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He was just a kid in an ugly war

John Barrett—“Jack” to his friends—has a couple of standby jokes. The first one has to do with his US Army rank during World War II, “PFC,” or Private First Class.

“You know what that is?” he asked. “That’s a private, buckin’ to be a civilian!”

The other involves asking folks if they’d like to see his Army discharge papers. He then grins and pulls out a tiny, miniaturized copy that he’s been carrying it in his wallet since 1946.

It turns out there are a lot of things he’s been carrying with him since 1946.

“I am 93-and-one-third years old,” Mr. Barrett proudly proclaims as we sit at the dinner table in his Claremont home on Briarcroft Road. He bought it brand new in 1962—for $24,000—another fact of which he’s understandably proud.

Twenty years before he made that very wise purchase, World War II was raging, and Mr. Barrett was a senior at his hometown Alhambra High School whose childhood was about to expire.

On January 26, 1943, he graduated. Six days later, he was drafted into the US Army, assigned to the 7th Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division. By June he was in Queensland, Australia, on his way to the Pacific Theater. On Christmas Day, 1943, he saw his first combat in New Guinea. He then went on to the Admiralty Islands campaign.

He was 18 years old.

Mr. Barrett shows a photograph taken at Admiralty, the 18-island archipelago in the South Pacific. In the small, frayed black-and-white image we see PFC Barrett with a full head of black hair, brandishing a sword, attempting to look menacing. He looks to be about 15.

After fighting at Admiralty, on October 20, 1944, young Mr. Barrett’s division made its initial landing on Leyte Island, part of the first wave in the amphibious assault on the Japanese-held Philippines. He fought there for 90 bloody days.

On January 27, 1945 the 1st Cavalry invaded Luzon. Mr. Barrett spent several weeks in heavy combat, in what would ultimately be the highest net casualty battle US forces would fight in the entire war, leaving approximately 340,000 dead overall and claiming some 10,000 American lives.

One night near the end of his time in Luzon, he was tasked with finding a nearby troop that had been broadcasting on the wrong radio frequency, causing it to be out of touch with command. Mr. Barrett drew driving duty that evening, and he and two other soldiers—a radioman and a gunner—set off in the dark to find the last troop in nearby San Fabian.

He steered the Jeep for several tense miles and came upon a tee in the road. He made a left, and was suddenly airborne, eventually landing at the bottom of a 1,000-pound bomb crater.

It would turn out to be a fortuitous wrong turn.

He made his way out of the crater, dazed and sore, but alive. The other soldiers also survived the accident. The adrenaline of war helped mask the pain in Mr. Barrett’s back. He and the other soldiers found the troop, got them straightened out radio-wise, and headed back to base.

“Then we got an order from [General Douglas] McArthur saying the 1st Cavalry was to pack up and head for Manila, and don’t stop until we get there.”

They set off immediately, on February 1, 1945, for the roughly 100-mile journey to the capital city. The reason for the rush? American intelligence had heard chatter indicating the Japanese were preparing to execute the roughly 3,800 mostly American prisoners of war held at Santo Tomas University in Manila—among them women, children and entire families—rather than allow them to be liberated by the advancing American forces.

The unit made its way on foot, in Jeeps and tanks, fighting the Japanese the entire way. At 4:45 p.m., Saturday, February 3, nine American fighter planes strafed Santo Tomas, so close prisoners could see the faces of the US airmen. Unbeknownst to the Japanese guards, who had to simply ignore what must have been a terrifyingly ominous intrusion, one of the pilots dropped something that landed in the northeast part of the main prison building. One of the internees retrieved it without being seen. It turned out to be a pair of pilot’s goggles, with a note: “Roll out the barrel! Santa Claus is coming Sunday or Monday.”

“We fooled ‘em,” Mr. Barrett said. “We got there about 8:50 that night, February third, 1945.”

Five American tanks broke through the fortified gate at Santo Tomas that evening. The 1st Cavalry had made miraculously great time, arriving in less than three days.

Inside Santo Tomas, the prisoners were in horrifying shape. They were emaciated, many near death from starvation or disease.

“As the war went on and supplies didn’t come in, the Japanese guards took [the food] for themselves,” said Krista Von Stetten, 50, whose father, the late Orion Von Stetten, a Claremont resident, was a prisoner at Santo Tomas from age 10 to 13. “The plan was that they weren’t planning to leave any prisoners alive, so why feed them?”

Indeed, over the three years Santo Tomas was used by the Japanese to house prisoners, conditions went from barely adequate to deplorable. Three hundred and ninety prisoners died of malnutrition or unchecked disease, and many others would surely have perished, if not for the ingenuity and steadfastness of the internees. When liberated, the camp housed 3,785.

Mr. Barrett shows his well-worn cap with the Army 1st Cavalry patch and combat infantryman’s medal. He’s justifiably quite proud of that cap. He then hands over a few faded black-and-white snapshots of emaciated internees, taken on that first day at Santo Tomas.

Mr. Barrett heard a story of one mother boiling a boot and making her children drink the broth as a way to get some—any—nourishment. The sights and smells are still fresh in his mind, 72 years later.

“We started passing out K and C rations, and they were gloriously happy to get ‘em!” he recalled.

He spent the next three weeks on guard duty, charged with defending the perimeter of the 35-acre compound against repeated Japanese ground attacks.

With Santo Tomas secure, and the former prisoners fed and being attended to by military doctors, the 1st Cavalry was allowed some well-earned R ‘n’ R.

The rest was nice, but Mr. Barrett’s back pain was a constant, nagging companion. It had escalated steadily since the Jeep accident and the difficult 100-mile trip to Manila. But still, he thought he’d just “thrown out” his back, and kept expecting it to improve; It didn’t.

After 10 days off, the 1st Cavalry was ordered to fight its way to San Pablo, some 50 miles southeast of Manila.

On the second day of that journey, Mr. Barrett again drew guard duty, and quickly realized he would be useless in that capacity. He went down to the river to swim, hoping the cool water would ease the throbbing. Shirtless and in agony, a friend who’d come along saw Mr. Barrett’s injury. “’What happened to your back?’” Mr. Barrett recalls him saying. “’You’ve got a bump on your spine as big as my fist,’”

“I thought, ‘There’s my out,’” Mr. Barrett said. Hoping for a reprieve from guard duty that night, he made his way to the camp medics.

“’You’ve got States-itus, and the million-dollar bump,’” He recalls the doctor saying, after looking him over. PFC Barrett, thinking he was just there to get his wrenched back acknowledged, and perhaps a reprieve from guard duty for the night, didn’t understand.

“’You’re going home,’” the doctor said.

Next week, Part 2: Healing

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com