Map-making took vet to eye of WWII|’I was just bright-eyed and bushy-tailed all the doggone time’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Complemented by an oversized, silver buckle with a capital “B” on it, the aged leather belt worn by 86-year-old Bill Barner is embossed with two words that pretty much sum up the World War II veteran’s personality: “WILD BILL.”

Comfortably clad in a white, 10-gallon cowboy hat, Barner is a self-described “old country boy” who shoots from the hip regardless of the subject. His adventurous tales — those about the war and those having nothing to do with it — are the kind one might associate with a front-lines solider and not the mild-mannered map-maker Barner was expected to be during and after the war.

In Flanders Fields

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By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)

Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

“My life has been about this short,” Barner said, holding his thumb and forefinger about a quarter-inch apart.

Barner has a number of stories in which he narrowly escaped death, but only some of them are related to his military service. Of those, there was the air raid at his battalion’s base in England, the B-24 airplane that caught fire while he was en route to North Africa and the training cadet who nearly shot him in the head on a rifle range. He’s also got a pin in his ankle and a steel plate in his hip — though he’s quick to note both of those injuries came  after the war.

“We never got our hands dirty,” Barner said of his two war years in England, where he made maps and bombing charts as a sergeant with the 942nd Engineer Aviation Topographic Battalion.

He is a natural storyteller, but Barner is neither a showman nor a braggart.

One of his three daughters, Bille Sue Smith of Vicksburg, said family members have been trying for years to get Barner to allow them to record some of his stories.

“He is still very sharp, and every once in a while he’ll start telling a story and we’ll tell him he should record it, but he just boo-hoos it and that’s the end of that,” said Smith.

When it comes to his military service, Barner suddenly becomes a stickler for specifics. He strenuously searches his memory to try to get the names and dates accurate  and he repeatedly apologizes for not being able to perfectly recall each day that passed some 60 plus years ago.

A native of Princeton, Ark., a rural, sawmilling town of 150 people located about 65 miles southwest of Little Rock, Barner has lived in Vicksburg since shortly after returning from the war in the fall of 1946 and being recruited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District.

Barner received his draft notice in 1942, while he was attending Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia. His mother was distraught and tried to find a way to keep her 18-year-old boy out of the Army. A school administrator told Barner’s parents he could arrange it, but it would require him to alter his studies and pursue a life in the priesthood.

“Daddy jumped up and said, ‘I’ll be damned if that’s so!’” Barner recalled. “Daddy was in the first World War, you know, and he knew all the ropes. That was one of the absolute biggest reliefs in all my life to get out of that place. Of course, Mama just kept on crying.”

Barner completed his basic training and was sent in 1943 to a signal corps school at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, but he didn’t fare “too dad-gum good” with the tests or instructors.

“I was going to climb poles and everything else and that didn’t suit me worth a cuss,” he said, noting his real aspiration was to be a tail-gunner but his 6-foot frame disqualified him.

After purposely flunking out of the signal corps school, Barner said he was re-evaluated and sent to the engineering school at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. There, he thought he might like to become an officer in the engineer corps, but eventually found the strict dress inspections and formalities were too confining for his taste. It wasn’t until he began taking drafting courses at Fort Belvoir that Barner finally found an unlikely role in the Army that suited him: map-making.

“Everything was brand-new to all of us, and I was just bright-eyed and bushy-tailed all the doggone time,” Barner said of his initial map-making courses. “I liked to draw and build things, and I just fell right into it. It wasn’t the best option, but I really enjoyed it.”

After learning how to make maps with and without the assistance of aerial photographs, Barner eventually was placed in the 942nd Engineer Aviation Topographic Battalion. He said he and his fellow troops were taken to England on an Argentine ship half-loaded with cattle, separate from the rest of the Army, to keep a lid on their special assignment.

“I believe it took us 12 or 13 days to get over there. About half of the boys got seasick, and they were falling out of the bunks vomiting and everything else. I never did, thankfully,” he said. “The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth passed us twice on the trip, loaded down with troops, but at the time it never occurred to us why we were separated from the whole United States Army. We were isolated, and we weren’t told anything about that situation until we got to England.”

