Oral Historian: John Barnes
Interview Date: 28 June 2008
Interviewer: John McQuarrie
What is your date of birth?
Tell me how you came to be in the service?
Uncle Sam said, “Come here
So you were drafted?
What was your rank?
I went in a Private and left a T4.
What date did you join the service?
I started in 1944 and came out in 1946.
Can you tell me what that was like for you …I mean, coming from Scottsville?
Well, I didn’t see a whole lot of action. The most action I saw was …well, Japan had surrendered, and they were back in those caves and wouldn’t come out. So we threw in grenades and pulled them out.
What can you tell me about entering the service – boot camp and things like that?
Well, I didn’t go to basic training. I went to a preparation center in Indiantown Gap, PA, for 2-3 months. I was up there for 2-3 months before I was sent to boot camp.
What kind of training did you take in Pennsylvania?
They put me in the barracks, and I didn’t like that. I was in the barracks until I went to the guy in charge of the motor pool. I asked him to give me a job. He said, Well, I can get you in down there if you don’t mind getting your hands greasy.” So he put me down there. He put me in charge of the grease rack, and I stayed there until they called me to basic training. So they sent me to Little Rock, Arkansas, and after basic training, I went to Japan.
What was basic training like – what can you tell me about it?
It was fun, and I enjoyed it. It was just good exercise really!
What was it like when you first arrived in Japan? I imagine that would be quite a change Scottsville…
Yeah, you had no idea what you were going to do. There was right much chaos, and finally they told 11 or 12 of us, “You’re going to Kyushu.” I had no idea where that was. It ended up that they needed a Motor sergeant, and I told him that I worked on a Virginia farm and I could be his Motor sergeant. The C/O must have liked me. He was a right particular guy, and some of the guys would see him coming and turn and try to avoid him. And he would chew them out forever. He’d come into the shop, and I hardly ever saluted him, but I always spoke to him, “Hello, Colonel.” And he was fine with that. He didn’t want you to try and avoid him though.
I took a picture of him one time on the train. We went to Tokyo together. He went to asleep – talk about military discipline and he was all slouched down sleeping. And I took a picture of him and showed it to him. “What kind of discipline is this?” He said, “Give me that picture!” I said, “I want to keep it.” And he asked, “What are you going to do with it?” I just told him, “I’m going to keep it as a souvenir.” And he was all right with that.
What were your impressions of Japan, given that this was right at the close of the war?
I don’t see how they survived. Where I was at, the only things that was standing was about three buildings in the whole city. And the only thing that saved them was that they had gardens on the roof. Everything else just got flattened. From the air, those buildings just looked like gardens.
You said at the beginning about the caves where the Japanese were dug in….
They were in caves and wouldn’t come out. They didn’t believe that Japan had surrendered. Japan had never surrendered. The only way to get them out was to drag them out.
Did you have any personal experience with that?
No, I didn’t drag any of them out, no.
What were your impressions of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan? That’s one thing that’s lived on as a controversy whether we should have invaded the islands or bombed them…you were there…
Well, you wouldn’t believe what it can do. Flesh melted right off the bones of some of them. We found a little boy, wandering around the street, with dead and wounded people all about. We let him sleep in the boiler room…he became our mascot.
I saw some of your war photos that we scanned. And there was a little boy riding on the back of your motorcycle. Was that him?
What was his name?
I think I only called him “Teddy.
What kind of things did he do – you said he was helpful?
