MONTICELLO — Most people here have heard of Pfc. Robert C. Burke.
Monticello's American Legion post bears his name, as does the park that surrounds the town swimming pool. His photo and brief but distinguished military record are spelled out in a display at the Piatt County Courthouse.
But many do not know the details of his heroism — he gave his life while saving some three dozen soldiers in Vietnam and subsequently became the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor.
"He was 18 years, 10 months and six days old," said his sister, Marilyn Spurlock.
On the 50th anniversary of his death as a Marine taking part in Operation Allen Brook during the Vietnam War, a commemoration service for Burke will be held at 7 p.m. today in the Monticello High School Auditorium.
"Everyone needs to hear his story," said Ron Nolte, a retired social studies instructor who taught Burke and many of his seven siblings at Monticello High. "We're going to talk about the details of how the family was notified, and of them going to Washington, D.C., for the (Medal of Honor) ceremony."
Burke left MHS before graduating in order to enlist in the Marines on May 16, 1967.
"He wanted to be a Marine at a young age. He wanted to make a difference," Spurlock said. "He always said the Marines were the best, so that's what he wanted to be."
Following basic training and a promotion to private first class, Burke was a motor vehicle mechanic at Camp Pendleton prior to being sent to Vietnam in February 1968. Three months later, while serving as a machine gunner, his battalion found itself pinned down by enemy fire in Le Nam in Southern Qang Nam Province.
Burke went on a charge and is credited with saving up to three dozen injured Marines in a single-handed assault against North Vietnamese forces before being gunned down.
"It wasn't just a split-second decision. He did this several times throughout the battle," Spurlock said. "It wasn't just one time. He stepped forward over and over."
Documentation with his Medal of Honor — which along with other honors, including a Purple Heart, is on display at the Piatt courthouse — states that Burke "fearlessly moved from one position to another, quelling the hostile fire until his weapon malfunctioned. Obtaining a casualty's rifle and hand grenades, he advanced further into the midst of the enemy fire in an assault against another pocket of resistance.
"Private Burke's gallant actions upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country," it continued.
Tonight's commemoration will start with the presentation of colors, the Pledge of Allegiance and playing of the national anthem, continue with the story of Burke as read by Nolte, and close with the playing of taps.
Monticello Mayor Larry Stoner was selected to be emcee, for which he said, "I am totally honored."
Spurlock hopes attendance is heavy — not to hear about her war-hero brother, but to hear about a boy who made a difference.
"I think the thing I want people to walk away knowing is what a difference one person can make in so many lives when they stand up for what they believe," she said. "I truly believe that's what happened with Robert."
Steve Hoffman is editor of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit journal-republican.com.