97-year-old Bill Barrett of Pueblo, CO appears on episode #467 of Hometown Heroes, airing April 14-16, 2017. A native of Belleville, KS, where he’ll return for his 80th high school reunion later this year, Barrett was the youngest of three brothers who all served in World War II.
This interview was conducted at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum, where Barrett volunteers his time every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, communicating history to visitors from all over the world.
Communication was his job during World War II, using a SIGABA machine to encode and decode messages as a Signal Corps cryptographer. Listen to Hometown Heroes to find out how the machine worked, and what kinds of messages he was transmitting. Saying goodbye to his family, as well as his girlfriend, Lillian, Bill headed overseas on September 1st, 1942.
“I tell people people I had a 29-day all expense-paid cruise to Brisbane, Australia from San Francisco,” you’ll hear him quip. “With a three-day stopover in the Fiji Islands.”
After about three months at Amberley Field, which remains an active base for the Royal Australian Air Force, Bill was sent to New Guinea, where he would spend the next 18 months with the 912th Signal Company. In Port Moresby, the company put together the first American telephone exchange in New Guinea, and handled communications covering the comings and goings of war planes at nearby Ward’s Drome.
Bill’s outfit was so effective that it garnered a Presidential Unit Citation, its operation in Port Moresby lauded as “the model signal depot.” When word came that General Douglas MacArthur was on his way to the airfield to congratulate a record-breaking flyer, Barrett and a friend headed in that direction. Not only did they get a view of the legendary general, they found the P-38 Lightning belonging to ace pilot Dick Bong, who had just set a new American record for aerial victories with 27. Bill had his camera, and you’ll find one of the resulting photos at left, oblivious it wasn’t the best 360 camera 2017 but it still got the job done. While that was a high point, and a steady stream of letters from Lillian helped him endure the years overseas, tragic days were no stranger to Bill either. For a stretch of about eight months, air raids were a regular occurrence. Sirens would wail, searchlights would spring into action, and he could see planes silhouetted overhead, but the target was usually the airstrip a few miles away. One night, an enemy plane snuck in behind some American aircraft, and bombed a theater area where Bill had often gone to watch movies. He wasn’t there on that occasion, and fortunately the film had ended a few minutes before the bombing, with most of the crowd having already dispersed. Some G.I.s were still lingering, and several of them were killed.
“We lost three kids from our outfit that night,” you’ll hear Bill share.
Listen to Hometown Heroes for Bill’s memories of the young men who died, and how he handled even more emotional news that coincided with the end of the war. A July, 1945 letter had alerted him that both of his parents were in the hospital back home in Kansas. Letters from home dried up, and he heard no further news until the chaplain called him in. “He told me that my mother had passed away,” Bill recalls, adding that he was prepared for bad news. “But it was tough coming home and not having my mother there.” When the “Rock Island Rocket” brought him home to Belleville after more than three years overseas, his father and several friends were there to greet him, in addition to that loyal girlfriend who had sent him so many letters. “We were married less than a month later,” Bill gushes. Barrett was unable to save all the letters from Lillian, but she saved every one he sent her from stops in Australia, New Guinea, Biak, and Okinawa, where he hopped to nearby Ie Shima to see the spot where journalist Ernie Pyle had been killed. In recent years, those letters from war gave him a framework from which to construct an account of his Signal Corps service to hand down to his family.
Since 1957, Bill has made his home in Pueblo, a city known as the “Home of Heroes” because it can claim four recipients of the Medal of Honor, America’s most prestigious military medal. The Home of Heroes Association perpetuates that legacy, and a beautiful memorial in front of the city’s convention center features the names of every Medal of Honor recipient, as well as statues of the four honorees from Pueblo. At age 91, Bill answered an appeal for volunteer docents at the air museum, and plans to continue his three-days-a-week schedule as long as he’s able. “I plan on having my 100th birthday here,” you’ll hear Bill explain, along with a couple of other events he’s looking forward to in the more immediate future. Watch the videos below for a little taste of this 97-year-old in his element at the museum, and if you ever make it to Pueblo, go shake this spirited veteran’s hand and thank him for his service to our country.