Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Sole to Keep

The WWII Odyssey of Gerald Barker

Lt. Gerald Barker and his B-24 crew.

This article, written by guest contributor Mark Frederick, tells the tale of Pennsylvania veteran Gerald Barker, who passed away this week at the age of 99. We honor him today by sharing his life story. This article previously appeared in the Morrisons Cove Herald.

Darkness still covers the landscape. A fiery sunrise begins to creep over the English countryside as the gray morning haze clears. Fresh dew lays on the cracked concrete of the airfield’s runway as hundreds of B-24 Liberator Bombers prepare for their daily crusade into Nazi-occupied Europe.

The damp fog slowly dissipates as the crews assemble. Bombs are loaded. Prayers are whispered. The engines are soon sputtering on the runway. As the sea of Liberators take-off and their tires leave the safe ground of base, some airmen wonder if this bombing mission will be their last.

That day, on April 8, 1944, Lieutenant William “Bill” Champney and his B-24 crew were operating as usual. His co-pilot, Lieutenant Gerald “Jerry” Barker sat in the seat beside him. The two aviators had become close friends since they both grew up in Pennsylvania. This would be their fifth mission together in this aircraft.

Officially nicknamed “Don’t Shoot—Out of Season,” their plane humorously had the image of a fat pelican painted on the side. Jerry, however, often called the aircraft “The Ruptured Duck” since it often swayed like a duck when it landed at Attlebridge Airfield, near Norwich, England.

Often these planes flew at high altitudes, making missions bitterly cold. Temperatures sometimes reaching 50 degrees below zero. As a result, the crew bundled up in their layers of sheepskin clothes, plugging their suits into the plane’s power supply to keep warm.

The bombardier peered into his Norden bombsight, patiently awaiting to drop his three ton payload of explosives. From below, the now vibrant blue sky prominently highlighted the group’s 350 bombers. As the squadron approached its objective, artillery flak exploded around them. The bomb bay doors opened like a roll-top desk. Whistling could be heard as the explosives fell.

The sporadic air bursts caused the group’s formation to become lose and open. In the distance, the purr of German planes could be heard. These fighters dove down from the sun, making it difficult for them to be seen. The bomber’s .50 Caliber machine guns opened up in defense.

A German Messerschmitt sprayed its bullets across the body of the bomber. Explosive shells hit the waist and nose. Gunner Sergeant Stein felt a sharp sting in his leg. He screamed in pain as he landed in the shells that lay below him. Sergeant Colbaugh, the other waist gunner, had his arm paralyzed, his oxygen mask blown off and his eyes temporarily blinded.

One of the four engines began to squirt oil, spilling out over the wing. The break accumulators were shot and hydraulic fluid began to gush. Jerry left the cockpit and grabbed a helmet to catch the dripping liquid, so to have enough juice to brake when landing. Luckily, the plane and crew made it back to base. Stein and Colbaugh were hospitalized. The plane was never quite the same. This unforgettable mission stayed with Jerry Barker for the rest of his life.

Gerald Leslie Barker was born on June 21, 1918, his mother’s 31st birthday. He, along with his other three siblings, lived with their parents in the West End of Pittsburgh. Jerry excelled in elementary school, skipping two half years. He eventually attended Langley High and joined the school band.

When the Great Depression hit in October 1929, Jerry and his family struggled financially. Yet, with the help of his band director, he was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Juniata College at age 16. Graduating in 1939, Jerry majored in music and minored in English and Biology. According to his yearbook, he was “quiet and reserved,” but always had a unique “twinkle in his eye!”

Jerry began teaching music at the high school in Armagh, PA. While retrieving his mail at the local post office, he met Eleanor Hess, a music teacher who taught in the neighboring town of Seward. They began dating, enjoying school activities, operettas and other social functions.

In August 1941, they decided to get married. However, Eleanor’s hometown church in Johnstown was being renovated and the minister was on vacation. Therefore, it was arranged that the two of them would be married at the minister’s summer cottage in the Delaware Water Gap.

At that time, Daylight Savings Time was a local option and after a long four-hour drive, Jerry was disappointed to find that all of the local flower shops had closed the hour before. Luckily, when the two families arrived at the cottage, they discovered that the minister’s wife had picked roses for the occasion. Jerry crafted a corsage for his bride. It was a day to remember.

