.

Burke was born in 1903 in San Antonio, Texas, and in 1924 he entered the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., where he was given the nicknames “Cowboy,” “Tex” or just Dick, Thiesen wrote. After graduating in 1927 in a class of 22 cadets, Burke was assigned to the Cutter Modoc, which conducted ice patrols in the North Atlantic.

Burke continued to serve aboard cutters along the East Coast before earning his aviation wings and being assigned to Coast Guard Base No. 7 near Gloucester, Mass. Along the way, Burke married his sweetheart from New London, Winifred McGuire.

Burke would quickly become one of the service’s great rescue pilots, as evidenced in 1933, when he flew through foul weather to rescue a seriously ill sailor from a fishing vessel off the Massachusetts coast, Thiesen wrote. Burke received the first of two Distinguished Flying Crosses in his career.

After being transferred to Air Station Cape May, N.J., he eventually became the facility’s commander.

Thiesen noted that at the same time Burke took command of the air base, the U.S. Treasury Department designated him as the official pilot for Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. During that time period, Thiesen noted, Burke also assisted with flying the First Family to travel destinations when necessary.

In 1937, Burke was at the fire of the German Airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst, N.J., and directed efforts to rescue survivors, Thiesen wrote.

Three years later, Burke was the new commanding officer of the new Air Station Elizabeth City, which Thiesen noted would become the most active Coast Guard air base in the midst of World War II.

Additionally, Thiesen wrote that Burke quickly became involved in civic activities by joining the local Rotary chapter and the Chamber of Commerce.

Thiesen wrote that Burke had become so popular locally that, by 1941, when word surfaced he would be transferred to an air station on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a shocked Elizabeth City community successfully pressured the area’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Herbert Bonner, to intercede. Burke remained commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City until 1944.

Thiesen wrote that, by the end of Burke’s tour of duty in northeastern North Carolina, he had earned a Gold Star in lieu of the second Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as the Navy Commendation Ribbon in recognition of his service and leadership as commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City.

After the war, Burke was promoted to captain and served in senior leadership and oversight positions before retiring in 1958 to live near his wife’s family in the New London area, Thiesen wrote. Burke died in 1979 in Connecticut.

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