BY MELANIE BUCK –
Rex Burns is a man who has lived a lot of life, being a citizen, a husband, a father, and a veteran. Born in 1928, in Herrick, South Dakota, he comes from a father and grandfather that worked for the CCC building roads with mules, and grew up with a value of hard work.
Upon graduating high school, Burns enlisted in the Navy and attended boot camp in San Diego, California. While waiting in Long Beach for his Naval ship, he witnessed history when the famous Spruce Goose took flight, which was the largest ever airplane at the time, made all of wood, and owned by Howard Hughes.
During his time in the service, Burns lived in Japan for a few months. “We toured where the bomb had gone off. In one place, the smokestacks that had blown over were pulled back towards the bomb from the repercussion,” he explained.
Burns was a radar man and “never carried a gun” during all his years in the service. He was stationed in places like Singapore and Washington State, San Francisco, and Kansas. While stateside, he took more classes and became certified in Ground Control Approach (GCA).
After four years in the Navy, he enlisted in the Air Force where he became a Master Sergeant and served an additional 22 years. During that time, he served in Vietnam for 29 months. Although he failed the flight physical, he did pass the pilot’s test in 1952 and went to Florida.
As a GCA operator, he was sent to Milo, Japan where he supported B-26’s in Korea. “It was a beautiful assignment,” he said. After two years there, he moved to Vance AirForce Base in Enid, Oklahoma. It was there that he met his first wife, who had three children that Rex raised as his own.
Saudi Arabia would be his next assignment before going to Taiwan, and then to Germany. It was there that he switched roles and Data Services became his career. Little did he know that data services was where the world was headed. He was sent back to Vietnam in 1970 for 18 months. “We used key punch cards for computers that were larger than houses,” he explained.
It was there that he had a close brush with death. “A missile went just over the office we were in and hit a school yard,” Burns explained. “The office was the target but it hit the school instead.”
He came home from Saigon in 1972, and was on one of the last airplanes out. “We had to go through a briefing and many of the Army and Air Force had set their bags outside the hangar. I carried my duffle bag in. Being a Master Sergeant, they didn’t question it. When we came out after the briefing, all their bags were gone, the Vietnamese had stolen them,” he said. “I still have mine.”
When he came back to the states, Burns was transferred to Omaha, Nebraska as a Data Service Technician where he logged officers in and out of a golf course until his retirement. He first moved to his sister’s and ran her hog farm until 1978.
It was then that he started traveling, not as a member of the military, but just for fun, and began dancing life away on the square dancing circuit with his wife. He found that Mena had the cheapest property of all of his travels so in 1980, he bought 10 acres east of Hatfield and became a real estate agent. Once he became a broker, he found a place in Mena that he couldn’t resist. He bought it and encircled it with a 12 foot fence and it was filled with wild game of all sorts. During the ‘emu’ craze of the 90’s, he took on several of the unwanted birds.
Burns married his current wife, Carolyn, in October 2009, and has settled into the quiet life. “Helping people has been my most important role in life,” he said. His wife confirmed his generosity. “When we’re out to eat, we’ll see a family eating, and he’ll just pick up the tab without anyone knowing who did it,” Carolyn smiled.
He spends his days now volunteering for various organizations in the community. He’s a member of the Disabled American Veterans, where he served as adjutant for 10 years and is now the chaplain. He also held the title of chaplain for several years in the VFW and American Legion. He attends the Men’s Breakfast each Tuesday morning. Burns has also been a member of the Masonic Lodge since joining in Germany in 1970. He remains active in the Mena/Dallas Lodge #218 and is a Shriner, a Knights Templar member, Scottish Rite, and involved with the Knights of Columbus, as well.
At the tender age of 87, he still continues to travel and has been to several countries in the last seven years and has no ideas of slowing down anytime soon, even though Polk County will forever hold his heart. “Polk County reminds me of the foothills of South Dakota where I grew up. There are activities here for me and I can go to any civilian or military hospital here. It’s a beautiful place to live.”