He kept house for you, and if he saw things where he thought they didn’t go, he’d come and tell you. We had 4 guys who were always in trouble. They would steal a vehicle at night after hours and go out and drink and whatever… One morning about 2 o’clock, he came and woke me up. “You know Japanese house? You know ‘jeepo’?” (Every vehicle was a ‘jeepo’ to him if it was a motor vehicle). “Yes?” “Japanese house and jeepo ‘bammmmm! Japanese house no more.” If it wasn’t for that, I would never have known anything about it. I was responsible for all the vehicles, and I’d covered up for them on a few small things. But I told them I wouldn’t cover up for them anymore. So I called my superior officer, and the Colonel and his motor officer ( a 1st Lieutenant) wanted to send them off to the infantry – didn’t want to have them around. But the 2nd Lt., who was a buddy with them, got them off and let them stay there. But they took their driver’s licenses away from them and busted them down to Privates – they were all Corporals or higher. That hurt them a little bit, but it didn’t do much good. One night they got drunk and took a jeep out and hit a cement abutment. It shoved the spring back and curled it up just like a ‘C’, and I couldn’t get a new spring. So I just took it out, beat it out on an anvil with a hammer to straighten it out and put it back under there.
How did people treat you over there – since you were an American and they’d just gotten bombed?
From all appearances, they were very friendly from the very first day I arrived. One guy wanted me to come to his house and study the Japanese language. I talked to the C/O about it and he said that he wouldn’t advise going about anywhere by oneself. So I never did. I got lots of invitations to go home with people, but I declined.
And I picked up a word of Japanese here and there by myself. I had 3 Japanese workers at the shop who did all of the work. And one of them didn’t speak English very well, but we could communicate. He was my interpreter.
Did these guys have mechanical experience or did you train them?
Well, I had studied in school about gasoline engines and I was interested in them and in internal combustion engines. And when I worked on the farm, my granddaddy was a tractor mechanic mostly. And I was around him a lot and learned about tractors. I guess that was pretty much my experience.
They were supposed to be mechanics, but it was hard to get the word across to them. One time the jeep was knocking, and we decided it was the timing belt flapping under the cover. And I had to get a battery that we were working on, and so I told the Japanese mechanic when he put the chain back on the jeep to leave 13 links between the marks. “Ok, ok!” When I came back, I cranked it up and the jeep started right off, but it wouldn’t speed up. So asked the mechanic if he’d put the marks together or left 13 links in between. He said, “I don’t remember.” I took it off and had to change it… he’d put those marks together!
So it started but it wouldn’t run right…
So how long were you in Japan?
About 16 months.
During that time, what was the most memorable experience that you had?
Eventually you guys made it back out, right?
Yeah, we made it out.
Was the volcano pretty active at that time?
Yes, it was supposed to be inactive. But the next morning, it spewed off some and there were ashes all over everything and it was raining a little bit. It was a mess.
Right place, right time then. If you’d been at the volcano the next day, you’d have been in some real trouble. So they didn’t know why that gentleman got sick?
They figured the man got sick from breathing in some of that sulfur gas. It got pretty rank!
Tell me about keeping in touch with your family. How was your personal life aside from your military experience – was it hard to be away from Scottsville?
I got plenty of letters – most of them good. I thought about staying over there a while. The Colonel asked me to stay, but he couldn’t promised him but one more stripe. And if I stayed one more year, he’d keep me there with him, and he promised me one more stripe. But I didn’t have any interest. My mother kept writing and asking me to come home.
What was just general day-to-life like? How was the food...how were your accommodations, and things like that?
The food and accommodations were good.Where did you stay while you were there?
Did the U.S. have any Japanese prisoners over there?
No, we didn’t have any prisoners. The U.S. government was trying to put Japan back on their feet. Interestingly, we did drive around town to pick up some Japanese-American girls, who had come from America to see about their parents and then couldn’t get back. They were working in the liaison office.
One Thanksgiving, they came to chow with us. But they tried a little of this and a little of that – we teased them about not eating anything. They said, “But we can’t each much more because everything was too rich!”
What kind of things did you do to celebrate holidays over there?
We had turkey and all for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Other than that, it was just another day.
What would you say was the hardest part about being overseas?
Communication with the Japanese people. Usually you could find somebody who knew enough English to get things straightened out. But it was trying at times. The lifestyle was very different. Most of them were living in huts that looked like teepees with a fire. They had nothing.
