Russel, a story from World War II…
The Founding Project staff noticed a veteran’s story posted on Facebook and asked the author to please share the story with TFP’s readers. This is just one story, but, in many ways, it is a story felt by many. Russel is one man and, in many ways, every man who saw combat in WWII. It is a glimpse of the heart, mind and life of one soldier from once upon a time in America…as told by his son. Special thanks to John Barrett for sharing his father’s story with us…
[Editor’s Note: Subheadings were added to comply with SEO requirements for internet publication.]
Russel, One Soldier’s Story from World War II
My father, Russel N. Barrett, was born in 1922, so he always referred to the holiday as Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of World War I. He was somewhat uncomfortable with being honored as a veteran. For him, that was just what men did for their country.
The second of seven children, Russel was the eldest of three sons. His family farmed and ran a dairy in McPherson County, Kansas. Due to the Great Depression, when their milking machine broke, his family could not afford to repair or replace it. This forced Russel to start milking eight cows by hand, morning and evening, when he was in the 4th grade, in addition to his other farm chores.
Russel’s family provided milk to the McPherson School District at two cents a container, so they had all of the pennies from hundreds of children who bought milk the day the banks closed. He said they were very fortunate, as his gave them a little cash until the banks reopened, when almost no one else had any.
Through his younger years, Russel intended to become a farmer, like his father. In fact, his senior year in high school, Russel won a state Future Farmers of America contest with his essay, “Why I Want to Be a Farmer.” But that was not to be. The plans and imperial designs of Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and Tojo forced a radical change of course in his life.
After a year studying agriculture at Fort Hays State University, at Hays, Kansas, Russel moved back to McPherson and attended McPherson College, while helping with the family farm and dairy.
The older of Russel’s two brothers, Willis, was only two years younger than Russel, but had always been small, and in 1944, was no larger than Lawrence, who was born in 1934. As a result, Russel was granted three deferments as being vital to the operation of a farm, but in early 1944, over the strong objections of his parents, Russel enlisted in the Army.
Lawrence, was sure Russel was so tough that as soon as the Germans saw him, they would surrender.
Russel trained at Fort Hood, Texas, then embarked for Europe from Fort Dix, New Jersey. Crossing the North Sea, the captain advised the troops that they were listing at 44°, and that if they reached 45°, they would capsize. Early in his basic training, Russel volunteered to be a paratrooper, and fully expected to become one. However, at that point the Army needed combat infantryman more than they needed paratroopers, so he wound up in the infantry.
Russel landed in France on November 4, 1944. He was one of 119 replacements for a 130 man unit in the 26th (Yankee) Division, which was the mobilized Massachusetts National Guard. The men were told to pick up a weapon as they went through the line. Most of them picked up rifles, since they were lighter than mortars or machine guns. Russel picked up a mortar, and was assigned to the mortar and machine gun platoon of a rifle company.
The brass threw Russel’s unit right back into the meat grinder. While taking shelter in a barn on December 2, 1944, Russel suffered shrapnel wounds to his hand, leg and ankle. He later said he was never so shocked in his life. Like any young man, he was sure he would not be wounded.
As a result of Russel’s shrapnel wounds, he was evacuated to Nancy, France, and eventually to a hospital in England. The Army doctors were unable to remove the shrapnel from his leg and it remained there at his death, April 24, 2015. This shrapnel caused him considerable pain, especially in his later years and especially in the cold. He was awarded the Purple Heart for these wounds.
Because he was in the hospital, Russel missed the Battle of the Bulge, in which virtually his entire division was wiped out by an elite Volk’s Grenadier (similar to our Rangers) division of the German army. This resulted in survivor’s guilt, but also a great deal of resentment for the American leadership. He noted that all of the hospitals in France were evacuated to England shortly before the Battle of the Bulge began. Obviously, the Allied leadership knew the German offensive was coming and did nothing to counter it.
General George Patton Encounter
While Russel was in the hospital, Gen. George Patton, visited the troops. He asked Russel what was wrong with him. Russel started off with the shrapnel wound to his hand. Patton erupted that there were troops with worse wounds than that still in the field. When Russel was finally able to add that he had shrapnel in his leg and a shrapnel wound to his ankle, Patton blamed Russel for his eruption, because Russel did not mention his other wounds quickly enough.
Russel was sufficiently recovered to rejoin his unit on February 1, 1945. There were very few familiar faces, although one soldier, Paul Kroft, from Coldwater, Kansas, had survived. Russel and Paul remained friends for the rest of Paul’s life. Even after Paul died, Russel would drive the 112 miles to the Coldwater Cemetery to “talk to Paul,” because Paul was the only one who could really understand what they had gone through. Finally, when Russel was no longer able to drive to Coldwater, he started opening up about what he had experienced in “the war.”
