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Normandy was just a name on a map to Jesse Lester Barnes as he grew up in eastern North Carolina.
And while the conflict brewing in Europe was far from his Wayne County farm, he saw the writing on the wall and joined the military at 20.
“I joined the Army on June 12, 1940, to keep from being drafted,” the 97-year-old man said. “They were debating the draft law, but I knew I didn’t want no part of that or the infantry. My daddy knew the same, so he told me if I wanted to join, he’d sign the papers.”
The second-oldest of 14 children — including a 4-week-old girl who died of pneumonia in 1928 — packed his bags and headed to Fort Bragg for training with his unit, the 4th Field Artillery Regiment. With his only prior job experience being on the farm, it is no surprise his first job in the Army was leading a mule packed with the parts to a 75mm gun.
“I had been in for 18 months when they bombed Pearl Harbor and I was at Fort Bragg the whole time,” he said. “After Pearl Harbor, they put guns on merchant ships and troop ships and they put me on the S.S. Dorchester, which got sunk with four chaplains on it the first trip it made after I got off.”
The newly married Barnes and his fellow soldiers from Fort Bragg manned anti-aircraft guns, moving throughout Europe. He said despite the chaos of war, he wouldn’t go many days without corresponding with his wife, Lindell Price, his parents and other loved ones.
“I told people I was blessed because I didn’t get one of those ‘Dear John’ letters like a lot of the fellows got,” he said with a smile, remembering his wife. “A lot of women married soldiers to get that allowance money, but I met Lindell through her brother before I was sent overseas. I was blessed.”
Barnes’ unit took the young soldier through England, France and Belgium.
“We were up there in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge and we were about 50 miles from Antwerp that winter. Oh, and from Paris we had another place before Belgium, but I can’t remember where. This was almost 75 years ago,” he said with a shrug. “I know when we got off, we were still in the hedgerows of Normandy when (Gen. George S.) Patton brought the Third Army in and moved right across France.
“He said once he didn’t hold nothing. He said he’d take it and leave (the territory) for someone else to hold and we more or less followed him into Paris.”
With a mission of protecting Allied planes, Barnes recalled surviving thousands of “buzz bombs,” early German versions of cruise missiles, aimed for Antwerp, Belgium.
“One morning it was foggy and you couldn’t see nothing, but them buzz bombs would come in,” he recalled. “We could pick them up on radar and we would shoot them down. Some would explode in the air if you hit it directly and some would come to the ground.”
He recalled praising the Lord when a bomb passed over his guns and landed a block away, blowing a hole in the street the size of a room, yet not injuring anyone. His faith also got him through a strafe attack — when an enemy aircraft would open fire on ground troops — in France.
“I was laying flat on my belly with my nose in the dirt and the machine gun bullets were going plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk all around me,” he said. “You know someone is taking care of you when that happens and you don’t get hit.”
While Barnes fought the enemy through a heavy artillery scope, he did get to know some Germans while in charge of a prisoner of war camp on Omaha Beach. He recalled watching the prisoners work in a shop at the camp and chatting with one who had been through Wilson several times by train. One of the prisoners was an artist who painted two portraits of Barnes while another made him a handcrafted wooden suitcase with notched joints and brass shell casings repurposed into hinges and the handle. Barnes still has one of the portraits, but the second was damaged in a fire and the suitcase never made it out of Europe.
“On the train to Marseille, somebody busted into it,” he said. “They were after cigarettes and I had a carton or two and they got them all. I left the suitcase in the baggage car because it wasn’t fixable.”
After the war, Barnes reunited with his love and lived in her Wilson apartment.
“I served five years, four months and one day,” he said. “I was sworn in at 6 and got my discharge papers at 9 p.m., so it was five years, four months, one day and about three hours.”
However, his service wasn’t over — he signed up with the North Carolina National Guard when it was reinstated in 1947. While serving part-time for 15 years, he had several careers starting with work as a barber. After that, he worked for a stamp company that offered rewards for frequent shopping at grocery stores. After 11 years, he took a part-time job at a landfill in Wilson County.
While his son, David, did not join the military, Barnes and five of his brothers served.
“The six of us combined served 120 years between World War II , the Korean War and Vietnam,” he said. “Mama and Papa had one, two or three of us boys in the military at a time from 1940 until the war was over in Vietnam. All of us together served over 120 years; I think it was 127 years to be exact.”
And while Barnes did not recall losing any friends during the war, he has lost plenty since. His wife died of cancer in 1997 and David passed about 10 years ago. Only one of his siblings remains, a sister in Charlotte, yet his sister-in-law, Shirley Barnes, and granddaughter continue to visit with him.
After 56 years living at 519 Grove St, the widower moved into the Parkwood Village and The Landing a few years back. And while he is among the community’s oldest residents at 97, he also is in good health with just three daily prescriptions.
He also isn’t shy about his service as pictures of his uniform-clad self adorn his walls and stories of World War II are at the ready.
“If it came to a vote, I’d vote for every mentally and physically fit person to serve at least three years in the military,” he said. “To me, history should be the top priority after a person learns their numbers and ABCs.”