Did their government help you at all?
I didn’t see any sign of their government. All of the Japanese seemed really friendly — maybe they figured we were really trying to help or they were afraid.
Did you get much of a sense of a Japanese military presence – did the people still have much of an allegiance to that?
I never saw any Japanese military. We were down on the southern tip of Kyushu pretty much all by ourselves.
Was it pretty much a rural area or in the city?
Well, there was city there. It was just huts mostly. There were 3 or 4 buildings that were still standing and some being built back up. But it was mostly destroyed -- just shacks built up all around.
What was left of Hiroshima?
I don’t really now. I never did go.
How about vegetation – pretty much destroyed?
It seemed to be all right.
Did you see much effect from the atomic bombing?
Mostly in the buildings – I went to Nagasaki once and saw a stone building there that looked like it had been turned into sand.
You said that that was where Teddy came from, right?
He was in Nagasaki when we found him. I guess that’s where he came from originally.
And how did your unit came to adopt him – I’d like to know more about that…
He got up on a stool, and everybody gave him their change. Finally the teacher said, “Please don’t give him anymore money. He’ll never understand the value of money.”
How old do you think he was?
He must have been five or six because he’d started school.
Did he listen to you guys pretty well?
Yes, mostly. He stayed in the boiler room – had a little mat that he slept on. And he ate with us.
Where did he go to school – was there enough government running that they could provide education?
Oh yes, and we took him to it.
What can you tell me about the conclusion of your time there – how did your service in Japan come to an end and what was it like to come back to the United States after being there?
Well, I didn’t mind it – I felt pretty much at home.
So you basically elected to leave when your tour was up?
Well, what happened was that I got drafted into the Army of the United States for six months. So after six months, I was given the opportunity to enlist for a year. And after a year, I could get out. So I took it. Actually, I’ve got two discharges (one for his service as a draftee, one for his enlisted service). When I was discharged the first time, I took the oath again as an enlisted man in the United States Army that afternoon. That’s how it’s written out on my two discharges.
So after your second discharge, physically how did you get back to the United States?
I got on a boat, and it shipped me back. It was a troop transport.
How was that – how was it to cross?
It was better than going over. Going, we went from New York harbor, and went down the East Coast through the Panama Canal and back up the West Coast. Then we went on to Japan. It took 31 days to get there. We hit two or three storms. The man who lived across the road from me – he was in about the same time I was. He was in the Navy, and I spent more time on a ship than he did.
What was the Panama Canal like – was it quite impressive?
Yeah, it was just locks that raised you up and raised you up…and then let you down and let you down… We sailed in there and they started letting the water in to raise us up. Then we went onto the next lock and they did the same thing. We did that twice or three times --- it didn’t take too long.
You said the trip back was better than the trip there – why was that?
We didn’t hit as many storms, and it was quicker. I didn’t get seasick coming back. Going over, I got a little queasy but as long as I got some fresh air, I was alright. I got more seasick coming back on the bus from Washington than I did on the ship. I got a back seat in the bus in the mountains and went to sleep. When I woke up, I was rolling all over and got sick. I opened the window and stuck my head out. Somebody hollered, “Who’s got the window up? It’s COLD in here!”
When you got back to the United States, what was the first thing you did?
I came across from the West Coast on a bus. I got off the ship and was discharged in Oregon.
Did you come back to work on the farm?
I went to work for Dr. Stinson on his farm. I was a farm laborer.
Did you have many friends from Scottsville, who went over you?
No. I didn’t meet anybody from around here. One of the guys from Pennsylvania with whom I was in Japan, got a job on the railroad and was down this way. He looked me up a couple of years ago. That’s the only friendship I maintained from Japan.
How did your experience stay with you – in what ways did it affect you after your time in Japan?
