By ERROL CASTENS / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – Edmond Barrett remembers well where he was 69 years ago today.
The son of a World War I veteran, he “loved the military, had great respect for it,” and had volunteered for the Army in 1940.
The “choice duty” he’d enjoyed as a peacetime soldier on the idyllic island of Oahu suddenly came to an end, and the Saltillo native found himself embroiled, along with the entire nation, in what would become the world’s bloodiest conflict.
“I was on my way to church that morning,” said the retired 91-year-old farmer, who now lives at the State Veterans Home in Oxford. “I didn’t see the first bomb; I heard it, but I didn’t know what it was.”
That first bomb he heard fell on Wheeler Field, next to Scofield Barracks, the Army post where he was stationed. A fleet of P-40 fighter planes parked at Wheeler was destroyed in an instant.
“I looked down that way and saw another plane come down,” Barrett said. “I saw him turn his bomb loose. I watched it hit the ground, and I knew right then we were at war.”
A few miles away at Pearl Harbor itself, Japanese planes were killing thousands of Americans and destroying much of the nation’s Pacific fleet.
Barrett hurried back to report for duty. His unit was sent to the northeast coast of Oahu to defend an assigned stretch of beach. While they had their artillery, an incomplete transition from pistols to carbines left them ill-prepared in case enemy troops had landed.
“We had four Browning Automatic Rifles, 12 Colts for 67 men,” he said. Some soldiers were sent to a nearby arsenal, where World War I-era rifles were stored with a protective coating that had to be stripped before they could be put back into service.
“It was hairy that night. Nobody slept,” Barrett said.
The only enemies Barrett’s unit ever saw on that Oahu beach were fatigue and mosquitoes, both of which he helped defeat. Those first tense days had the soldiers working in shifts of two hours on duty, two hours off.
“You can’t get hardly get to sleep in two hours,” he said. At his suggestion, his superiors adopted a four-hours-on, four-hours-off rotation that allowed for more substantial rest.
Barrett said he was the first person he knew to convert a bed net, designed for keeping mosquitoes off one’s cot, to a head net.
“The mosquitoes were so bad on that side of the island that my eyes swelled shut,” he recalled. “When we got to go back to the barracks to get clothes, I got my bed net. I put it over my head and tucked it in my bosom to keep the mosquitoes off my face. I’m the cause of the mosquito head net. I recommended it, and they built it.”
Barrett’s unit spent the next several months on beach security before practicing for amphibious landings.
“The boat was adapted from one that the Louisiana cane farmers used,” he said. “We used the LCVP – Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel – and it was 13 feet wide and 39 feet long. It had a ramp that would let down on the beach. It would carry four vehicles or 200 men, and it just about won the war in the Pacific.”
Barrett’s first taste of battle was on the Solomon Islands, and that would be followed by battles in New Georgia and the Philippines, but it was two truck wrecks that nearly killed him.
The second left him with a nearly useless left arm and a mangled right leg – both of which recovered with do-it-yourself physical therapy after being released back to his unit.
“One hour every day I’d hold that arm to strengthen it until I could move it,” he said. “It was a lot of pain – I nearly cried – but I didn’t want no useless stick of wood hanging on my shoulder. I’d pull on it every day, an hour at a time, and eventually I could move that shoulder.
“I learned the sensitive points from the physical therapist, and I’d work with that leg an hour a day,” he said. “I can walk a mile on that leg today without a stick.” Ten days before World War II ended, he won his discharge and was sent home to Saltillo.
Nearly 70 years after that momentous Sunday morning in 1941, Barrett thinks about the history that he encountered.
“We’re lucky,” he said, noting how much worse the devastating losses could have been. “Our carriers were all at sea that day.”
He also took comfort in the Japanese leadership’s trepidation about the consequences of that surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
“Admiral Yamamoto said after Pearl Harbor, ‘I think we’ve awakened a sleeping giant,’ Barrett said. “And that’s what it was.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.