Constable: Immigrant's worry leads to WWI service and an American life
By Burt Constable
What started because a worried Irishman didn't want to fight for the English during World War I turned into a wonderful American tale. But the story of William Burke is not one of those typical yarns about a weary immigrant who dreamed of a better life in the United States. Burke didn't want to be an American.
"He was born in Ireland to a farming family that was pretty well off," Cook County circuit court Judge John J. Curry Jr., of Barrington, says about his grandfather, who told him the story. Coming of age in 1914 as Britain entered World War I by declaring war against Germany, Burke feared that the British would institute a draft.
"The last thing he was going to do was fight for the British," Curry remembers his grandfather saying. So Burke left his home in County Kerry for a ship to Australia. When rumors of an Australian draft surfaced, the 23-year-old Burke looked to escape to a neutral nation.
"The way he told it, he hopped on the first ship he could to San Francisco," Curry says. With English as his native language, Burke easily found work as a laborer and made his way to the mining town of Jerome, Arizona, where jobs were plentiful. But working in a copper mine wasn't for him, so Burke "hopped a train as a tramp to Chicago," Curry says.
Not knowing a soul, Burke nearly was arrested on charges of loitering until the police officer made a discovery. "He was from the same county as my grandfather," Curry says, explaining how the cop immediately put Burke in touch with Irish immigrants who could find him a place to live and a job working on the streetcars.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Burke was drafted into the service and put on a train with many other immigrants.
"A group of them started agitating," Curry says. His grandfather argued the draft extended only to U.S. citizens, which ticked off the military officials. "So my grandfather was forcibly naturalized against his wishes."
While training at the Army's Camp Grant in Rockford and eager to avoid combat, the newly Americanized Burke figured it would be safer to carry a ladle instead of a rifle, so he told commanders kitchen work reminded him of his years working in his family's restaurant in Ireland. When that lie became obvious, he ponied up to the cavalry bosses with a fictitious story about his family's ranch.
"I ate up stories about my grandfather and World War I," remembers Curry, who spent the first 13 years of his life in a two-flat in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, with his family on the first floor and his grandparents upstairs.
While commanders saw through Burke's ruses, they realized the congenial soldier was highly motivated and a quick learner. His 86th Infantry Division arrived in England in September 1918 and made it to Saint-André-de-Cubzac in southwestern France by October.
One of Burke's fellow soldiers was astronomer Edwin N. Hubble (of Hubble Telescope fame). Major Frederic McLaughlin was so enamored with the 86th's nickname as the "Black Hawk" Division that when he returned to Chicago and bought a hockey team, he named it the Chicago Blackhawks.
They met a little boy who lived in the small French village grew up to be underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.
The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, and Burke spent the next eight months supporting the withdrawal operation in Saint-André-de-Cubzac. The training and skills he learned in the Army led to a job back home as a Chicago police officer in 1922.
Patrolling the Cragin district on Chicago's Northwest Side, Burke was promoted to sergeant in 1928, the year when mobsters used so many explosive devices (known as pineapples) during the campaign season that it was dubbed the Pineapple Primaries.
Burke rose through the ranks.
"I remember him coming home from work and taking off his gun," Curry says.
Burke retired as a captain to his farm in Cloverdale, an unincorporated area of DuPage County that now is part of Carol Stream, and died in 1976. Carol Stream's Burke Drive is named in his honor.
For a man who never wanted to be an American, Burke created a classic American life.
"His role in the war made the rest of his life," says Curry, who visited Saint-André-de-Cubzac this spring in his continuing research about his grandfather. "It was a huge influence on his life."