I don’t know that it affected me in the least. It doesn’t matter where I’m at, but it does not seem long. Some people get homesick, but I’ve never been homesick since I was about 7 years old. But seeing what they had in Japan, it made me more appreciative of what I had back home. I started at Scottsville after I came back on the left side of the road and started to meet a car – I said ‘he’s on my side – oh, no, I’m on his side!’
Did you see any effects from the GI Bill – did you take advantage of that?
Yes, I took advantage of agriculture for a couple of years. I took classes here at the agricultural building.
What types of jobs were available when you came back – were there many jobs available?
There weren’t many. I wanted to get a mechanic’s job – especially in automatic transmissions because they were getting popular then. But nobody seemed to need anybody. And I didn’t have any money to go to school and so I went back to the farm. The government helped me on the farm – I got two checks: one from the government and one from the stock. It made a difference.
What was the check from the government for?
To go to class for a couple of years – it helped! When Dr. Stinson didn’t want to sign for it for two years. He said I could work as long as I wanted to and quit when you want to. The only way I could get it was if he signed. He finally signed it.
So is that what you did basically in your time after the war – worked on a farm?
For awhile. Then I went to the textile factory and learned how to weave. When people were coming from Korea (sic Korean War), they wanted their jobs back there and so I’d lose mine. If a soldier worked there before the war, they had to give him his job back. But in the meantime, at least I had a job! Finally a guy, who worked there, wrecked his car and killed himself. So I got his job.
I’m curious about your impressions about WWII before you were drafted. How old were you when you went into the service?
I was 23 when I was drafted.
So what was it like being in Scottsville during the war?
I remember the electrician, a friend of mine – he had a truck, and we went around picking up scrap metal a time or two.
You said you were drafted at age 23 – were you concerned about being drafted before that?
Well, I was working on the farm, and Dr. Manahan had me deferred. During that time, a couple of my friends were drafted and got killed before I went in. I wanted to enlist with a friend the 8th of December 1941, but I was too young and couldn’t get in. Everytime I said anything about going into the service, my parents would say, “No, I don’t want you to go in.”
Why did you guys want to go in that young?
To do our part. Do what you have to do.
How much did you get a sense that you were sacrificing in town life before actually you served. Did things change for you?
Not a whole lot other than the rationing. We could only have so much sugar and coffee and gasoline. And the price of gas didn’t go up but a penny or two.
How did the Japanese feel about the war?
Actually I never talked to them about it. We had a meeting of some kind, and the generals sat each of us down with a Japanese lady. The lady I was with had lost her husband during the war, and she’d talk about it but didn’t seem to have any hard feelings. Of course, I didn’t talk to her very long. They don’t show their emotions – not while I was around anyway.
Did any of the Americans you were with harbor any resentment to the Japanese?
I never heard them say anything. I was pretty teed off about the Japanese bombing (of Pearl Harbor), but I figured the Japanese people I was with didn’t have any control over it.
The calendar they used was different than ours. I had a battery being repaired one day, and she showed me on her calendar that it was the last day of the week. So I looked at my calendar and figured it out that it was the last day of the week and I could go get the battery. So she said, “No, tomorrow.” And I said, “no, today.” And she said, “No, no – tomorrow!” Finally she wanted to know if I had a calendar, and I said , “Yes”. She wanted to see it. She put the together and said, “Now SEE!” Saturday is the last day of the week on our calendar, but on the Japanese calendar, the last day is Sunday.
Would you have rather participated more in the fighting part of the war?
Not necessarily – you do what you gotta do. When you go through basic training, you learn to take a command and go with it. You don’t stop to think.
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add about your time in service?
Well, it was a great experience. And I learned the hard way. I was supposed to have two mechanics there, but they didn’t know anymore than I did.
I’ve often wondered if the situation was reversed, if Americans would have been as friendly as the Japanese were. Now I don’t know about the government part, but the Japanese people I dealt with always tried to cooperate with you. If they had resentment, they hid it well.
A visiting Major General meeting John Barnes (left) in his motor shop in Kyushu, Japan.