Rene Burtner was studying for exams at NC State in 1941 when he heard the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day, when the U.S. declared war on Japan, Burtner knew that his studies were about to be put on hold for World War II. His days as a wingback for the NC State football team were over.
Burtner volunteered for flight training, and ended up flying P-51 Mustangs for about 60 missions in Europe. Burtner’s plane was shot down over France on one mission, but he evaded capture with the help of the French Underground. He stayed with a farm family for a few days before being transferred to the house of a butcher in a small town. He was eventually smuggled back to U.S. troops.
Burtner was never able to get his degree at NC State. He went on to work for Eastern Airlines, in various capacities, before retiring in 1978.
But Burtner, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., has been reminded recently that he is still considered part of the Wolfpack family. For his 90th birthday last month, Burtner was presented with an honorary football scholarship letter from NC State head football coach Tom O’Brien. “I coudn’t imagine getting that,” Burtner said.
This morning, Benny Suggs, executive director of the Alumni Association, was at Raleigh-Durham International Airport to greet Burtner as he prepared to board a Flight of Honor with 125 other World War II veterans. They are traveling to Washington D.C. to visit the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall. Suggs presented Burtner with an NC State lapel pin to wear on the trip.
Burtner has seen the memorial before, when he had a reunion in Washington with other pilots in his fighter group. But he was thrilled at the opportunity to join other veterans for the trip and by the recognition he has received from NC State.
“I can’t describe it,” he said. “The whole thing is just amazing.”