Denied the Battlefield

Gene Burdette is a 95-year-old resident at Martha Franks Retirement Community who pastored Southern Baptist churches for nearly 60 years. But one thing unique about this former member of the U.S. Navy is that he was denied the battlefield in World War II, even though he desperately tried to get into the fight.

His story is reminiscent of the 1998 movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” which was based on a best-selling book, “D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of WWII,” written by historian Stephen Ambrose. In the movie, Private Ryan was serving in the Army when it was learned that his three brothers were killed in action. The U.S. Army Chief of Staff sent orders to find him and bring him home. The movie is the story of that mission.

In Burdette’s case, his oldest brother, Jack, was killed in Germany when his tank ran over a land mine. His other brother, Will, was wounded in France. At age 17, Burdette enlisted in the Navy with a determination to join the war effort. His dad secretly contacted Olin D. Johnston, U.S. Senator from South Carolina at the time, to intervene and prevent his son from “going overseas.” It was not until after the war that his dad showed him a copy of the letter he had written to Johnston.

Why did he want to join so badly? “I wanted to be patriotic, and I was disappointed that I did not get to go overseas,” Burdette said. “I thank God for the men who gave their lives for their country. To me, the greatest thing is to love God and love your country.”

He tried to get assigned to a PT boat but was denied. He attempted to get into training to be a deep-sea diver but was rejected. He made an effort to become a paratrooper, but that door was also closed to him. During the war, he patrolled the coastal area from South Carolina, Georgia, and part of Florida.

He was married during the war and did not re-enlist following his three-year appointment.

A few years later, he trusted Christ as Savior, and a short time afterward he surrendered his life to the gospel ministry. For the next 60 years, he served as pastor of churches in Anderson and Oconee counties, with a couple of years in West Virginia. He was pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Seneca twice. His first tenure was eight-and-a-half years, and his second was for five-and-a-half years, during which time the church built a new building.

“My wife told me once that I had pastored for nearly 60 years and was never out of church one day,” he said.

He observed that he has seen significant change in churches since his days as a pastor. “I believe it is harder today than it was when I pastored. My advice to pastors today is to make family a priority. Give more time to your family — at least one day a week.”

His wife was killed in an automobile accident two months before he moved to Martha Franks. His daughter is also deceased. He moved into assisted living in 2017 and transferred to skilled nursing in 2019, where he currently lives.

Although Burdette was denied the battlefield, he was called to an even greater service as a pastor. His love for God and country is evident in his concern for the spiritual condition of Americans. “We are in bad need of people worshiping the Lord,” he said. “The United States is pulling away from the Lord, and we need Bible preaching today.”

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