TOWER- Richard A. “Dick” Burgess was just shy of 20 years old when he was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970. Thanks to some research by his family and fellow veterans from the his 506th …
TOWER- Richard A. “Dick” Burgess was just shy of 20 years old when he was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970. Thanks to some research by his family and fellow veterans from the his 506th Infantry Regiment, the Currahees, a missing Silver Star designation has been placed on his gravestone at Tower’s Lakeview Cemetery.
Dick’s cousin, the late Gary Burgess, and family friend and Vietnam War veteran Anthony Stepan first noticed that Dick’s Silver Star award was not listed on his cemetery marker along with his Purple Heart and Bronze Star, but the family was not sure of its significance.
“Anthony made our family a shadow box honoring Dick,” said Richard’s younger sister Susan Cebelinski. Anthony, an older classmate of Dick’s from Tower-Soudan High School, arrived in Vietnam a month before Dick, and the two tried to meet up, but never were able to, Susan said.
Anthony urged the family to request a new cemetery marker with the Silver Star listed on it, and he helped Susan with the paperwork. Dick was awarded the Silver Star in April 1970, a month after he was buried but this was after the original marker had been put in place.
“I didn’t realize the significance of the Silver Star until then,” said Susan.
The Silver Star is the third-highest military combat decoration and is given for “gallantry in action” while engaged in actions against an enemy of the state, according to the Department of Defense. Actions that merit the Silver Star must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations except those for the Medal of Honor or Service Cross. The award is given to fewer than five percent of those who serve in combat.
“To receive a Silver Star,” Susan said, “the actions taken had to actually save lives.”
Susan said the family really never knew the details of what Dick’s time in Vietnam was like, or the details of his death.
While working for St. Louis County Social Services, Susan attended a presentation by two Vietnam era veterans who talked about efforts to provide medical supplies for people in Vietnam who were still being injured by mines left over from the war.
“I sat through the presentation and just kept thinking I didn’t know what Dick was doing over there,” she said. At that moment she decided to take action.
“I walked right over to the Veterans Service office,” she said.
While filling out a form to request information, she realized that the day, March 17, was Dick’s birthday.
“He was rattling me out of my comfort zone,” she said.
In the first few years that followed Dick’s death, first his mother, and then his father, also died, and the family didn’t get the chance to learn about his service.
Susan started putting together the limited information she was able to glean from Dick’s military records, but another serendipitous event helped fill in more of the missing pieces.
Family members discovered a vase of flowers with a tag with contact information from the Currahees, the unit Dick served with, on Memorial Day.
“It was their project to locate all the Currahee gravesites and place flowers,” Susan said.
The family got in touch to thank them for the flowers, and then “I was invited to attend one of their annual reunions,” Susan said.
Susan has attended five reunions of the Currahees, getting to meet Dick’s captain and others he served with.
“I have met some wonderful vets,” she said, “and made new lifelong friends.”
Susan said the family believed Dick had been a hero all along, but what she began to learn proved that her brother truly was a hero.
Dick was stationed at Hill 474, a mountain riddled with caves that hid Viet Cong soldiers and equipment.
“The Army would drop soldiers at the top of the mountain, and it would take them a month to get down,” she said. “Often they would be attacked from above.”
The soldiers in Dick’s unit had the harrowing job of trying to clear the mountain’s caves and were referred to as tunnel rats.
Dick’s commanding officer, Capt. Ohls, told Susan that “clearing the caves was one of the dirtiest, scariest, and most dangerous missions in his three years in Vietnam.”
“The day that Dick died,” Susan said, “they knew there was a sniper above them. It was the policy that everyone had to be out of the caves by the end of the day.”
But on that day, Susan learned, Dick had found a cache of documents and was determined to get them out of the cave even though it was after dark. He stayed in the caves, trying to retrieve the documents, and was shot and killed.
“Dick had a chance to seek safety and declined in favor of further risking his life for his fellow soldiers,” said Ohls.
After a skirmish between the Army and Viet Cong, Dick’s company retrieved the documents. They detailed military supplies and equipment stored inside the caves. Dick’s fellow soldiers also captured an enemy soldier inside the caves who verified the information in the documents that had just been found. As a result, the Army was able to find and destroy them, preventing many deaths.
“Dick risked his life to retrieve information that helped change the direction of the war,” she said. “That would be Dick. He was only focused on his duty, not on his own safety.”
Growing up in Tower
“Richard was quite a free spirit,” said Susan. “He was always wanting to do exciting things. He was a ringleader. He had absolutely no fear.”
Growing up on North Third Street in Tower, Richard taught himself high diving off the highest ledge at the old Lee Mine. He went on to be a “phenomenal” diver on the Tower High School swim team. He also played in the high school band.
“He was the most fun person around,” she remembered.
Susan said Dick was the most challenging of her parents’ five children.
“They tried to corral him,” she said, but noted it never quite worked out. The gift of a chemistry set, meant to engage him quietly indoors, led to some “off-book” and rather dangerous experiments in their basement.
A story related by Phyllis Burgess in the Tower News in 1967 tells of a trip Dick took with David Isle. The two boys, both juniors in high school, decided to hitch hike to Florida over Easter break, leaving home Wednesday afternoon and returning on Monday night with sunburns as proof. The pair calculated they had each spent 85 cents on the trip down, though they did splurge on a hotel room once they reached Panama Beach. The two teens were evidently charming enough to be fed and even put up at a motel by those who picked them up along the way. The only time they had trouble getting a ride was within 20 miles of home, but eventually they were picked up by Dick’s uncle, Jack Burgess, and deposited safely at home.
Dick enlisted in the Army shortly after graduating from high school in the summer of 1968.
“He didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school,” Susan said, “and he drove up to Ely and enlisted.”
The family took their first-ever family vacation right before Dick went to basic training.
“My father was one of the Burgess Chevrolet brothers,” Susan said. “He worked six days a week and never took a vacation.”
But that summer he bought a pop-up tent camper, and the five Burgess siblings and their parents went on a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana.
“The trip was awesome,” Susan remembered.
Silver Star ceremony
The family had planned to hold a special commemoration ceremony for Richard at this year’s Memorial Day Service in Tower. But the cancelation of the service due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant the ceremony had to be put off for a year.
“We want to present the Silver Star to Dick somehow, acknowledging how proud we are of him,” she said. “He did a heroic thing.”
And while a special ceremony at Memorial Day will have to wait one more year, the family is hoping that many in the community will see his sacrifice and heroism and remember the free-spirited teen not just for his hijinks, but for his bravery.
Susan has been in contact with Dick’s Army captain and several others from his unit who were planning on traveling to Tower this month. Hopefully they can still make the trip next May, she said.
People are welcome to visit his gravesite at Tower’s Lakeview Cemetery. His marker is located at 46-8-1 NW, on Miners Drive near the intersection of Northern Lights Blvd. and Miners Dr. The family grave markers show many in the Burgess family proudly served their country in the Army and Navy.