Written by Ademide Adedokun.
The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of World War II for America and the entry point to the military for the Greatest Generation. The day after the attack, William J. Barnes drove 75 miles from his hometown of Clarksdale, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn., ready to serve his country in the Navy. After seeing the “four or five blocks long” line, a Navy officer suggested he consider the Coast Guard. Barnes freely admits he’d never heard of the Coast Guard before that day but spotting the shorter line, he immediately signed up.
On February 4, 1942, Barnes reported for duty in Manhattan Beach, N.Y., to work on the construction of a Coast Guard training center. His high school piccolo skills were called into service when Barnes was asked to play in the Coast Guard Band. The band assisted in Coast Guard recruiting efforts by playing in venues all over New York City, including Radio City Music Hall. That assignment didn’t last too long after a professional piccolo player arrived!
After washing dishes in Long Island, Barnes sought a little more action. He answered an ad in Coast Guard Magazine for a yeoman on a patrol boat performing escort duties in the Pacific.
During an especially rough typhoon, the boat was damaged after being caught between two reefs, barely escaping sinking. After patchwork repairs, the boat prepared for towing to Pearl Harbor. On the journey, their tow suspected Japanese submarines nearby so they cut the lines. Barnes found himself stranded at sea for 60 days alongside his 63 shipmates. After being located by an American submarine and towed back to shore for repairs, they continued their patrol efforts until the end of the war.
Barnes left the Coast Guard at the conclusion of the war but remained committed to the service. In the years since, he has worked to educate his family, friends and community about the Coast Guard’s role in WWII by producing videos made up of photos accompanied by his oral testimony of his time in uniform and speaking to community groups.
One of his videos made its way onto the desk of Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara who began a correspondence with Barnes. Through their letters, Barnes revealed that he had not received his service medals upon his return from the Pacific. After WWII, the Coast Guard faced a shortage of awards. As a result, many awards were conferred but never presented.
On Saturday, April 16, 2011, Brice-O’Hara met Barnes at the Coast Guard Recruiting Office in Jackson, Miss., to present him with the World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Award, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and American Campaign Medal – all long overdue to this American hero. She also presented him with the Coast Guard Public Service Award in honor of his work to preserve Coast Guard history.
“First-hand accounts of service are invaluable to the Coast Guard’s historical collection,” explains Coast Guard historian Scott Price in speaking about Barnes’ video project. “Mr. Barnes’s story provides a wonderful perspective of Coast Guard service during World War II.”
Bravo Zulu to William Barnes for his service to the Coast Guard and our country!