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James Ray Barnes was a senior at Lucama High School when he heard word over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “My memory is not very good, but I’ll never forget December 7, 1941,” said Barnes, 94, of Wilson.
Japan’s surprise attack on the American naval fleet in Hawaii launched the United States into World War II, and it had a personal impact for the Barnes family on Quaker Road in rural Wilson County.
Barnes’ older brother, Robert Groves Barnes, was an airplane mechanic for the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Lexington.
R.G. Barnes, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1938, had been attached to the Lexington ever since he completed basic training.
The 888-foot-long Lexington, built in 1925, was the country’s largest carrier and was one of the world’s fastest ships.
It had been docked in Pearl Harbor in the days prior to the attack.
“They were at sea when it happened,” Barnes said. “That’s the reason they didn’t get caught with all these other ships, the Arizona and all that and got sunk right in the harbor.”
In all, more than 2,400 Americans were killed and 20 American naval vessels and some 300 aircraft were damaged or destroyed in the attack.
In a short, faded newspaper clipping, a column headed “News from Our Boys in Service” mentioned the young Navy man from Wilson.
“Mr. and Mrs. George Barnes have heard from their son, Robert G. Barnes, who was in Pearl Harbor at the outbreak of the Pacific war,” the clipping said. “He is on the USS Lexington, and writes that he is well and safe, but cannot tell where he is at present or where he is going. His letter was written December 27. Robert, who is 20 years old, has not been home in two years.”
The clipping is part of a scrapbook kept by the brothers’ mother, Blonie Moore Barnes, and is now saved by James Ray Barnes.
“It was Mama’s book before she died,” Barnes said. “It kind of circulated through our family, and I got wound up with it.”
While the Lexington may have escaped the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the ship’s fate was sealed five months later in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
After being involved in several major engagements in the Pacific theater, the Lexington sustained direct hits by several torpedoes and bombs from Japanese dive bombers on May 8, 1942. There were heavy casualties among crewmen as a result of the explosions and fires from the bombing attack.
The Lexington’s aircraft, which had been away from the ship on missions to attack the Japanese fleet during the attack on the ship, began returning to the crippled vessel.
According to a first-hand account from Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Stanley Johnston, the ship’s crew fought valiantly to save the carrier, but explosions of aviation fuel vapors deep in the ship caused spreading fires below decks. Some 216 crewmen were lost in the attack and subsequent explosions.
The fear was that the fire would ignite the 26,500 pounds of remaining explosives on the ship.
“To remain aboard the ship any longer was courting disaster,” Johnston wrote.
When the “abandon ship” order was given, R.G. Barnes was one of 2,735 crewmen who slid down ropes or jumped into the sea.
“When the commander of the ship found out that they were going to sink, they went to the kitchen and got all the ice cream out on deck, and everybody ate ice cream before they went over,” James Ray remembers his brother saying. “He never told me how he got off. Somehow they picked him up. They carried him to Australia and put him off. It was three months before we heard whether he was dead or alive.
“We finally got a message. It must have been a very isolated place where they put him off.”
‘I WANTED TO BE LIKE R.G.’
Like so many other Americans, James Ray Barnes wanted to join up to serve the country in the war. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Dec. 12, 1942.
“I wanted to be like R.G.,” Barnes said.
Like his brother, James Ray Barnes became an aviation machinist. While at a seaplane squadron at NAAS Bronson Field near Pensacola, Florida, Barnes got an unusual assignment.
“One day, they sent me from the seaplane base to the land base. It was walking distance,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if they were short-handed or something why they did that. They wanted me to check this plane out. They didn’t tell me who was going to fly the plane, but it happened to be George (H.) W. Bush. He was a year younger than I was.”
The plane was a SNJ trainer plane. Bush was the youngest naval aviator in the country at the time.
“When you prep a plane for flight like that, you check all the tires and all the control cables and everything to make sure everything is right,” Barnes said. “You run the engine up to make sure it was in good shape, good spark plugs. You rev it up to 2,000 RPMs, and then you would cut one magneto off — it’s got dual — and if it fell under 200 RPMs, you had to change the spark plugs ’cause there was one spark plug in there that wasn’t firing. That’s how I warmed this plane up and all and checked it out. Just general inspection.”
Bush later became the 41st president of the United States.
At one point, Barnes was on a Navy ship heading for the planned invasion of Japan.
“We were halfway across the Pacific, and the war ended,” Barnes said. “They turned our ship around and brought us back to San Diego. Everybody who had enough points got off. Poor old James Ray lacked one point to get off. So I had to stay on the ship. We went back to Pearl Harbor, and I got off because I had that one point.”
After the war, both Barnes brothers came home to Wilson County.
R.G., who became a carpenter and a homebuilder, passed away in 1982.
James Ray had a long career with the N.C. Department of Transportation and now resides in Wilson.
Remembering Pearl harbor
Bobby Moore of Kenly, first cousin to the brothers, was an 11-year-old at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and then the sinking of the U.S.S. Lexington a few months later. His father had been employed building barracks at the new Marine base in Onslow County called Camp Lejeune.
“That was an unbelievable thing. We remember it as the biggest disaster that happened in our time,” Moore said. “It just seemed to mobilize everybody. The Marines were hot to trot. I didn’t hear of any dissension. We were ready to go.”
An editorial in the scrapbook of clippings lauded the efforts by local service members from Wilson who were at Pearl Harbor.
“North Carolina was represented nobly at Pearl Harbor,” The Wilson Daily Times column reads. “A number of boys gave up their lives in line of battle there. Wilson County has boys there. And there is not one shadow on their behavior that day. We are prouder than ever of them.”
“It made everybody in the United States very upset,” Barnes said. “It was just a sneak attack.”
At the time, President Franklin Roosevelt told Congress and the nation, it was “a date that will live in infamy.”
Just last week, the Department of Defense announced the positive identification of 100 sailors from the USS Oklahoma, which had capsized during the attack.
“When you think December 7, you think Pearl Harbor, and when you think Pearl Harbor, you think December the 7th.” Moore said. “It’s ingrained in my mind.”
Barnes said that Japan had “pulled the wool over the whole country’s eyes” because they had representatives in Washington talking “peaceful talk” with Americans at the same time of the bombing, Barnes said. “They were still over here when the bombs were dropped. We should have known that they were up to something other than peace talks,” Barnes said. “Something like Pearl Harbor you’ll never forget.”