Lost love: Navy officer’s recovery of diamond ring on sunken ship leads to 73-year marriage
HOLLY HILL, Florida — Much was lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, this day 75 years ago, starting with the lives of 2,403 Americans.
Gone, too, were 170 American aircraft and three ships, as well as any U.S. hope of avoiding World War II.
A newly commissioned Navy officer, E. V. “Ted” Burchill, survived the explosions and fires that sank his ship, the USS West Virginia, but lost virtually all of his possessions — or so he thought.
The Japanese surprise raid on Pearl Harbor came just a couple of months after Burchill had been assigned to the West Virginia, a battleship stationed in Hawaii as part of a fleet assembled to ward off such an attack. In the fall of 1941, as the 24-year-old Frackville, Pennsylvania, native was completing Navy engineering training in California, he had decided the 3,000-mile distance between him and his girl back home, Anna Mae Schott, was just too much to continue their engagement. He asked for the diamond ring back and she returned it.
He put the ring in a drawer beneath his bunk aboard the West Virginia.
‘A PITIFUL AND DEPRESSING SIGHT’
Burchill has lived at Bishop’s Glen Retirement Community since 2001. Last year from a wheelchair, he gave an interview. Between that, and a book he wrote for his grandson about 20 years ago, this is what he recalls of the day President Roosevelt said would live in infamy.
He was lying in his bunk that Sunday morning, thinking about going for breakfast when he heard the first explosion, then felt a violent vibration of the ship.
“All hands to general quarters,” the P.A. announcement came. “This is no drill.”
He pulled on some dungarees, shoes, a hat and his .45 Colt revolver. More explosions. By the time he reached his battle station, the ship lost electrical power. The main deck was a mess of water and debris from the USS Arizona, now an inferno docked nearby.
Burchill escaped with three others in a life raft, which he had unwittingly placed into the harbor upside down, rendering the oar useless. One of the men carried a cash book, which became an oar until a whale boat picked the men up to bring them back to the Naval Receiving Station on the mainland.
“I went back aboard the ship the afternoon of Dec. 7,” Burchill said. “We fought fires all night long.”
The next day, he had returned to the receiving station, where he had been issued a cloth cot.
“We just sat on our cots and I began to take stock of my situation. I had just lost all of my worldly possessions,” Burchill wrote in the book, “A Grandfather’s Memoirs.” “A numb feeling in the pit of my stomach began to set in.”
At once, he felt anger, sadness, fear, uncertainty. “Looking over the harbor was a pitiful and depressing sight,” he wrote.
His battleship had lost 106 men and was listed, or tilted, with part of it sitting on the harbor’s bottom.
Two days later, on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 1941, Burchill returned to the West Virginia, now abandoned. He tied a lifeline to his waist, took a flashlight and climbed down a ladder to the second deck.
He trudged through waist-high water, topped by a 2-inch film of black oil. As he made his way into his bunk room, the water became shallower because of the ship’s list.
He was able to reach down into his bunk and retrieve a wet wristwatch, now inoperable, and a pair of gold cuff links that had been a gift from his father. He also got his sword and wallet, badly burned but containing some bills that were still identifiable. “I could not find the ring so I gave it up for lost,” he wrote.
The following day he was reassigned to a communications job decoding messages for the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet.
For the next six months, he observed the changes in command and the effort to fight back. Part of that effort involved patching holes in the West Virginia and pumping water out. In May 1942, he was reassigned and about to be sent farther out into the South Pacific. Something compelled him to return to his bunk on his battleship one last time.
“There was still about a half-inch of brackish, brown water in the drawer,” he wrote. “I felt in the bottom and to my amazement, I felt a box in the far back corner. I pried open the box, and the diamond just sparkled.” He wondered whether it was an omen.
AN ENGAGEMENT INTERRUPTED
Ted Burchill was born in 1917 in his grandmother’s house in Frackville, a town atop a mountain in the Appalachians of east-central Pennsylvania.
Burchill played baseball, went ice skating and hiked, but what he enjoyed most was going to summer camp and Scouting.
The Great Depression defined his teen years. He picked huckleberries for pennies per quart and gathered coal off the slag banks to help heat his home during the winter.
Later, at Frackville High School, he played basketball, becoming the leading scorer in his senior year, 1935. He went on to play at Kutztown State Teachers College.
Burchill eventually became class president and met Anna Mae Schott at a rehearsal for a play. Neither of them can remember the title.
“I didn’t make it. I got giggly,” said Schott, now known as Anna Mae Burchill. Her future husband did make the cut.
“We saw a great deal of each other the following two years,” he wrote.
Burchill majored in mathematics and science in secondary schools, working toward a four-year bachelor’s degree in education. During breaks he worked as a bellhop and later a lifeguard earning “the fabulous sum of $25 per month,” plus room and board at South Mountain Manor, a summer resort.
The Depression still had its grip upon the nation, and Burchill graduated without the prospect of a dream job awaiting him. Rather, he started as a junior insurance underwriter at New Amsterdam Casualty Co., earning $75 a month.
It was the Depression, Burchill said, that created an opportunity for “violent extremists,” such as Adolph Hitler in Germany to assume power. The world moved toward war.
By fall 1940, Congress was debating a draft bill. “I didn’t relish the idea of being drafted into the Army as a ‘buck private,’ “ he said, so when he learned about a Navy program for single men with at least two years of college that allowed entry as an apprentice seaman with a clear path to becoming an officer, a midshipman, he jumped.
He went to sea in late 1940, then began a series of trainings. At his commissioning ceremony in New York that summer, he gave Anna Mae a diamond engagement ring, but did not set a date. He was placed into active duty.
He went to diesel engineering school at Cal-Berkeley, some 3,000 miles away from his future wife.
“Someone had written to me and said that (Anna Mae) had started to date and believe me, I was also tempted many times myself. I finally decided it best to terminate the engagement and asked Anna Mae to return the ring. She did return it and we lost contact with each other for several years,” he wrote.
Then came Pearl Harbor. They lost contact.
In 1942, Burchill crossed the equator losing his status as a pollywog as he transitioned into a shellback. As the Battles of Midway and Guadalcanal were fought, he was in Auckland, New Zealand, acting as support staff and earning two promotions. By the summer of 1943, he got a 30-day leave and returned to Pennsylvania.
He learned Anna Mae Schott was still single and living with her parents. She taught school and, since it was summer, she had been working in a parachute factory.
“He came back (to Reading) and had dinner and we talked. A couple of days later, he came back for another visit,” Anna Mae said.
Burchill gave her the diamond ring that had been marooned for six months in Hawaii. She called it “a miracle.”
They were married on Sept. 25, 1943, in Reading. After the wedding, they relocated to Miami, where the Navy sent Burchill back to school for six months.
The war, and Burchill’s career as a Navy officer demanded more separations, and Anna Mae had two daughters, Linda Murphy, now of Sanford, and Ann Louise of North Carolina. While he left active duty following the end of World War II and started a business manufacturing pretzels, he remained in the Navy Reserves and was later called back to active duty, serving in the Pentagon.
He was promoted to commander in 1952, and after the Korean War ended in 1954, he was released from active duty. He remained in the reserves until 1972, and retired as a comptroller in 1979.
Ted and Anna Mae Burchill lived in North Carolina for more than 20 years before moving to Bishop’s Glen, a retirement community in Holly Hill, in 2001. They have two grandchildren and are today both 99.
“I tell her every day I love her and she knows it,” Ted Burchill said. “Don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” Anna Mae responded.
Burchill said the 73-year marriage is “wonderful,” if not perfect.
“You’ve got to work at it,” she said.
The ring remains on her finger, shiny as ever.