Rex T. Barber honored as hero

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Rex Barber Jr., at left, tells the On the Road Again Gang about his father's military service during World War II, at the Rex T. Barber Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Crooked River Gorge. At right is Jerry Campbell, who organizes the On the Road Again Gang's trips with his wife Karen. Next to Campbell is Earlene Moon, who worked for Barber's father in Culver in the 1960s.The On the Road Again Gang has visited more nearly 100 locations over the years, but one of the most interesting in recent times was April's visit to the Rex T. Barber Bridge at the Crooked River Gorge, where the son of the war hero described his father's World War II experience.

Standing at the bridge named for his father, Rex Barber Jr., of Terrebonne, told the 20 or so gathered there about his father, who was born in Culver in 1917, and lived there for most of his life.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Col. Rex T. BarberIn the spring of 1940, Barber, who was just shy of earning a degree in agricultural engineering from Oregon State College, decided to quit school to join the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Three years later, Barber was serving in the 339th Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Air Force at Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, when the unit learned that Japanese Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, would be passing through the area on a particular route.

On April 18, 1943, led by Maj. John Mitchell, his squadron embarked on a mission to find and shoot down Yamamoto. Fourteen of the 16 aircraft assigned to the mission were able to take off, said Barber Jr., whose father was among four "assigned to the killer section."

"John Mitchell was the only one navigating, and everyone was flying on his wing, flying 50 feet over the ocean," said Barber Jr., noting that in order to avoid detection, the major was navigating with a process called "dead reckoning" — using a compass, wristwatch and airspeed indicator and estimating the wind by looking at the waves.

After traveling 435 miles, they spotted their targets, two "Betty" bombers, escorted by a group of Zeros. Flying twin-engine Lockheed P-38s, the pilots attacked the bombers. Barber managed to shoot down what turned out to be Yamamoto's bomber — which crashed on the island of Bougainville — and outrun the six Zeros that came after him.

“He came home with 104 bullet holes (in the P-38)," said Barber Jr.

Although the pilots were shipped back after their successful mission, "He wanted to get back into combat," said Barber Jr. His father was transferred to the 449th Fighter Squadron in Kunming, China, where Gen. Claire Chennault was his flight instructor. Barber flew many patrols over the Yangtze River, but was shot down on his 139th mission.

With a severely broken arm and broken leg, Barber managed to bail out of the P-38. "By the grace of God, his chute opened," his son said. "He was able to land on one foot."

Fortunately, villagers had seen his chute and found him before the Japanese. "Two Chinese boys got him and wrapped him and put him in a ditch and covered him with some bushes."

The ditch was located near a Japanese base, which sent out men to search for him. One soldier came close to where Barber was hidden, and even dropped an empty cigarette pack, which Barber picked up as a souvenir.

Under cover of darkness, men from a nearby Chinese village — which had already been searched — came to take him back to the village that night.

"There was an underground system to help pilots and anybody who needed to get out," Barber Jr. explained. For the next six weeks, accompanied by two Chinese youths who had learned English working as houseboys for the British, he was moved from one village to another.

“Every village he came to, he was the honored guest,” said Barber Jr., adding that even though the villagers were poor peasants, “They would have as much of a feast as they could.”

At one village, his dad told him, the mayor had a roasted pig for the dinner. “He plopped the (pig’s) eyeball on the table,” said Barber Jr., whose dad had the presence of mind to ignore his disgust and eat the eyeball, and avoid offending his host.

While he was in hiding, the Chinese villagers also helped save his arm, which had a compound fracture. "They had him carry a bucket of rocks every day (as a form of traction), and soaked it in hot water every night, and he managed not to get gangrene," said Barber Jr.

When Barber rejoined the U.S. forces, he had surgery on his arm and spent six months recuperating from his injuries.

After the war ended, Barber served at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Bogota, Colombia, and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina, before retiring as a colonel in 1961. He earned a Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, a Purple Heart and an Air Medal for his military service.

After his retirement, Barber and his wife Margaret loaded up their two sons and drove cross country to visit his parents in Culver — and never left, according to Barber Jr.

In Culver, Barber owned an insurance agency, farmed, served as mayor, and was active in Little League.

Earlene Moon, of Culver, a member of the On the Road Again Gang, was delighted to get a chance to visit with Barber Jr., whom she had known since he was a little boy.

"I worked for Rex when he got out of the service," said Moon, who worked for Barber at the Barber, Pierce and Randall Insurance Agency in 1962.

"He built Danny Zook's real estate office here in Culver," she recalled. "Rex built the building and started the insurance agency."

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