He Could Hear Screams…
On March 1, 1945, the Germans were in rowhouses on one side of the street, and the Americans were in rowhouses on the other side. Russel was dropping mortars on the Germans. He said he knew he was killing women, because every time one of his mortars exploded, he could hear screams, and he was sure men would not scream like that. After the battle, the Americans were searching the rowhouses which had been occupied by the Germans, and what Russel saw would haunt him the rest of his life. A woman in a German uniform was propped up against a door sill. She had blonde hair. Her big blue eyes were staring up at him. Her head was blown open, and in his words “her brains were hanging out.” He knew he had done that. For 70 years, he saw her face every night when he went to bed.
Unfortunate Telegram, Well-time Letter
Two weeks later, on March 15, because their officer had been killed, Russel’s unit was placed on a hill the Germans already had zeroed in with their “screaming Mimi” rockets. Finally, what was left of his unit decided they had to leave. The Germans followed them with the rockets as they ran down the hill. Russel was one of two survivors. Not knowing he survived, the Army sent a telegram to his parents advising them he was missing in action. Fortunately, his letter explaining what happened got to his parents before the Army telegram did. He often said, “The good Russel Barrett died that day.” We had Psalm 46 inscribed on his headstone, because he said that was what got him through that experience.
“In war, rough men do unspeakable things that the rest of us may live free.”
In an incident Russel relayed only once, when our treatment of Iraqi prisoners was in the news, Russel stated that their officer cut the fingers off of a captured German soldier, one-by-one, until the German soldier gave the officer information that allowed the unit to avoid an ambush. Then the officer shot the German soldier in the head. When he told of this, I could only think of what I had read several decades earlier, “In war, rough men do unspeakable things that the rest of us may live free.” As repulsive as this sounds, it is the type of thing soldiers do when a nation is truly trying to win a war, not just avoid losing it, as we have every war since World War II.
Thoughts Only a Journal Knows
Russel was awarded the Bronze Star for running out into “no man’s land” to retrieve a soldier who was believed to be wounded, but turned out to be dead.
During a mop-up operation, Russel and a newer soldier were sent into a basement. The other soldier tripped a wire, filling the basement with black smoke, and both Russel and the other soldier came out vomiting blood and coughing up blood. This resulted in two more weeks in a hospital, and a spot on his lung that remained visible on x-rays decades later. He should have received a second Purple Heart for this incident, but did not. A second Purple Heart would have given him additional points, to allow him to go home earlier in the occupation.
Unfortunately, Russel destroyed it before his death, but he had a journal that I saw twice. In it he relayed that after the war was over, during mop-up operations, he came across a German soldier face-to-face and had to shoot him at close range. When I asked Russel about this, he insisted he had just been writing, that it had not happened. But I could tell by the way it was written, as well as by the look on his face and the tone of his voice that it had. On another occasion, I had read about and seen photographs of dead GIs stacked like cordwood, with live GIs sitting and laying on them to get out of the mud and snow. I asked Russel about this. He said “Yes,” but in a way that let me know I was to never bring it up again.
France, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia
Russel marched through France, Germany, Austria, and finally Czechoslovakia. After taking one town in Czechoslovakia, Russel and another soldier were drunk and likely a little disorderly. Their uniforms were out of order. A rear echelon major pulled up in a Jeep and confronted them about their appearance and behavior. He asked what unit they were with and what they had to say for themselves. My father replied, “We took this town, sir.” The major just replied, “carry on,” and instructed his driver to drive on. The major knew better than to take on battle-hardened soldiers for such behavior.
“We took this town, sir.”
One of the things that stuck with Russel was a statement by a sergeant in training that, “A good soldier never does without.” Obviously, the food for front line troops was not good. It was mostly K- Rations. K-Rations were canned foods that were truly awful. Since Russel had grown up on a farm, he was often able to secure better food than the Army provided. For the most part, the troops were going through farmland. All of the houses had a chamber in the chimney above the fireplace, where they hung hams to smoke. Most of the farmsteads had chickens and milk cows. As a result, Russel frequently had ham, fresh eggs and fresh milk.
The civilians had fled their homes as a result of the war, so the soldiers also took photos and other items from the homes. I still have the photos Russel took. Some are of cities or landscapes. Many, too many, are of Hitler, with wording praising him.
I still have the photos Russel took. Some are of cities or landscapes. Many, too many, are of Hitler, with wording praising him.
A “Rag Man” and a Good Soldier
Russel said that by the end of the war he was a good soldier. He was what Gen. Omar Bradley called a “rag man.” Bradley explained that rag men just shuffle along not feeling, almost not even human. They are as close to zombies as have ever existed. They don’t “give a damn” about anything, including whether they live or die. In truth many likely prefer death. But, Bradley said, in battle, these are the men you need. They make the best soldiers, because they will obey orders without thinking about their own safety, or anything else.
They make the best soldiers, because they will obey orders without thinking about their own safety, or anything else.
