Although Oglesby resident John C. Barnes served only a brief time in the military, just the two years he did serve were packed with more than enough action to provide a lifetime of memories, some good and some not. At 91, he hasn’t forgotten what war looks like from a front-row seat, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
Barnes was born in Blackwell in West Texas, the son of a Methodist minister. In 1932, his father was ordained in Waco, and the family moved for the first time when Barnes was six. His father would move about every four years, and Barnes would attend a new school with each move.
Times were tough for everyone during the Great Depression. His father headed up a relief effort for the town of May.
“Almost everybody was in need back in those days,” Barnes said. “Money was scarce, and jobs were scarce.”
Barnes graduated from high school in Oglesby and volunteered for the U.S. Navy, instead of waiting to be drafted into the Army. He went to Farragut, Idaho, for boot camp, followed by radio school, where he became a radioman, sending coded messages from ship to ship and ship to shore. He was assigned to the USS Ozark, a landing ship vehicle (LSV2) that transported troops and amphibious “Ducks” (DUKWs), a type of converted truck that can run on water and land.
Assigned to the 7th Fleet, Barnes went aboard the revamped and converted minelayer in Portland, Oregon, for its shakedown cruise to get the bugs out. The Ozark, or the “Mighty O,” as it was called, joined the 3rd Amphibious Force to serve in the Pacific theater.
An overwhelming sight to see
When Barnes first saw the ship, he was a little overwhelmed.
“I’ve been on boats and fished all my life, but when I went aboard that monster – and it isn’t that big a ship – I thought, man, what have I gotten myself into?” he said.
He was stationed in the radio shack close to the signalman and the quartermaster. They had a great view up above the deck, next to the bridge. He never knew what he was sending, as he would just type the information and give it to a team of code crackers.
The Ozark sailed up the Columbia River, loaded ammunition and went to Hawaii, where they picked up troops. On Dec. 31, 1944, she departed for the Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, Philippines, where she offloaded her first troops. Then, she set sail in February 1945 for the invasion of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. There were at least 400 or 500 fighting Marines on board, ready to invade.
It was Feb. 19 when the coordinated attack began. As a radioman, Barnes had the additional job of manning communications on LCVP landing vehicles, riding with troops to the shore. While he didn’t have to debark, he was in the thick of fire and witnessed some of the carnage up close. He took turns with other radiomen from other ships, so he only had to take a couple of trips to the shore. That was enough.
“You’re under constant fire until they secure the island,” Barnes said. “We’d dump one load off and turn around and get another.”
The ride to the beach with the men, many of them just 18, was “pretty quiet,” Barnes said. “There wasn’t much conversation going on.” There was some joking and kidding on the ship, but all that stopped when they were headed to shore.
Under attack for several hours
“You’re under air attack. They’re strafing, they’re dropping bombs, and there are kamikazes. That was a continuous thing for several hours,” he said.
The worst part of the invasion for Barnes was when the Ozark temporarily became a hospital ship to help treat the overflow of Marines wounded in Iwo Jima. Hospital ships just couldn’t keep up. They would bring the wounded straight from the beach. Cots were set up everywhere, he said. Doctors operated right out in the open, taking off limbs and patching up the wounded. Eighteen men were buried at sea in solemn ceremony.
“It was the most unpleasant thing I ever witnessed,” he said. “It’s a very sentimental thing for me. You don’t ever forget it. It’s something that remains with you.”
Iwo Jima wasn’t the end of Barnes’ military travels. There was plenty more to come, including the invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Next week: The Ozark had more work to do, including the invasion of Okinawa, followed by joining the allied occupation forces in Japan. Barnes, who had never left Texas before he joined the military, would have a ringside seat to history in Tokyo Bay. After an honorable discharge, he would attend college and get married.