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Lieut. Cmdr. Paul Willits Burton, USN, captain of the USS MACAW (ASR-11)

Lieut. Cmdr. Paul Willits Burton, USN. (Double click to enlarge photo.)

Paul Willits Burton was born September 29, 1911 — by some accounts in Berkeley, California, by others in neighboring Oakland — the younger of two children, both sons, of Norman Gilbert Burton, a career Marine officer, and his wife, n. Virginia White Willits, the daughter of a rear admiral. Both the Burton and Willits families were from Philadelphia.

Paul traveled extensively with his family as a child, following his father to postings in the Philippines and China. The Burtons were in Manila in 1914, Kobe, Japan, in 1915 and Peking (ie, Beijing) in 1916. Paul attended schools in Berkeley and Philadelphia, the Peking American School in Peking, University High School in Oakland and the Haverford School outside Philadelphia. In 1929 he enrolled at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he ran track and cross-country. He graduated in 1933.


Midshipman Paul W. Burton and his parents at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, 1930

Commissioned an ensign that June, he served about two and a half years aboard the USS Saratoga, one of the nation’s first aircraft carriers. In December 1934 he requested submarine duty. In 1935 he married Elizabeth Porter Watson of Asbury Park, New Jersey. In 1936 he attended submarine school at New London, Connecticut, completed a Naval War College correspondence class in strategy and tactics, reported to submarine S-44, based in the Panama Canal Zone, and received a commission as a lieutenant junior grade. By July 1939 he had completed another Naval War College correspondence course, this one in international law, been deemed qualified for command of submarines by the Bureau of Navigation and reassigned to submarine R-2, based back in New London.

In February 1941 he was assigned to the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, for Deep Sea Diving School. That June he returned again to New London as an instructor at the Submarine Escape Training Tank. In July 1942 he was assigned to the submarine USS Tarpon (SS-175). He reported aboard at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, on San Francisco Bay, where the boat was undergoing an overhaul. Burton served two war patrols aboard the Tarpon, that boat’s fifth (October 22 – December 10, 1942) and sixth (January 10 – February 25, 1943), both under the command of Lieut. Cmdr. Thomas Lincoln Wogan, US Naval Academy class of 1930.

Lieut. Cmdr. Paul Burton aboard the USS MACAW (ASR-11), c. Sep 1943

Aboard the USS Macaw, ca. September 1943

In March 1943 Burton was detached from the Tarpon and assigned to command of the USS Macaw (ASR-11), then being fitted out at the Moore Dry Dock Company in Oakland. He presided at the commissioning of the ship on July 12, 1943, and drowned when the ship sank off Midway February 13, 1944. He left behind his widow, Elizabeth, and two children, Barbara, age 2, and Paul Jr., age 1.





Norman Gilbert Burton, Paul’s father, c. 1873-1931



Mrs. Norman Gilbert Burton, Paul’s mother



Paul Burton, age 2 (right), with his mother, brother, Thomas, and an unidentified friend, Manila, March 1914.


Thomas (left), Paul and escort, probably their grandfather, before Sather Gate on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, September 1915.



The Tenyo Maru, the Japanese passenger liner aboard which the Burtons sailed, probably from San Francisco to the Philippines or Hong Kong via Kobe, Japan, in the fall of 1915. The ship, which boasted accommodations for 275 in first class, 54 in second and 800 in what the company’s promotional literature termed “Asiatic steerage,” was scrapped in 1933 after 25 years of service. A cargo vessel by the same name built two years later was converted just before the attack on Pearl Harbor into a mine layer, used as a transport vessel in the invasion of Wake Island and sunk by US carrier planes off New Guinea in March 1942.


Thomas, left, and Paul in a rickshaw, Kobe, Japan, November 1915.


Paul Burton in his Haverford Prep letter sweater and his bride-to-be, Elizabeth Watson of Asbury Park, New Jersey, c. 1929. Burton ran the second leg on the Haverford mile-relay team that won the event at the 1929 Penn Relays in Philadelphia despite the fact that the third runner dropped the baton.
















4 Responses to Captain

  • I am the eldest grandson of Lt. Commander Paul Willits Burton. The flag from the USS McCaw hangs proudly in my martial arts school in Voorhees, New Jersey.

  • James Collins says:

    I am a fomer resident of Midway Island. My father was stationed there in 1963-1964. I was 7 when I lived there and to this day consider Midway as the best place I had ever lived. I remember going to Eastern Island for the day with my parents and seeing what was left of the USS Macaw that was visible on the reef. I guess the image of the ship has been with me since and have often thought about her throughout my life. I was doing some research and came across this story of Lt. Commander Paul Willits Burton. I will add this to my memory of the ship and pass it on to my children and grandchildren. Thanks for sharing…

    • budovich says:

      Thank you, James. That was a different place to spend a chunk of your childhood. I think now Midway is a national wildlife sanctuary and you have to have special permission to go there. My dad had fond memories of the goony birds on Midway. His favorite poem was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read–I keep meaning to, and will one of these years, maybe tonight–but I believe an albatross features prominently in it. Two books you may find of interest, both, I believe, available free of charge on the Internet: John Cameron’s Odyssey, a fascinating autobiography by a Scottish sailor who was shipwrecked on Sand Island in 1888, and The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson, a novel based largely, I think, on Cameron’s experiences. I’m working on one too, about the Macaw, and will publish it myself if I have, so you’ll have more about Paul Burton and his shipmates to pass on to your progeny. Thank you for sharing. Tim L

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