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WWII veteran who served on famed sub USS Barb is honored at Fort Detrick ceremony

The USS Barb (SS-220) in San Francisco Bay, near the Mare Island Navy Yard, in May, 1945.

U.S. NAVY

By JEREMY ARIAS | The Frederick News-Post, Md. | Published: November 8, 2019

FREDERICK, Md. (Tribune News Service) — A 97-year-old who served as a radar operator aboard a decorated submarine in World War II was the guest of honor Thursday at Fort Detrick’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

John Lehman, a Chambersburg, Pa., native who now lives at the Homewood at Crumland Farms retirement community in Frederick, served aboard the USS Barb, which was credited with sinking 25 Japanese merchant vessels, four warships — including an aircraft carrier — and more than 50 other, smaller vessels during the war.

Seated at the front of a conference room at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases along with fellow Homewood resident and Navy veteran Fred Burton, Lehman said he was honored to be invited and was amazed at the reception he received.

“I was surprised at the number of people that, when I walked in front of them, they stood at attention, all the way into the building,” Lehman said with a grin after the brief ceremony, sitting at the head of a line of service members waiting to shake his hand and thank him for his service.

Burton, chairman of Homewood’s Veterans Day Celebration Committee, said he was also overwhelmed by the reception, after which cake and drinks were served and 1940s music was played from overhead speakers.

Burton, 82, joined the Navy just after the Korean War as a jet and reciprocating engine mechanic, even spending a few weeks on the ground crew for the Blue Angels, the Navy’s premier flight demonstration squadron.

“We never expected anything like this,” Burton said after the ceremony. “I was the one who suggested that John come because there’s not many [people like him] around, and I’m just glad I had the opportunity to say a few words.”

While Lehman did not directly address the audience, his presence and the brief conversations he had with service members after the ceremony served as potent reminders to the younger generation of the significance of their commitment and the importance of history, said Sgt. Maj. David Poist.

“If it wasn’t for you paving the way and choosing to serve, I think it’s safe to say all of us here today would be speaking a different language,” Poist told Lehman near the end of the ceremony.

The USS Barb earned a reputation as one of the most successful and accomplished submarines in World War II, raking up a total of 23 Silver and Bronze Stars, six Navy Crosses and a Medal of Honor. It also made history as the first submarine to launch a successful attack against a train when, in July 1945, eight crew members covertly rowed ashore and planted a pressure-detonated explosive under the train tracks. The attack also marked the only combat operation launched on Japanese soil during the war.

While Lehman wasn’t among the shore crew for that historic mission, it wasn’t for lack of trying, he said with a smile.

“I volunteer, but they weren’t about to send out their radar operator,” Lehman said, explaining that he watched the explosion from the conning tower. “... That’s where the captain and the executive officers and everyone else was.”

At the ceremony, USAMRIID Commander Col. E. Darrin Cox read the stories of several notable World War II veterans, both men and women, to the gathering in the conference room, before going on to talk about the ways veterans have served and continue to serve the country.

“Generations of patriots have dedicated themselves to the defense of our country and they have made us stronger and more resilient as a nation,” Cox said. “... Each year we set this day aside all across the country to celebrate and pay tribute to America’s veterans for their devotion, their service, their patriotism, their sacrifice, on behalf of us all.”

©2019 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)
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