In my grandparents' house, there is a drawer with old naval uniforms. There is a shark tooth sword and a box of cowrie shells. There are war maps used by aircraft to navigate across the South Pacific. And there are trunks with thousands of letters, photographs, and journal entries written during the defining years of their marriage and their generation when the world was at war and my grandfather was a Navy doctor serving overseas.
A good archivist knows when to tackle the great projects and when to leave the bulk of primary source material in situ until it can be treated properly. I have barely dipped a finger into this extraordinary trove, but what I have seen to date is so illuminating, both of the character of the good man that was Dr. Robert H Barker and of what he - and my grandmother at home with three little girls - drew from their experience of war. As a child I used to hear some after dinner stories of those times and the supporting evidence is often found in these family papers. There are, for instance, decades worth of letters from the torpedoed British seaman who appeared still damp one night on the doorstep of my grandparents' new home in the Boston suburbs because the only people he knew in America had once lived there. But the time is not right for a comprehensive assessment of this material. Let a small portion speak for the whole.
My Grandfather was a doctor, so there was no question in his mind that he would serve despite having three Dependants. He enlisted in the navy, hoping to be useful and hoping for a ship. Instead, he was sent to a recruiting station in Nashville, to the Great Lakes to serve as OB to an Admiral's daughter, and to El Centro California and then Camp Kearney, where he was finally assigned to the HQ Squadron of Marine Air Group-15, a training and resupply outfit that specialized in servicing front-line units and evacuating wounded. Walt Disney designed the MAG-15 unit insignia, shown at left.
My grandfather kept a journal for a four-month period that covers from when he shipped out of San Diego and his voyage first to Hawai'i and then to an atoll called Apamama in what was then the Gilbert Islands: now the South Pacific nation of Kiribati. He also took many photographs, a selection of which are reproduced here.
Tuesday Feb 15 1944 - Within a few moments after my arrival at the dispensary this morning, the crash phone rang. After an inexcusable delay the ambulance got off to the field almost as another entered bearing a poor boy who had stepped into the propeller of a B-24. He was conscious but with deep lacerations over the right frontal area. On further examination under local he proved to have a compound fracture of the skull with several deeply depressed fragments and a lacerated brain. I removed the loose fragments and elevated the depressed ones, filled the thing full of sulfonamide and sewed him up tight. This was my maiden voyage into intracranial surgery - what a place for an obstetrician! God help him from here on.
The first leg of the journey from San Diego to Hawai'i was on the USS Hornet, newly commissioned to replace its namesake lost in 1942 at Guadalcanal. She would earn 7 battle stars in WWII and through later recommissionings took part in Korea, Viet Nam, and as lead recovery vessel for several Apollo moon missions. In addition to her normal compliment of 3,100 ship's personnel, Hornet carried MAG-15's 170 planes and 2,400 marines, along with its navy doctors! The image at left is from the US Archives and shows Hornet unloading MAG-15 at Ford Island.
My grandfather describes a dawn constitutional on board Hornet's crowded decks:
The noise of the ship increased with awaking men - but there still remained what appeared to be a few odd thousand sleeping on every conceivable spot on the ship. Cots were precariously sitting on top of trucks, under the wings of every plane on the flight deck, in vast rows on the quarterdeck. It looked as though a swarm of human locusts had slept where they had alighted.
While awaiting new transport at Pearl, my grandfather visited an injured man from MAG-15's service squadron at Aiea Heights Hospital and was taken to a locked ward where there were Japanese prisoners. He later would take this picture, below, of a POW in a barbwire stockade on Saipan. Again the humanity of my Grandfather comes through alongside his patriotism:
These poor little brown men looked mild enough. They were happy and very grateful for the excellent care they were receiving. Most of them were badly wounded - many had had amputations, and none showed the evidence of having the brutal mind we are told they all have. I confess I cannot find hate in my soul for these men. At times I flair in anger when I read of torture inflicted on our prisoners, but I feel that these things are a matter of 1) training 2) leadership and 3) that utter neglect of human decency which lack of a moral standard can bring. History of the campaigns of the Duke of Wellington in 1800-1815 showed clearly that the British troops of that day were entirely unmanageable after victory - and God knows the British have come a long way in 125 years.
