Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Bombardier From Oil Creek

Denver Barnett: American Hero

by David Parmer

Thoughts on a Long Flight
It was October 17th, 1944. The Spirit of Plainfield rumbled down the runway of the air strip of the 449th Bomb Group of the 15th USAAF in Grottaglie, Italy. Straining with the weight of the full load of bombs and nearing the end of the runway, the wheels of the B-24 Liberator finally lifted off the ground and the Spirit of Plainfield was airborne. It would be a long flight to Vienna, Austria and the railway targets were waiting. Bombardier 2nd Lt. Denver Barnett suppressed his uneasiness in this replacement plane for his Virginia Rose which was undergoing repairs. Airmen are superstitious. Although all B-24s were virtually identical, the Virginia Rose was “their plane” and a replacement was only second best. Furthermore, this was their second replacement plane since the Virginia Rose. Denver’s crew had been assigned to the B-24 Fascinating Bitch for fourteen previous missions. Denver hoped the new plane would work out, but his mind was mainly on the targets of the day.
As the Spirit of Plainfield carved a northerly course at 20,000 feet above the Adriatic Sea toward the railway targets of Vienna, Denver Barnett had several hours to ponder the past.
Right, above: Air Cadet Denver Barnett

A Look Backward
Denver had enlisted in the Army Air Corps at Charleston, West Virginia in September 1942 and was called to active duty in January 1943. He was subsequently sent for flight training at Shepherd Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, and later to Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Big Springs, Texas. After he had completed Navigator School at Big Springs, his mother, Gay Barnett, made a train trip cross country from Orlando to San Antonio over the 4th of July 1944 to visit him.

In August 1944, Denver received orders to depart for England and the European theater. His crew shuttled a B-24 from Topeka to England by way of Goose Bay, Labrador, Iceland, Belfast and then to London. His stay in England was brief. After a short sight-seeing trip in London during an air raid by German bombers, Denver received orders to depart for Italy by way of North Africa. Denver and his crewmates arrived in Grottaglie, Italy on August 25, 1944.

Denver had been in Italy almost two months as the Spirit of Plainfield made its way north to the railway targets in Vienna. Flak would be heavy over Vienna and maybe there also would be Messerschmidts. But bombardiers had no responsibility to be on the look-out for Messerschmidts or to worry about flak. He had plenty of time to think of his wife of four years, the former Rose Amos of Burnsville who was mothering their first child, Denver Junior, in Fairmont at the home of her parents, Frank and Eula (Bush) Amos. Rose was also spending some time with Denver’s parents, Alva and Gay Barnett who had moved recently from Orlando to Weston. His plane Virginia Rose was named after the girl friend of the pilot, Lt. Nelson, and Denver’s wife Rose, which explains why the plane was so special to him.

As the Liberator formation grew nearer to Vienna, Denver studied the target charts and put memories of home in the background. This was the crew’s nineteenth mission and their first in the Spirit of Plainfield.

The B-24 Liberator
The B-24 Liberator was the most produced of any aircraft designed for heavy bombing during World War II. The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation at plants in San Diego, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Tulsa, and Willow Run, Michigan, built over 18,000 of the planes during the war. The plane usually carried a crew of ten, which included seven machine gunners, two pilots, a navigator and bombardier. Its machine guns were located on the tail, belly, on both sides, top, and nose. Although the B-17 Flying Fortress was better known and better liked by airmen, the B-24 was the true workhorse of the air service during the war. However, to its detriment, it was not as rugged as the B-17 and was prone to catch fire and break apart when hit by flak or machine gun fire. Of course, these faults resulted in the loss of many planes and their crews. Lt. Denver Barnett had much time to ponder the merits and disadvantages of the B-24 on his mission from Grottaglie, Italy to Vienna and hoped that he would make it back.

The Norden Bombsight
In war, the objective of using bombers is to destroy the enemy’s means of continuing the war. The Allied powers, particularly the United States Army Air Force, invested heavily in the manufacture of bombers which utilized the highly secret Norden bombsight. Prior to the invention of the bombsight, airplanes dropped bombs on the enemy by dead reckoning and little guessed where the bombs might land. Needless to say, in the early days of the use of bombers, ground targets generally had little to fear from the bombs which might land hundreds of yards away from the target. Most of this waste of munitions ended with the Norden bombsight.
Upon reaching the target area, the bombardier becomes the most important crew member on the aircraft. Obviously, the bombs must reach the intended target if the mission is to become a success. One peculiar aspect of the Norden bombsight is that it takes over the flying of the aircraft over the target area in order that the bombsight can effectively do its job. Lt. Barnett received highly classified and complex training on the use of the Norden bombsight and he was very good at his job. However, as with any weapon of war, the Norden bombsight was not totally accurate and it had another important drawback—while the bombsight was in operation, the aircraft was highly susceptible to groundfire or flak.

