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After the war, veteran discovers time heals old wounds

Part 2 of 2: Healing

The jagged scar runs horizontally across the width of John Barrett’s lower back, courtesy of a wrong turn and a 1,000-pound bomb crater during his time in World War II’s bloody Pacific Theater.

“The doctor yelled for the nurse, ‘Give this man a pair of pajamas. He’s going to be with us for a little while.’” Mr. Barrett said, recalling a humid summer evening in 1946 at Brooks General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. The US Army had sent him there to get his shattered back mended, and the doctor was examining x-rays of his fractured fourth and fifth lumbar.

Mr. Barrett wasn’t so sure he was up for the surgery, thinking he could just live with the pain. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s talk this over.’”

The doctor called him over to a window. “He said, ‘You’re going to make a decision now about what you want to do. You can tell me you want to be discharged, and I’ll discharge you right now. Or, you can stay with us and get your back in working order. But, I have to tell you, if you go, you might take three steps, slip and fall, and be a paraplegic for the rest of your life.’”

“I said, ‘Well…I’ll take the pajamas.’”

Back then Private First Class Barrett was 21 years old and already a combat veteran. He was part of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry, which on February 3, 1945 liberated 3,785 mostly American civilian prisoners—businesspeople, missionaries and regular folks caught up in the madness of World War II—that were held by the Japanese for three-plus years at Santa Tomas University in Manila, Philippines.

He’d been in a jeep accident shortly before that mission, and unbeknownst to him had fractured his back. He’d spent weeks marching, traveling, fighting and working after the accident, but the adrenaline of war had blinded him to the severity of his injury. Finally, after the pain in his back had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer stand it, he went to the camp medics, who promptly sent him and his “million-dollar bump” home to Alhambra, California.

Stateside, it was on to San Antonio’s Brooks General, where that fateful pajamas discussion took place. The July, 1946 surgery to mend his pulverized back lasted 12 hours. Afterward, he spent 10 days strapped to a board. All he could think about was getting home in time for Christmas.

His doctors were non-committal. They said he’d get out when he could walk on his own, and had a modicum of his strength back, regardless of whether or not it coincided with PFC Barrett’s schedule. He was determined, and worked daily on impressing the doctors with his slow, but ever lengthening walks around the hospital’s halls, and, after some time, up and down the stairs.  

After a few weeks, the more than 150 stitches were removed from his back, and Mr. Barrett was set in a full body cast from his knees to his armpits. He spent three months in that cast, in the pre-air conditioning days. Summer gave way to fall, but the Texas sun didn’t know it. The heat and humidity hung around well into October. Another slightly smaller, “walker cast” followed for another 90 days.

After more than six months of rehabilitation, his work had paid off: He was sent home, although wearing a uniform two sizes too large so that it would fit over his body cast.

He woke up Christmas morning at his parents’ home in Alhambra.

“I felt tremendous,” said Mr. Barrett, now 93. “It was just like a huge wave had been taken off of my back.”

Back home he registered for the fall semester at Pasadena City College, studying business administration. He worked at furniture and department stores in the area, and before long began a romance with Colleen Murphy. The couple married February 10, 1950 at Wee Kirk of the Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

He wore a back brace for about 10 years, eventually graduating to just putting it on only in the cold winter months, when his vertebrae tended to ache.

In 1956, Sears, Roebuck and Company hired the young veteran at its huge, eight-story Pasadena location at 532 E. Colorado Boulevard. In 1962, the Barretts moved to Claremont.

“Foothill Boulevard was all orange groves,” Mr. Barrett said. “There was maybe a business at the corner of Garey or Towne Avenue, but outside of that it was orange groves.”

The Barretts joined Claremont Methodist Church. They had three sons, Scott, Bill and Clay, who grew up in the City of Trees, each one graduating from Claremont High. Mr. Barrett moved around to various San Gabriel Valley Sears locations for the then expanding company, finally retiring from the Pomona store in 1983.

Through Claremont Methodist, the Barretts befriended fellow parishioner Gertrude Feeley. It was some time before they realized Mr. Barrett and Ms. Feeley had something in common: she was a prisoner at Santa Tomas University for three and-a-half years. Mr. Barrett had helped liberate her.

“She didn’t like to talk about it very much,” Mr. Barrett said, “at least, not with me.” Ms. Feeley died in the 1980s.

Ms. Feeley, who had been a missionary in Japan, was like a lot of people of her generation when it came to wartime stories: the past was best left there where it belonged.

Mr. Barrett doesn’t mind talking about the war, and his recollections are vivid. “The memories of the combat times are in my mind just as fresh as the day that they happened,” he said. “And I was scared like hell. I’ve never been so scared in all my life as I was when two Japanese were strapped up in a Coconut Palm tree with semi-automatic weapons, and killed 15 of our members, and one of them was a friend of mine standing 5 feet in front of me.”

It would fit that a young man (he was just 18 when he was drafted on February 1, 1943, just six days after graduating from Alhambra High School) who had endured such horror at the hand of an enemy—in this case the Japanese Army—might be permanently soured on that enemy. But for Mr. Barrett, this is not the case. “At the time the battles were going on, it was either me or them,” he said. “But after it was over with, then it was all over. I don’t hold any grudge against the Japanese. I never did.

“Time goes by, and other things happen in your life.”

He would seem to be a model of forgiveness and healing. In fact, in the 1980s two Japanese men from a Tokyo Methodist delegation stayed at his home. One of his guests, used to Tokyo’s famously compressed living spaces, marveled at the size of Mr. Barrett’s 1/4-acre lot. “His mouth dropped like a ton of bricks. He couldn’t believe it.”

He also introduced the Japanese men to a particularly Southern California culinary tradition with a dinner he prepared one Friday night. “I taught them how to eat a taco,” laughed Mr. Barrett. The next night, the entire 52-person Methodist delegation went to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, and Mr. Barrett’s guest proudly initiated his Japanese friends in the art of the taco.

World War II has been called a “just” war. It’s true there was a clear enemy, distinct geography, and an unimaginable evil that needed to be stopped. But still, some veterans remain steadfast in their opposition to the concept of a just war, including Mr. Barrett. “I don’t think there’s ever any good war,” he said. “No. I don’t believe that. I don’t know that any war is ever justified. These conflicts of today should be handled diplomatically. I don’t think there’s any justification for anybody being killed; I don’t care what the nationality is.”

Mr. Barrett clearly enjoys talking about his World War II experiences. He proudly takes part in Claremont’s annual Veteran’s Day celebration, but he feels time is running out to document his story, and the stories of other veterans of that war.

“We’re going to heaven fast,” he said.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Part I of this story, “A Kid At War,” is available in last week’s edition of the COURIER, or at https://www.claremont-courier.com/articles/news/t25369-jack.

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