Arriving in England about four months before the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, Barner said the aviation topographic battalion was first put up in a one-story girls’ boarding school outside London. They immediately began making maps of enemy territory in Germany with photos and maps provided by the French Forces of the Interior, but Barner said they weren’t there more than a month before the Germans bombed the school.

“I believe we had just gotten off the night shift at 12 o’clock, and there was a big air raid. We were getting into the shelter just about the time that bomb dropped. It knocked a hole out in the courtyard as big as this doggone room; scrap metal everywhere,” Barner said. “It wasn’t more than 24 hours later and we got orders to move.”

The 942nd spent the remainder of the war in tents at a makeshift base, also located just outside London, Barner said. While there, the 942nd made bombing charts for the 8th Air Force and 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” and also made pocket-size maps for troops who were parachuting behind enemy lines.

“We even did maps for Old Blood and Guts General Patton to use in crossing the rivers and all that,” Barner said. “Everything we did went directly to the Chief of Staff. It didn’t go through 500 hands.”

The deadlines in the map-making unit were tight, and the work environment was tense. Barner said crews worked on three rotating shifts to ensure maps and bombing charts were being assembled 24 hours a day. Barner remembers the dizzying pace at which the aerial photos taken by P-38s — stripped of guns and outfitted with cameras — were developed and turned into maps of all sizes and sorts.

“When they got back with that roll of film it went directly to the lab and prints were made within two to three hours,” recalled Barner, who estimated about 300 soldiers worked in the map-making unit. “We did very little talking to one another. We had been brainwashed, as they say.

“We just had to have perfect nerves. You couldn’t shake the way I do now,” he continued. “You had to keep your mind on exactly what you were doing in the present. You couldn’t think about what you were going to do after the war or any of that stuff. That couldn’t enter your mind. You had to have your mind on that piece of map you were working on.”

Outside of the base, however, Barner said he and his fellow troops were able to put the war out of their minds for the most part. The troops would get a three-day leave each month during which they were allowed to leave their base. Barner’s old photo album from the war is full of small, black and white photos filled with smiling troops in relaxed poses inside pubs and on the streets of London. There is also a photo of Barner holding a bag of golf clubs at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

“Our platoon sergeant, he liked to play golf, and three or four times we took our leave in Scotland to play golf at St. Andrews Golf Course. I caddied for him,” Barner recalled.

Barner said he’d never played golf before. During one of the outings, a fellow soldier named Zip — “this crazy old boy from Georgia, he was kind of like Groucho Marx and that bunch” — dared the caddy to hit the sergeant’s ball while he was off using the bathroom.

“I said, ‘Give me that number three!’” Barner said, sprightly standing up, spreading his feet and bending over slightly to show exactly how he approached the ball that afternoon. “I spread my legs like this and got ready, and I swung that thing about as hard as I could, by God, and that ball went out of sight — and would you believe that sucker landed on the green down there?” 

After the war, Barner was sent to North Africa to make maps of the coast for the Army. He stayed there five months before finally being shipped home in 1946. Barner went back to his hometown in Arkansas, and later was convinced by a friend to drive down to Vicksburg, where his friend had an interview with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Barner wound up with a job, and over the next 30-plus years he “went from end to end of the Vicksburg District” making maps and assisting with aerial photography. In the meantime, he married Pansy Aaden of Redwood, and the couple raised three daughters. Barner retired from the Corps in 1980 with a total of 37 years of map-making behind him.

Barner has been an active member of the local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and The Elks Lodge ever since moving to Vicksburg. He’s headed up all kinds of committees and has been a regular at the VFW post on Washington Street for decades, where his friends have heard a countless number of his stories over the years. 

“He’s got a million of them,” said Grady Edwards, a former VFW Post commander and a Navy veteran who’s known Barner since the 1970s. “We all kind of kid him and get at him, but that’s only because we’ve all been knowing him for 102 years.”


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