Barnes had good times, bad in WWII, but memories remain

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009

McKinley Barnes was just a boy from Sibley when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He didn’t know it when he arrived in England, but he would have a family reunion, fight in D-Day and even see a cow explode during his time overseas.

“There are a lot of things about it I’ve forgotten, but a lot of things I wish I could forget,” Barnes said.

He was the youngest of four brothers, and all of them were drafted. Because of that, he was given an opportunity to opt out of military service.

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“They made offers that I could keep out if I did certain things, met certain qualifications, but I said I would have rather gone,” Barnes said.

So in April 1943, he and 51 others in the 490th Port Battalion went on a journey that began in Harahan, detoured to Camp Patrick Henry in Charleston and ultimately ended in Liverpool.

“We didn’t even finish our training before we went to England,” Barnes said. “We finished our basic training in England.”

Barnes’ battalion’s work was to load and unload ships as needed, and for a while that’s what they did.

While in Liverpool, Barnes heard a chaplain talking about the unit that had been there before he arrived. It was the unit his brother Gabriel was assigned to.

“I knew what unit he was in, so I asked the chaplain if he knew him,” Barnes said.

The chaplain was eventually able to get him Gabriel’s address, and Barnes wrote his brother a letter.

“We weren’t allowed to write where we were, so I just wrote him and said, ‘I am where you were,’” Barnes said.

After he mailed the letter, life went on, until one day the sergeant called Barnes out of the mess hall and said he needed to talk to him. The young soldier was puzzled.

When he got to the sergeant, he saw someone else there — his brother

“I wondered what (the sergeant) wanted,” Barnes said. “When I saw (Gabriel), I lost any appetite to eat anything else.”

His brother had a weekend pass, and Barnes got one as well, and the two went out on the town.

“That was a lovely time,” he said. “I hadn’t heard from him in more than a year, and it was a blessing to see him.”

But not everything in Europe was lovely at that time, and at 6 a.m. June 6, 1944, the allied invasion of Europe began, and Barnes’ company took a load of explosives across the English Channel to Omaha beach.

“They were so bad out there, and we were staying in the middle of that place,” Barnes said. “The recoil of the battleships would knock water into that little boat we were in.”

After performing their duties at Omaha beach, Barnes’ company went to Normandy beach, where they spent the next six months sleeping on the ground.

“I never thought I’d get back to Natchez,” he said.

Some things about that six months he spent tunneled into a hole on the beach that have stayed with Barnes all these years include the German dive bomber who would fly by the hedge just bordering their camp every night.

“We knew it was a German plane by the sound the engine would make,” he said. “He never did anything, he would just fly by — they called that guy ‘Hedge-Hopping Charlie.’”

Likewise, he remembers the day he saw a cow step on a land mine.

“Where we were had been a minefield, but they said they had swept it,” Barnes said. “One day, we had been walking over that way going to the mess hall, and that thing went off and tore that cow to pieces.

“We didn’t know what to think, we had been crossing over there.”

Eventually, his time in the service came to an end, and after some shuffling around to different locations in France, he was discharged on Christmas Day, 1946. He’s been in Natchez ever since.

“My time over there taught me a lot, because I didn’t know stuff like that could happen,” he said. “Thank God I made it out of there, because there wasn’t anything I could do.”