Earl Burke was born in Sacramento on August 18, 1923 and graduated from McClatchy High School. His only sibling, his older brother, Thomas, served in the Army Air Corps, and was killed on a training mission in Puerto Rico in October of 1942. Earl enlisted in the Army a few weeks later. After training he was sent to England in June of 1943, part of the seemingly endless stream of GIs headed for England to prepare for the invasion of France. He was assigned to 854th Chemical Warfare Company, part of the 384th Bomb Group in the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force.
Soon after he got to England, Burke happened upon two old friends from Sacramento, twin brothers named Richard and Robert Egger. They were tail and ball turret gunners assigned to fly in B-17s, the big four engine bombers that the Americans believed were superior to anything else their allies or the enemy had. Inspired by the Eggers, Burke volunteered to become a ball turret gunner, and flew his first mission on September 16, 1943. He was later wounded in action when a German shell came into his turret on a mission over Schweinfurt, Germany on October 14, 1943. Six hundred airmen were lost that day, and Burke's injury kept him out of action for weeks. He was wounded again the following spring when a bomb exploded on the ground. Burke developed a bone infection, osteomyelitis, and after extensive medical treatment, was sent back to the United States where he was assigned to the 451st Air Sea Rescue, Squadron H, in Monterey, California. After the war he married Lois Dudley, and they had three sons. He taught inventory control and purchasing at Sacramento State College, and then worked for many years in the missile and space industry.