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Rex Barber: Culver's American hero

For those who've spent their lives in Jefferson County, the story of World War II ace pilot and hero Rex Barber is generally well known.

As well it should be.

On April 18, 1943, the 25-year-old pilot from tiny Culver played a huge role in turning the course of world history. What transpired is why April 18 is now known as Rex Barber Day in Oregon. Here in his home county, we should all be aware of it and take special care to recognize and celebrate it — this year and every year.

It was Palm Sunday, off the Bougainville Islands in the South Pacific. Barber and his squadron encountered enemy planes and engaged them in an intense firefight.

There was one aircraft and cargo that the Japanese were particularly interested in keeping safe: the Mitsubishi-built A6M, which could fly 2,000 miles. On that day, the plane carried the admiral of the Japanese air fleet, Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who had masterminded the Pearl Harbor invasion.

At that point in the war, the Japanese were still fully entrenched across the South Pacific, confident they and their German allies would win the war. Their plan was to eventually invade Seattle, Wash., and Los Angeles, Calif.

The battle of Midway, the stalemate that gave the Allies some confidence, took place the summer of ‘42. The Japanese, however, remained steadfast a year after Pearl Harbor. Most of the bloody island invasions the Americans undertook, which uprooted the Japanese, took place in 1944.

On April 18, 1943, the Americans were still much on the defensive in the Pacific. But it was on that day that the young man from Culver shot down the leader of the Japanese air fleet. The death of Yamamoto stuck a lance in the confidence of Japan. Many historians claim it as the turning point in the war.

It was an intense firefight. When Barber was able to land, his plane had 52 bullet holes in th rear of the craft, his left wing was severed, and seven bullets had hit the propeller. In all, there were 104 total hits to the plane.

Barber went to on to have a stellar, highly decorated air career. He also survived being shot down in China in 1944, when he was reported missing and feared dead for six weeks.

After the war, Barber likely had plenty of opportunities to go anywhere and do just about anything as a career. But he chose to return to the quiet town of his boyhood. He would become a civic leader and businessman in Culver.

In the mid-1960s, another American pilot claimed that he'd shot down Yamamoto. Capt. Tom Lanphier, who'd long had bigtime political aspirations, wrote a Reader's Digest piece titled, "I Shot Down Yamamoto." Lanphier's continued boasts started to agitate Barber, who obviously had a different account of what happened on April 18, 1943.

In 1969, the Victory Board gave half credit to Barber and half credit for the downing Lanphier. In doing so, they ignored an interview given to American pilot Tex Hill a few years earlier of Japanese pilot Kenji Yanagiya, an eye-witness on April 18, 1943. His version of the situation aligned with Barber's and not Lanphier's.

At an Ace Convention in San Antonio, Texas, in 1985, a film of Yanagiya reporting his version of the day convinced many that Barber was indeed responsible for the shoot-down. In 1988, the Nimitz Foundation planned a forum for historians, pilots and scholars to be highlighted by an in-person forum with Barber and Lanphier. But Lanphier died a few months before the event took place.

Barber died in 2001, with the "controversy" over the who shot down Yamamoto not 100 percent determined. That wouldn't happen until 2004, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars passed a resolution giving Barber 100 percent credit.

Oregon, though, didn't need that confirmation. A year before, on the 60th anniversary of April 18, 1943, the governor declared April 18 as Rex T. Barber Day. On that same day, the Crooked River Gorge Bridge in southern Jefferson County was named in his honor.

Everyone in Jefferson County, and Oregon, should know about Barber and his contribution to winning World War II. But the inspiration for this column comes all the way from Arizona.

Last week, we received an email from Lorraine Merkel, who, as a newlywed in 1970, was hired to do some typing for Mr. Barber. She had no idea of his military accomplishment and only learned them later after reading the book "Lightning Strikes," which recounted the Yamamoto shoot-down and ensuing debate about responsibility.

She ended the email with a request: "Please remember Lieutenant Rex Barber."

As well we should.



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