Right: the bombadier's view of Dallas over the Norden bombsight in a B-17, "flying fortress". Click on th image to see more of this flight.
Left: a Messerschmitt

The Spirit of Plainfield Goes Down
Flak was thick over the target area and the sound of “thunk” as the rounds exploded created great anxiety in the thin-hulled Liberators. The German 88’s were accurate and were painting a pattern into which the bombers were forced to fly as the Norden bombsights put the bombers on auto-pilot. Thousands of American airmen had already paid with their lives because of the accuracy of the 88’s. Messerschmidts which usually were darting in and out of the Liberator formations had not been seen on this run but the plane was taking hits from the heavy flak.

Lt. Barnett had already loosed the bomb payload on the Vienna rail yards and the B-24 had crossed into Hungarian airspace when the plane shuddered. It had been hit by a German shell and lost part of the left wing, a horizontal stabilizer and the function of the flight controls. The hit to the bomber was fatal. The pilot, Captain Nelson gave the “bail-out” order and the gunners began hitting the silks. Denver helped the injured and semi-conscious Lt. Clark to bail out of the dying plane. As bombardier, he could not do his job wearing his parachute and harness; consequently his life-saving parachute gear was stashed in the bombardier compartment of the plane.

Desperately controlling his balance as he made his way in the stricken plane, Denver found his parachute gear and hurriedly strapped it on. The altitude of the plane was only 1000 feet and he knew he would have to jump right away. There was no time to go forward to jump. His nearest exit was the open bomb bay doors which was not a desirable way to go. With no choice, out he went, head first. Lt. Barnett, in his first parachute jump, met the air of the Hungarian sky which had a peculiar sulphury smell of ordnance.

Missing in Action
Nervously, Rose Amos Barnett opened the telegram left by the Western Union boy. Dread is a word which doesn’t do justice to the feeling a telegram from the War Department brings to a new mother and young wife of an airman serving in the dangerous, flak-riddled skies of Europe. “Missing in action” were the words which told Rose that her husband was unaccounted for. It was not the worst news she could have received from the War Department and gave her hope that her husband was still alive somewhere in Europe.

As Lt. Barnett was descending in his parachute, the Spirit of Plainfield was crashing a few miles away and bullets were whizzing by him. Fortunately, he was unhit by the marksmen on the ground but he was immediately taken into custody by a crowd of farmers when he landed. The civilians marched him into a small Hungarian village where he was turned over to German soldiers. After a brief interrogation by an officer, he was walked and then transported by train to Budapest where he was lodged in the City Prison and further interrogated by German officers. He was imprisoned there in solitary confinement for nearly two months.
Right: Letter informing Rose that Denver was MIA.
Left: Denver's POW identification card

Stalag Luft 3
Denver’s imprisonment in the Budapest City Prison was cut short because the Russian Army was closing in on Budapest and prisoners were moved to a small prisoner of war camp at Zagan, Poland known as Stalag Luft III. While at Stalag Luft III, a very ill American prisoner, Lt. Wayne Dougherty, was repatriated in late December 1944 to American Forces because of his serious health problems.

A Message to Rose
Once back in American hands, Lt. Dougherty contacted Denver’s wife, Rose, who was in Orlando, and advised her that her husband was a prisoner of war. This message was confirmed a short time later by the War Department and the anxiety of not knowing whether her husband was dead or alive was over.

A Forced March
In late January 1945, the German authorities at Stalag Luft III decided to move all the prisoners of war because the Russian Army was again closing in. The ill-clad American prisoners were marched in sub-zero weather for four days. Denver had only a khaki uniform and a blanket and suffered badly from the effects of the cold and biting wind. At Spremberg, the prisoners were put on small railway cars and two- and–a-half days later, on February 3, 1945, arrived in Nuremberg.
Above right: Stalag Luft 3, Zagan
Left: The forced march
Below right: Stalag 13D, Nuremburg
Farther below, right: Stalag 7A
These sketches were made by Robert Neary and were taken from

Stalag 13 D
Stalag XIII D was Denver’s next prisoner of war camp. The camp had recently been vacated by Italian prisoners and was in a deplorable state. It was infested with vermin of all kinds. A shortage of fuel and food made life very difficult for the prisoners. In late March 1945, the Allied Forces were closing in on Nuremberg and the prisoners of war again were to be moved. By this stage of the war, even the Germans knew the end was near and vigilance over the prisoners of war had little priority.

