The day Clayton J. Burden turned 18 – Oct. 23, 1943 – he hopped on a street car and headed from his East Side home to the old downtown Post Office and enlisted in the Navy.
At 17, he'd had no choice but to accept his mother's decision when she refused to sign the early enlistment papers. But at 18, it was his choice, and he was eager to join the fight in World War II.
By early 1945, Burden arrived in the Pacific just in time to make his mark. Assigned to a specially-designed landing craft support ship to protect troops as they charged onto island beaches, Burden said these crafts unleashed a blistering barrage of rockets and other ordnance to clear the way.
"Our LCS ships were known as 'Mighty Midgits' and we were sometimes called 'General MacArthur's Navy,'" Burden said of the famed Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was forced from the Philippines but eventually made good on his promise to return.
The LCS, Burden explained, filled a weaponry gap in the Pacific island-hopping campaign.
Battleships fired massive guns from long distances out at sea, but had to cease when it was time to put boots on the ground. That's because of issues with accuracy and not wanting to inflict friendly fire on the troops as they landed.
"Between the time the battleships stopped shooting and the troops arrived, the enemy had time to refortify the beaches and was capable of firing at our troops as they landed," Burden said.
Clayton J. Burden, 92
Residence: Wheatfield after residing many years in Town of Tonawanda
Rank: fire control man 3rd class
War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater
Years of service: enlisted 1943 – 1946
Most prominent honors: Combat Action Ribbon, China Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Medal for China and Korea, Philippine Liberation Medal
Specialty: manned forward twin-40 millimeter gun aboard landing craft support ship, also served as helmsman
The heavily armed LCS, able to cruise into shallow waters, soon became a major asset, with more than 100 of them operating in the Pacific.
Burden, who participated in battles in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Borneo, paints a vivid scene of how these ships functioned when in attack mode.
Eight or more of them abreast would cruise toward an island that was to be invaded, with the smaller troop transport vessels following behind them.
"Each of our ships had rocket launchers, and we fired 120 5-inch shells in a single, continuous burst. That really cleared the beaches and gave our troops a fighting chance," Burden said.
In what became the last major campaign involving allies in the Pacific, Burden says they were able to deny the Japanese forces crucial oil supplies from Tarakan and Balikpapan in Borneo.
"We took over those areas with Australian troops," he said.
After that, Burden says a large number of the LCS fleet headed north to Batangas Bay in the Philippines to prepare for the planned invasion of Japan.
"We were told that when the invasion occurred, our type of ship could experience a casualty rate as high as 90 percent. That's because we would be leading the parade," he said.
The grim prospects for survival, Burden said, left him and his 60 shipmates feeling "unpleasant."
But everything changed in early August 1945 when President Harry Truman ordered the world's first atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war ended abruptly.
"You know, you hear so many people say that Truman shouldn't have done that. I'm glad he did," Burden said. "That action saved millions of lives."
Back home after the war, he completed his senior year at Kensington High School and worked full time at the Wm. Hengerer Co.'s department stores. He continued his education on the GI Bill, earning a degree in retailing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and his ambition was rewarded.
"I was made executive carpet and rug buyer at Hengerer's and I did that for 34 years until I retired in 1981," Burden said.
He and his wife, the former Muriel C. Risch, raised two children: Dr. Patricia Burden, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Army's Medical Corps, and a son, John Burden, an executive chef whose resume includes 23 years at the Niagara Falls Country Club.
As for the 92-year-old Burden, there have been challenges with growing old, and last November he says he made the decision to move into a Wheatfield nursing home rather than be a hardship to his wife.
"She visits me whenever she can get a ride, and on July 15 we will celebrate 68 years of marriage," he said, choosing to see the bright side.
He is also proud of his membership in the American Legion Milton J. Brounshidle Post 205 and his three terms as commander of the Harry E. Crosby VFW Post 2472.
As for his long-ago war memories, Burden says they remain fresh:
"I think about it every day. I think about my shipmates. There's only three of us left."