Orders came to reembark for the journey to Apamama Atoll. My grandfather stands at left in this officer group on board their transport: a Liberty Ship. It was quite a comedown from a brand new carrier! The "Jane Addams", hull #635, was according to my grandfather "a tub" and a Liberty Ship of the oldest type. She had served from mid-1942 and would remain in service until she was privately sold in 1947 and turned into a floating wharf. I wonder if he realized that its namesake was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a social reformer and suffragist who founded Chicago's Hull House to ease immigrant suffering in the 1890s and was a co-founder of both the ACLU and the NAACP!
My grandfather recorded the ritual of crossing the line - which he as an officer was spared - with his camera and in his journal:
March 27, 1944 - We crossed the equator and had the usual ceremonies to convert our rather large group of Pollywogs into Shellbacks. The next day after this event was enlivened by practice firing of the guns, and by the necessity of sending a doctor aboard our little PC escort vessel to sew up a laceration of the thigh sustained by a seaman during their shellback ceremonies.
They arrived at Apamama Atoll after a frustrating 1,200 mile detour to Funafuti in modern-day Tuvalu where they dropped off two passengers and a ton of mail, and then overshot their destination because the Captain's orders were for Tarawa. When they finally settled on Apamama, they were relieved to find a largely unscathed paradise, complete with local people in native attire.
Saturday April 1, 1944 - I was much impressed by the natives. They are all husky, healthy looking Polynesians [Micronesians, actually - Ed.] who are friendly, have childish smiling faces and appear to be relatively unspoiled. All wear the Lava Lava, some of the women also wearing G.I. "skivvy shirts" but many were happily nude to the waist. The women were mostly of a thick set type and definitely did not arouse the sex urge of the Dorothy L'Amour tales. But I was most impressed with the children - tiny tots a year old running around and clapping their hands to the music - with the ubiquitous faces of children the world over. Except for face and color, any of these could have been my bunnies and I longed for home.
It may have been Paradise, but it was not what he and the others had signed up to do. Their service squadron had not been forwarded along to them, making them useless to fulfill their resupply roles. My Grandfather tried to get aboard planes leaving for forward positions to try and be more useful, and in June 1944 he flew "up the line" in a DC-3 where the navigator was an old friend and knowing that he had been teaching himself celestial navigation, put him straight to work. During his tour of duty in the South Pacific, my grandfather would visit recent battlefields in the Marshall and Gilbert chains and he took pictures of what he saw. On this trip to Tarawa, he was struck by the destruction and the sacrifice that had gained this island from the Japanese at great cost.
The stop at Tarawa was interesting. I had a chance to see the cemetery with its rows of white crosses. God why are wars necessary? The people at home need to stand on this ground - pictures in Life do not do it justice.
When the Island Hopping war across the Pacific left Apamama too far in the rear, MAG-15 transferred to Kwajalein, a period not addressed in my grandfather's journal but documented in his many letters home and in family fireside lore. The story I remember best from this period is a fishing trip taken with a few brother officers in an LST. On their return to Kwajalein, they noticed that many of the ships in harbor carried their flags at half staff. Turning to one of the ratings, they asked if he could contact the fleet by semaphore to determine the reason the flags had been lowered. They read the reply through their binoculars as it was signaled from the quarterdeck of one of the ships: "The President is dead."
Dr. Robert H. Barker, Lt. Commander, USNR came home in the Spring of 1945. My mother had been not yet two years old when he shipped out from San Diego. The grass skirts and uniforms found their way into our childhood costume boxes, and the letters stayed packed in their steamer trunks, filed away along with all that their generation endured as a record of ordinary people in extraordinary times.