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Fifteenth Air Force bombers flew from bases in southern Italy that flooded after heavy rains.
Fifteenth Air Force bombers flew from bases in southern Italy that flooded after heavy rains. (U.S. Air Force)

PRINCETON, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) — A set of medals and a photograph recently joined the many Those Who Served War Museum exhibits that help tell the stories of men and women who served their country and the sacrifices they made while doing so.

The family of Clyde Smith Barr of the US. Army Air Corps, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 98, recently donated his medals to the Those Who Served War Museum, which is located at the Memorial Building in Princeton, according to Tracy Weiss, the museum's vice president. The six medals Barr was entitled to have, but had not received until years later, included the Air Medal, Europe-Africa-Middle East Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

Along with the medals, the museum received Barr's recollections of the trials and hardships that he and his comrades faced as prisoners of war (POWs) during World War II. His story came in the form of an essay that Douglas W. Tinder, his great nephew, wrote for a class at Radford University. Tinder drafted the essay after interviewing Barr.

A native of McDowell County, Clyde Smith Barr was born in Northfork in 1922, the same year Warren Harding was elected president. Like many people in that era, he worked hard and started a family at the age of 18. In 1943, Barr enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

After training at various bases, Barr became part of a 10-man bomber crew, according to Tinder's essay.

"He and his fellow airmen were in the 15th Air Force where he learned all he could about his new best friend, the B-24 bomber," Tinder said. "It was the largest aircraft available at the time and fresh out of the Henry Ford Factory in Willow Run, Mich. Clyde's position on the plane was nose gunner."

Following additional training, Barr and his fellow airmen sailed from Newport News, Va., aboard the USS Joseph Gale, a vessel which was part of a 225-ship convoy sailing to Italy. Besides Barr and his crew, the ship was also loaded with 350 soldiers, ammunition and vehicles. The journey across the Atlantic Ocean took 28 days, mostly because the ships often followed a zigzag course to avoid being torpedoed by German U-boats.

When Barr reached Italy, he started going on missions. They went on 16 bomb raids without a casualty, Tinder wrote.

"The British bombed at night and we bombed during the day," Barr recalled. "On our 17th mission, our crew received a briefing that we would be going on a raid over the city of Vienna, Austria, which was occupied by the Germans. We thought this was going to be another routine mission; instead, it turned out to be everything we had ever feared."

When the bomber reached its target and dropped altitude, Barr was at his post in the freezing nose of the bomber when "suddenly, the clear blue sky was engulfed in a fierce storm of enemy fire."

"You could hear the bullets and flack ringing like a storm of bees," Barr said. "Our plane was taking direct hits at 27,000 feet. We could do nothing but hold on and pray."

Noticing that the plane was losing altitude, Barr managed to get out of the bomber's nose before it was destroyed. He got to the cockpit, and the pilot told him that he was going to try to reach Russian lines. The pilot told him to tell the crew to get ready to bail out.

Barr said that when he bailed out, he landed in an Alpine forest. He broke branches as he landed in the trees, then managed to cut himself free of his parachute and land on the snowy ground. Some Alpine foresters found him and they went easy on him when they saw that he was in pain, Tinder wrote in his essay.

He was taken to a house and placed in a concrete cellar where a woman who turned out to be a German schoolteacher questioned him.

"She spoke fluent English and asked me what I thought seemed like a million questions. I gave her my name, rank and serial number as I was taught to do if ever in this situation," Barr said.

The woman "stormed out" when Barr refused to cooperate. He was left in the basement for several days "with little food and lots of pain," Tinder wrote.

Later, he was moved to a prisoner of war camp. He found every member of his crew, and met other prisoners including a Tuskegee airman. The prisoners were marched to different camps because American forces were closing in on the Germans. Eventually, they ended up at the Mooseburg prison camp in Germany.

"While at the prison we … always feared for our lives. We were treated poorly by the Germans and it was said that Hitler wanted us dead," Barr said. "We were saved when another German general talked him out of it."

Barr and his fellow prisoners endured lice, rodents and disease as well as hunger. Even their guards were going hungry. Barr and his bomber's tail gunner planned to escape, but a British officer who had been captured recently advised them against it because they were about to be liberated by Gen. George Patton's army.

Finally, Barr and his fellow airmen were freed by Gen. Patton's troops.

"It was wonderful seeing him in person and he was as rough as I had heard he was, and if anything scared the Germans, it was General Patton," Barr said.

Patton placed the British officer who had advised Barr and his friend against escaping in charge of getting the former POWs ready to leave, but became frustrated with "his procrastinating ways" and put an American officer of lesser rank in charge, Tinder said. Barr and the others were taken to a military hospital for treatment.

"I could remember riding on (a) train through Germany feeling so sick that I thought I was going to die," Barr said.

Barr eventually reached Camp "Lucky Strike" in France. For a time, he thought that he would be going home in the ocean liner Queen Mary, but he ended up returning to Newport News aboard a ship very much like that one that took him to Europe. The 17-day journey was filled with storms.

"When I finally arrived in Newport News, it seemed too good to be true," he recalled. Later, he went to Fort Meade, Md., and was allowed to go on a 30-day leave.

"I couldn't wait to see my wife and my newborn son," Barr said.

When the leave was finished, he was sent to San Antonio, Texas, where he was honorably discharged after about three weeks.

(c)2021 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)

Visit the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.) at bdtonline.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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