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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
Fax: 540-483-8013

Barber saw attack on Pearl Harbor first-hand
The U.S. Navy veteran was on the USS Argonne
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Photo by Charles Boothe: Rev. Harold Barber is 98 years old, but still vividly remembers his experiences at Pearl Harbor.

Monday, November 11, 2013

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

U.S. Navy Petty Officer Harold Barber had gone to bed late that Saturday night.

He was a trumpet player for the Navy Band on the USS Argonne and his band had just competed in the "Battle of Music," which had been on ongoing competition between U.S. Navy bands with ships anchored in Pearl Harbor.

The band for the USS Arizona had won in an earlier competition and his band had come in second place.

"They (the USS Arizona band) had beat us so we gave them a party afterward that lasted until about 2 a.m.," he said.

Barber didn't sleep much, though, because he wanted to get an early start the next morning. The plan was to go ashore and make a down payment on renting a bungalow in Waikiki because his wife was planning to join him in a few weeks.

Before he could leave the ship, however, he had to wait for the flag to be raised, and he was standing on deck by himself as the officer of the day, the bugler, had gone below to get the colors (flags).

This was just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941.

Standing alone on deck, he heard some planes coming in the distance, thinking they were on a routine training exercise.

"We were used to it (the training exercises)," he said. "They would drop bags on ships for target practice."

He then saw a black cloud on the horizon, hovering above the air base. Then one of the planes dropped a bomb on a nearby hangar.

"I thought, these guys have gone crazy," Barber said, still thinking they were American planes.

A plane broke away from formation and headed straight to where Barber was standing.

"It opened fire with its machine gun," Barber said, adding that he doesn't know how the bullets missed him.

The plane was so low, he said, he saw the large red dot on the side and knew it was a Japanese "Zero."

The pilot had part of the plane's cockpit cover open, Barber said, and he could see goggles and a white scarf around his neck.

"He looked at me and grinned," he said. "It looked like something from a movie."

Barber's military training kicked in and he quickly ran below deck to arouse his fellow soldiers and tell them that the Japanese were attacking.

"They didn't believe me," he said. "They told me to get back in bed and get some more shuteye."

That was when the ship rocked from a nearby explosion.

"You never saw guys come out of their bunks so fast," he said.

Every midshipman, even those who played in the band, had battle station duties so each quickly went to his assigned place.

However, because the ship had prepared for an inspection the day before, the ammo was locked away and the man who had the key was still out on leave.

"We just took a sledgehammer to the lock," Barber said.

By that time, the first wave of the Japanese attack was well under way, and Barber went to his post on deck, helping the gunners.

"We were not musicians anymore," he said. "We were all just Navy men."

Barber saw a bomb drop behind the USS Arizona's stack, and it exploded in the engine room, leading to the ship's eventual sinking.

What Barber learned later was that all members of the Arizona's band, many of whom he went to school with at the Naval Academy, were killed in the explosion.

"They were all blown to bits," he said.

By the time the second wave of bombers hit, Barber had seen the USS West Virginia sink and the USS Oklahoma upside down.

"The thing that a lot of people don't know is that more personnel were killed by the burning oil in the harbor than anything else," Barber said.

As the ships were damaged or sinking, oil was everywhere and on fire.

Men had no choice but to jump off the ship to save themselves, only to be caught up in the burning oil.

Barber and others were dispatched on a small launch to try to rescue as many as they could.

"We just tried to pick these guys out of the oil," he said.

Barber said there was no doctor on board his ship at the time, but a dentist was there, and he jumped in to do what he could.

"That dentist did a great job," he said. "I helped him all night patch up guys. He saved a lot of lives."

Miraculously, his ship was never hit by a bomb.

"We were not hit, and we were right in the middle of everything," Barber said.

His ship was docked at Pier 14, a very long and wide pier, he said, and at one point, two Japanese Zeros crash-landed on the pier. Both pilots were shot quickly by the Marine detachment aboard his ship.

Barber said when one of the pilot's flight jackets was opened, they found a Rising Sun flag and map of Pearl Harbor with the name and location of each ship.

Barber, who was born in Boston and raised in Rhode Island but has lived near Penhook since 1981, is now 98 years old.

But he remembers his military experience vividly.

Barber auditioned for, and was accepted in the Navy School of Music in 1939. For seven months in 1940, he was stationed at Long Island at the site of the World's Fair to play in the Navy band.

In late 1940, he was deployed overseas to Pearl Harbor.

"We arrived just before Christmas that year," he said.

After the attack, he stayed at Pearl and his band played at the USO there.

"We were just stuck (there)," he said. "Between the USO, parties for officers and entertainment for those on R&R (rest and recovery leave), we worked seven nights a week."

Barber was finally shipped back to the Naval Yard in Philadelphia in 1944, and left the service in November 1945 after serving six years.

His career began teaching music in the Philadelphia school system, and he eventually (in 1961) moved to Virginia.

He has lived near Penhook on Smith Mountain Lake since 1981. The former teacher, singer, musician and businessman decided when he was in his 80s to enter seminary to become a minister. Attending on a part-time basis, he received his degree from Wesley Seminary in Washington D.C. and began his ministry in 1999.

A former volunteer chaplain at the Franklin and Henry county jails, he was also pastor of the Love of Christ Church in Callaway.

He and his late wife, Barbara, had seven children, and he now has 16 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Barber said his son, Bob, who is also a Navy veteran, is helping him write a book about his experiences. Those experiences, and their effects, will always remain with him, he said.

"I have never got over it (the attack)," he said. "You don't have your close buddies blown to bits and wonder why it wasn't you. You never get over it."

Barber, who said as far as he knows he's the only one left of his band and one of the very few Pearl Harbor survivors still living in the region, said he likes to share his past, but it's not about him.

A man recently saw the Pearl Harbor license plate on his car, went up to him, shook his hand and thanked him for his service.

"Don't thank me," I told him. "Thank the Lord for us still having a country."

The U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four being sunk. Two of these were later raised, and with the remaining four repaired, six battleships returned to service later in the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. Also, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed.

The attacks were over in about 90 minutes, leaving 2,402 Americans dead and 1,282 wounded.

The USS Argonne, an auxiliary ship, was the flagship for Rear Admiral William L. Calhoun, commander of the base force for the Pacific Fleet. The ship, although usually considered too small to have its own band, did have a 21-piece band, of which Barber was a part, because of the Admiral and his position.

The entire USS Arizona Band, while at battle stations passing ammunition under gun turret number one, was killed in the attack. In the weeks to follow, all the bands that had participated in the "Battle of Music," including the band from the USS Argonne, voted to posthumously award the tournament trophy to Unit Band 22, renaming it the "Arizona Trophy." This was a fitting tribute to the heroic members of the band who died that infamous morning. Unit Band 22 now stands the eternal watch on board the USS Arizona for all sea service bands entering or leaving the Pearl Harbor Basin.

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