When Ellijay native William Charles Burgess was departing for the war in Vietnam, tears flowed as his sisters bid goodbye.
“It like to have killed all of us,” said Elizabeth Burgess Minton. “He came by the house the last week of December (1968), before Jan. 1 when he was sent to Fort Benning, and hugged us both. We'd always been told we couldn't kiss each other, on the face or on the lips. Charles kissed me anyway and said, 'I won't be back, Sis, I'm going home.'”
With her voice breaking, Elizabeth continued: “And I said, 'Oh yes, you will, Charles, you will.' He said, 'No, I've got a mission to do. I've got things to say to other people, and I just want you to know I love you, Sis, and I always have, and little sister Evelyn.'”
U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Burgess, the only son of Charlie and Mary Ellen Burgess, was killed in action on June 4, 1969, at age 21. Last week on Tuesday — exactly 50 years later — he was honored by the Vietnam Veterans of America's Chapter 1030 in Cumming. A college scholarship was presented to a Forsyth County high school graduate in his name.
In the May 22 issue of the Ellijay Times-Courier, a chapter rep penned a letter to the editor attempting to find Burgess family members to invite them to the ceremony. Elizabeth and sister Evelyn Burgess Morace, who both now live in other parts of north Georgia, said they began receiving calls from newspaper readers the day the edition hit the street.
Around four dozen veterans, three scholarship honorees and Burgess family members attended the chapter meeting that commemorated three men killed in action in Vietnam. Like all groups of veterans, there was good-natured ribbing among themselves. One Air Force vet had his wheelchair dubbed an “F-22” (fighter jet); and yet, a gentler side surfaced as well. During a prayer request time, several members not present due to illness were mentioned, including one whose “tread is wearing thin.” These veterans care deeply about their country, one another and their community. Many nodded their heads gratefully as a girl of Vietnamese descent read her winning scholarship essay aloud, acknowledging the sacrifice of American troops.
In an interview following the scholarship presentations, Evelyn remembered trying to please her younger brother Charles.
“He worked with Daddy (as an electrician and plumber), and when he got home, I would take him to the closet and say, 'Look, I ironed all your shirts today and shined your shoes for you,'” she said. “That was for him to go out on Saturday nights. And he would hug me and say, 'You're the best sister in the whole world!'
“He was always so nice and pleasant … we played together with salt box cars, and us girls would cut paper dolls out of Sears & Roebuck catalogs. Charles was just a good guy.”
As the older sister, Elizabeth remembers being the “caretaker, protector and teacher” of her younger siblings.
“If anybody was fighting or arguing with each other, I'd go tell Mother,” she said. “She'd come out with that long hickory (switch) she was going to cut off the tree. She'd say, 'I'm going to whup you. If y'all are going to fight, you're going to fight in front of me.' And she'd bring that hickory back like she was going to whip us. Believe me, it worked, because I used it with him (pointing to her son Steve Minton) about cigarettes when he was 4 years old.”
Steve smiled easily and was asked about the uncle who was killed when he was only 1 year old.
“I've heard stories about him since I can remember, from both of them (mother and aunt),” he said. “(Last Tuesday), I was cleaning my office and I found a folder. It said Elizabeth Minton on it. I opened it up, and it was a letter from Charles to my grandmother, and then a letter from my grandmother to Charles. It was a poem that he wrote, and then it was a poem that she wrote in return. I get choked up thinking about it. And then a letter from the military telling them he had passed.”
Elizabeth said the family attended New Hope Baptist Church, where her father pastored, every time the doors were open. A first cousin who also attended the scholarship ceremony, Wayne McPherson, shared his thoughts.
“We lived a long way away, but what I remember was Charlie was a preacher,” he said. “They were real strict and real religious, but despite of that, they were a close family. Charles went to the World's Fair in New York and everywhere else, but Charlie never wanted his kids to get more than five miles from home.
“Charles was a good guy. He never cussed or nothing. They felt the pressure some time of being too tight (with rules), but they were guiding him every step of the way. He wanted to do something on his own. I begged him not to go join (the Army), but he did. He felt like he had to, being the only son.”
Elizabeth said the people of Ellijay and Gilmer County were saddened when Charles died, and his close friends she mentioned — Scotty Logan, Ronnie Garland and T.C. Carringer — were crushed.
“I remember Edgar and Barbara Land helped me with little Steven during the funeral — I was so broke up, all of us were,” she said of Evelyn and her parents. “Edgar said, 'Let Barbara hold Steven, you don't need to be holding him,' and I nearly broke down. I don't like death, even if we're supposed to rejoice at death. That misery of losing somebody and them being gone, always, never to come back till the final day, the judgment day, is just too much to bear.”
“Everybody loved Charles,” Evelyn said. “At his funeral, the church was just packed full of people and so many pretty flowers.”
Elizabeth added, “My best memories of him are he was always smiling and was always saying, 'My best buddy, my best friend.' We would go to church every Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. He was a Christian from the time he was 16 years on up, and he had a great love for everybody.
“I believe Charles would have been a preacher had he come back. I just know he would. He could talk to somebody, he could tell them what the Bible said and what it meant for your life. He was a great philosopher.”
Charles Burgess didn't come back, and yet completed his mission.
Mark Millican is a former staff writer with the Daily Citizen-News.