However, four months later, a day of infamy overshadowed any other. On December 7, bombs fell at Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States’ into World War II. Similar to other young Americans, Jerry felt the urge to fight and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

Jerry continued to teach until he was finally called up in December 1942, reporting to San Antonio for training. A pregnant Eleanor desired to be closer to her husband, so throughout 1943 she and several other wives carpooled to Texas to visit their husbands. Eventually, though, Eleanor’s pregnancy progressed to the extent that she could no longer travel easily.

On July 4, 1943, Eleanor gave birth to Nancy, unfortunately while Jerry was still enduring intense aerobatics in Texas. Seven weeks later, Eleanor and Nancy drove to Waco for Jerry’s pilot graduation. With the help of her mother, little Nancy pinned the silver pilot wings on her dad. Before going overseas, Jerry removed the soles from Nancy’s first pair of shoes, eventually carrying them with him on the 30 bombing missions that would follow.

Assigned to the 466th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, Jerry eventually rendezvoused with his B-24 and its crew in Kansas. From there, they flew the plane to Florida where ground crews inspected the bomber while officers searched the airplane for black-market contraband.

Unbeknownst to their superiors, the crew had hidden several bottles of liquor in the belly of the aircraft. They traveled from Florida to England, stopping in Brazil and Morocco along the way. The liquor was never discovered and the crew was able to secretly enjoy their libations in Marrakesh.

Life in England was difficult and tiring. Living in a small, concrete barrack with no running water, Jerry and the other three lieutenants of his plane bunked together. Their small stove was inadequate in providing warmth on bitter February nights.

When a plane crashed on the runway, Jerry acquired its hydraulic lines, ran water pipes from the base’s wash house and snatched a spare oil can, eventually crafting a makeshift hot water heater. Unfortunately, it only provided enough warm water for four men to shave every morning.

His squadron entered combat on March 23, 1944. The group was typically responsible for destroying aircraft plants, railroad yards, oil refineries and ball bearing factories.

On June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, commenced on the beaches of Northern France. Ships were already on their way across the English Channel when the crews of the 466th were ordered to assist. Their mission, officially named Operation Cover, would not only target coastal defenses, but also weaken the enemy’s transportation routes. As “The Ruptured Duck” made its way to Normandy, Jerry stared down at the colossal armada of 7,000 Allied vessels.

Meanwhile, Eleanor had not received any letters from Jerry, unaware that the military had halted all mail circulation so no news of the landings could be leaked. She later received his letters – all at once.

In August 1945, he returned to the states and became a military flight instructor in Albany, Georgia until he was discharged. Jerry returned to the classroom, teaching music and directing band at Williamsburg High School.

During the summer months, Jerry attended Penn State University, working toward his master’s degree in music education, plus a course in aeronautics. Eleanor taught elementary music, until their daughter, Patricia Jane, was born on March 9, 1946. Jerry retired from teaching in 1947.

In 1948, Jerry created the Keystone Milling, Co. in Williamsburg. Even though he did not know wheat from barley, the business soon flourished, manufacturing custom-mixed feed and flour.

On July 18, 1953, the Barkers had their third daughter, Evelyn Claire. In August, Jerry and his brother bought the Clouse Farm near Alexandria and began the Short Mountain Nursery. In 1987, the family sold Keystone Milling so they could concentrate on their growing tree farm. The brothers later separated the business, and Jerry’s portion became known as JB Tree Farm, which still operates today under the ownership of Evelyn and her husband.

The Barkers never really retired though. They were always involved in their community. Eleanor played the organ at church. She loved to paint, sew, bake and garden, remaining active until she became ill before her passing in 2007. Jerry directed the church choir and played in the Altoona Symphony Orchestra for almost 40 years. He built his own experimental airplane, rekindling his love for flying. A talented handyman, he even designed and built their last house.

Jerry passed away in March 2018, just three months shy of his 100th birthday. He certainly had a full life, collecting a surplus of memories that some of us will never attain in our lifetime. Similar to the rest of his generation, he learned from the lessons of pain and love, gaining years of wisdom, ultimately surviving and thriving in a sometimes cruel, difficult world.

His granddaughter, Bonnie Butler, summarized his life best. “Although small in stature, he is a giant, never letting size stand in the way of anything he wanted to accomplish. He is brave, incredibly smart, funny and hardworking, the best grandfather a girl could possibly ask for. He lived his life with vigor and enthusiasm, using all of his considerable gifts to make the world a better place.”

The shoe sole that Jerry Barker carried with him on all 30 of his bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Its inscription says “Nancy’s Shoe Sole - I pray the Lord her sole to keep.”

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