Another March
The Germans began evacuating Stalag XIII D on April 4, 1945 and the prisoners were once again forced to march to a new prison. The German guards escorting the prisoners were mostly old men who were tired of the war and had no provisions for the prisoners except for Red Cross parcels. The guards paid little attention to security and many prisoners took the opportunity to escape. Denver and Vernon Ligon, a P-47 pilot from North Carolina were among the prisoners of war who simply walked away from the line of prisoners in hope of freedom.

An Aborted Escape
The lax security by the German guards and friendly German civilians gave great hope to Denver that he would be successful in his escape attempt. This optimism, however, was dashed when Denver and his companion walked headlong into a German SS officer and an enlisted man. The German SS had the reputation of shooting first and asking questions later and Denver and his friend wanted to take no chances of being listed as casualties rather than prisoners of war. The German SS officer also perhaps knew that, with the end of the war in sight, execution of escaped prisoners of war would not be a smart thing to do. The SS officer told Denver if he and Ligon would re-join the march of the prisoners, he would take no further action against them. Denver knew a bargain when he saw one, and he and his fellow escapee rejoined the march of the prisoners.

Stalag 7 A
On April 13th, 1945, Denver arrived at his final prisoner of war camp at Moosburg, Germany. A camp of Russian and American prisoners, the Moosburg facility was a tent camp. Here, Denver learned from a Russian prisoner of war that Lt. Clark, a friend and fellow crewman on the Spirit of Plainfield, had died. The Russian prisoner of war was an orthopedic doctor who had treated Lt. Clark for his injuries. Clark had asked the Russian doctor to try to locate Lt. Barnett and ask him to deliver his personal belongings to his family. The Russian doctor gave Denver a few meager personal belongings of Lt. Clark. Upon his return to the States, Denver complied with his friend’s final request.

The War is Over
After much evidence that the end of the war was coming to an end, units of the American 14th Armored Division liberated the Moosburg prison camp on April 29th. General George Patton gave a celebratory speech to the prisoners from atop a tank and told them they were free and that organized assistance for them was right behind him. Food and freedom was a healing balm to the war-weary prisoners.
Left: Denver Barnett home with Rose and son Denver.

Lt. Denver Barnett returned to the United States aboard the SS Marine Angel. Docking in Boston on May 31, Denver telephoned his wife Rose and told her he was boarding a train for Fort Meade, Maryland and then on to Clarksburg. On June 2nd, Denver arrived to a jubilant welcome at the Clarksburg train station from his wife, son Denver Jr., and his parents, Alva and Gay Barnett. He spent many days thereafter with friends in Orlando, Burnsville, Weston and Fairmont.

Denver remained in the Army Reserves until 1984, reaching the rank of Lt. Colonel. He returned to the classroom and taught at Jane Lew High School and at Weston Junior High until his retirement in 1968. In that year, he transferred as an Army Reserve officer to the 475th Quartermaster Group in Sharon, Pennsylvania. He lived in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania until his death on March 24, 2008.
Left: Memorabilia
Right: Rose and Denver
The Greatest Generation
Tom Brokaw referred to World War II veterans as the “greatest generation.” The War Department acknowledges that 88,000 airmen gave their lives for their country during World War II. Denver was one of the lucky airmen who came home to his family, which was to increase by two more children over the next few years. He was forever humble about his contribution, and like his brother Herald who served in the infantry during the European campaign, wanted no roll of drums or sounding of trumpets for his sacrifices. However, the Army Air Force gratefully acknowledged his heroism and service by awarding him an Air Medal with oak leaf cluster and the Purple Heart.
Denver died on March 24, 2008 and was laid to rest in the Knights of Pythias Cemetery in Burnsville.
Mabel (Henline) Eagle recalls that in the 1930s her stepson Jimmy Henline and his buddy Denver Barnett rigged up a telegraph system between their respective homes in Burnsville and “dotted and dashed” each other to stay in touch.


  1. I travel regularly to Norwalk, CT on business. I visit with Northrup-Grumman Corporation at Norden Park. As you enter the security lobby, there is a display case containing a Norden Bombsite. It is an impressive bit of history that allowed U.S. air forces to domminate in airiel bombing accuracy, it was a key to allied forces winning WWII.

  2. I attended college with Denver R. Barnett Jr. He and his wife Jean are in my wedding pictures. I recall the two occasions that Denver Jr. invited me to go home with him to Weston, WV for the weekend. There I met Denver Sr. and Rose Barnett, kind and cordial people. They made me feel truly welcome. I never knew until reading this article that Denver Sr. was a war hero. Had I known at the time I could have told him: Thank you for your service to our country.

  3. This is a great article. My name is Aaron Barnett. Denver was my grandfather. Thank you for keeping the history of Orlando alive.