BY MATTHEW PEEK
On Dec. 7, 2016, as the country commemorates the 75th anniversary of the tragic loss of life during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the State Archives of North Carolina’s Military Collection notes that it has recently acquired a small collection that documents the life and death of one of North Carolina’s first reported World War II casualties at Pearl Harbor.
Weldon C. Burlison of Yancey County was stationed at Hickam Field with the 22nd Material Squadron, U.S. Army Air Corps, when he was killed by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
Weldon C. Burlison (also spelled “Burleson”) was born on Nov. 25, 1911, in Yancey County, and raised in Jacks Creek Township on a family farm. He attended Clearmont High School in Burnsville and Maryville College in Tennessee. Burlison enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on Aug. 16, 1934, serving four years in the Marine Corps. Between 1934 and 1938, he served in Marine Detachments at various stations and aboard various U.S. Navy ships around the world.
By 1940, Weldon Burlison would re-enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps after his discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps. Until December 1941, Burlison was primarily stationed at Hickam Field in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, serving in the 22nd Material Squadron. Starting in August 1941, Burlison was stationed at Barking Sands, Hawaii, working to construct new U.S. Army Air Corps barracks at Barking Sands Landing Field.
While in Hawaii, Burlison wrote a childhood friend from Yancey County, Elsie M. Edwards, who was then living in Skillman, N.J. Elsie and her husband, Ellis Edwards, wrote to Burlison — whom they called “Snook” — and Elsie would even have some of her female friends write to him at his request.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Weldon Burlison was stationed at Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the field that morning. On Dec. 8, 1941, after hearing the news about Pearl Harbor, Elsie Edwards wrote a two-page, heartbreaking letter to Burlison, hoping that he was safe and alive. Elsie began her letter by saying, “Of course I have a million things on my mind these days. Right now the uppermost thought is ‘I wonder if Snook is safe, if he’s really all right’.” She would finish her letter with, “I don’t know of very much to say right now. I can’t even be sure you will receive this but I hope you do.”
The U.S. War Department’s official death notification was printed on Dec. 11, 1941, in Burlison’s hometown newspaper, The Yancey Record, with the front-page headline: “Weldon Burleson Is First War Casualty.” Friends mailed newspaper clippings to Elsie Edwards, letting her know of Burlison’s death. The letter Edwards mailed to Burlison on Dec. 8 would be marked with “Deceased”; it was returned to Elsie Edwards on Feb. 12, 1942.
Weldon C. Burlison was posthumously promoted to corporal. He was disinterred from Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in 1947, and reburied in the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Over the years, Burlison has often been overlooked as a Pearl Harbor attack victim, but not by those in Yancey County — where his name is engraved on the Yancey County Veterans Memorial as “Weldon Burleson.” The State Archives of North Carolina hopes that this collection will expand research into the sacrifices of North Carolinians on Dec. 7, 1941, and bring recognition to one of our state’s unsung military heroes.
Matthew Peek serves as Military Collection archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina. For more information on Weldon Burlison, visit http://www.ncpedia.org/burlison-weldon-c