Francis Dewey Burke, 93, of Newtown Square, a decorated World War II veteran, retired police inspector, and father of Chris Burke, a star of the former ABC series Life Goes On, died Tuesday, Dec. 5, of heart failure at Dunwoody Village, where he had lived for the last two years.
Born in New York City, he was the son of Henry and Catherine Moore Burke. He graduated from public high school and later earned an undergraduate degree in criminal justice.
A week after he turned 18, he volunteered for service in the Army Air Force. He was inducted in January 1943 and served until October 1945, when he was honorably discharged with the rank of staff sergeant, according to his military papers.
He trained as an aerial gunner and saw action as a left-waist gunner, positioned just above the ball turret, on a B-17 bomber nicknamed “Maggie’s Dreams.” The plane was attached to the 94th Bomb Group.
On April 8, 1944, during his ninth mission deep into German territory, Maggie’s Dreams was riddled with shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns while returning from a raid on the Handorf Air Depot. Mr. Burke and seven crew members parachuted out of the crippled plane before it exploded with the pilot and co-pilot still aboard.
All eight airmen were picked up by the Nazis and eventually transported to Stalag 17-B near Krems, Austria. The POW camp was so notorious for its harsh conditions – including bitter cold and meager rations – that it became the subject of the 1953 film Stalag 17, starring William Holden, as well as being referenced in the 1965-71 TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, starring Bob Crane.
A year after being captured, the 4,000 American prisoners of Stalag 17 were taken on a forced march as the Red Army approached to liberate the POW camp. After 281 miles and 18 days in the cold, the starving, exhausted survivors were freed on May 3, 1945.
“He said all he dreamt about when he was in the POW camp was living to 20 and eating his favorite chocolate eclair from a local bakery,” said his son Francis D. Burke Jr., known as “JR.,” a Main Line financial adviser. Every year after on April 8, the Burke family commemorated the father’s safe return by eating chocolate eclairs.
All eight airmen who bailed out of Maggie’s Dreams survived to return home. Mr. Burke was decorated with the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and the Purple Heart, awarded to those wounded in action.
After the war, Mr. Burke joined the New York Police Department as a patrolman and worked his way up to the rank of inspector, one of the top 50 leadership positions.
In April 1968, when student demonstrators occupied the Columbia University administration building, Mr. Burke led a tactical patrol force to remove them. The students were angry over links between the school and the institutional apparatus supporting American involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as plans to segregate a new gym planned on campus. The gym plan was scrapped.
At various other times, Mr. Burke was captain of the racially divided 30th Precinct in Harlem, head of the department’s Police Academy, and director of the inspections, intelligence and internal affairs division.
“He always knew the right path and followed it without fail,” said Bernie Kennedy, a New York attorney and family friend. “Every former cop I met who knew him spoke respectfully about him.”
In 1976, he became vice president of security at the New York Bank for Savings, where he remained until retiring in 1989.
In 1942, Mr. Burke met Marian Helen Brady while both worked part-time at Macy’s. They married in 1948, had four children, and lived in Manhattan for 67 years before moving to Newtown Square in 2015.
When his son Chris, who was born with Down syndrome, dreamed of being a Hollywood actor, Mr. Burke and his wife encouraged him. Chris Burke went on to a groundbreaking career as a star of Life Goes On, which was on ABC from September 1989 to May 1993 and explored the challenges of a family whose son has Down syndrome.
Chris Burke was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in a TV series in 1990.
“Our parents never held any of us back,” his son said. “He had our back all the time and encouraged us.”
Mr. Burke was an avid salt-water fisherman. He enjoyed reading, growing tomatoes, and spending time with family.
“Your dad exemplified the Greatest Generation,” Ted Zouzounis, a family friend, said to the Burkes. “The sparkle in his eye and the Manhattan in his hand will be forever missed.”
Besides his wife and sons, Mr. Burke is survived by daughters Ellen Orlando and Anne Corridan; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A life celebration will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 5, at Dunwoody Village, 3500 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square. Burial will be private.
Donations may be made to the National Down Syndrome Society via www.ndss.org/ and the Center for Discovery via www.thecenterfordiscovery.org.