After the war was over, during the occupation, the United States government provided food for the civilian population. The food it provided was much better than what it provided to American troops. For obvious reasons, this angered the troops. What angered Russel the most was that the civilians got fresh orange juice, while the American troops were still living on K-Rations. As a result, he decided to raid a railroad car containing the orange juice. He got away with a supply of orange juice, but the MPs were shooting at him as he fled with it.
Russel told of how they celebrated when they heard that the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, because they were awaiting orders to ship-out for an invasion of the Japanese home island. They understood that as battle-hardened combat troops, as “rag men,” they would be in the first wave of the invasion, and few would likely survive.
A Hero’s Awards
In addition to the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Russel was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, and the European Theater Ribbon with Service Stars for the Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe Campaigns.
Russel was very resentful that the rear echelon troops had the then new combat boots, but that the frontline troops had to deal with shoes and leggings. This was a huge issue, as the troops were ordered to remove their shoes and massage their feet for 15 minutes before going to bed, to prevent trench foot. With lace-up leggings and a 2 hours on/2 hours off guard schedule, this simply was not possible. As a result, even those front line troops who did not wind up with trench foot, had immersion foot. The nerve damage from immersion foot caused Russel’s feet to be sensitive to pressure for decades.
Only Those In Combat Know
It was a horrible mistake for anyone to tell Russel he was “in the war,” unless that person was either a combat infantryman or a Marine. He was quick to let anyone know that only about 5% of the Army troops during World War II were combat infantry, and if a person was not combat infantry or a Marine, that person didn’t know what war was. He was absolutely furious when he read in the newspaper that Obama’s grandfather talked about being in the war, but that his contribution had been arranging for a day room that was a “swell place to go” for the rear echelon troops in England. Worse, Obama’s grandfather received an award for arranging that day room.
Russel knew the horrors of combat and became angry when our national leaders refused to commit the resources to win a conflict. He always commented, “They’re afraid they’ll start a war!” He was determined that if troops are going to be placed in harm’s way, we must commit the resources to win quickly, with a minimum loss of American life. The only real rule of engagement should be “do what you have to do to win.”
Returning to Civilian Life
After the war, Russel’s father set him up to start farming. He tried this for while, and even used his veterans points to buy the second self-propelled combine in McPherson County. (Autos, farm equipment and other mechanical goods were scarce as the nation converted from military to civilian production. Veterans received points, based on their service, which provided them with a preference in buying these goods.) But dealing with what we now call PTSD, Russel could not stay on the farm.
One day with no explanation to his parents, Russel went to live with his sister, who was a chemist in Toledo, Ohio. While in Toledo, Russel applied to join the Nationalist Chinese Army, to fight against the communist revolution, but they would not accept American citizens. He eventually became a roofer, then for reasons he never could explain, Russel applied to the University of Kansas for a program in which a person earned both an undergraduate and law degree at the same time. Russel operated his own roofing company while a student at KU.
His Personal and Career Journey
Russel graduated from law school on February 14, 1951. He opened an office in Lawrence, Kansas for a short time, but applied to become an FBI Agent. He was accepted and served as an agent for five years. During this time, he chased military deserters while working out of the Bristol, Virginia Field Office, fought the Mafia while working out of Providence, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts, and surveilled communists while working out of Newark, New Jersey and New York City.
His father died in July, 1956. As the eldest son of a farm family, Russel dutifully quit the FBI and came back to Kansas to take care of his mother and 16-year-old sister. Russel’s younger brother, Lawrence, was so influenced by Russel that he also went to law school and became an FBI agent, serving from 1964 until his death in 1979.
In Newark, Russel was introduced to Leta Mae Johnson, an aeronautical engineer who was rooming with an FBI Agent’s family. Leta had grown up in Edmond, Oklahoma. After high school, she had attended Central State College in Edmond, intending to become a high school math and physics teacher. But when Curtis-Wright Aircraft Company came to Central State recruiting women to become Curtis-Wright Cadets, she accepted their offer. This was a program to train women to become aeronautical engineers, since few men were available due to the needs of the military.
Marriage and Hard Work
Leta and Russel were married shortly after Russel’s father died. Leta obtained a job with Boeing Military Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, integrating an inertial guidance system into Boeing’s entry to the ICBM market. Their first year of marriage, Leta largely supported Russel, as he started his law practice, while also farming his mother’s land, handling his father’s estate, arranging the farm sale, and finding additional land that would provide sufficient income for his mother.
Until the latter 1960s, Russel also did contract investigative work for the government. The work was for the CIA, but for cover, his contact was a colonel in the Pentagon. Most of his work was investigating applicants for the CIA. However, among other things, he found a saboteur who had worked at Boeing Military Aircraft Company since World War II. Russel also taught Police Science for the Wichita Police Department from shortly after his return to Kansas, through the spring semester of 1968.
Russel only retired from his law practice when his health failed at 91 years old, 2 weeks after Leta died.
In his latter years, he would introduce himself by saying, “I’m Russel (or Russ) Barrett. I killed people.”
At his funeral, a secretary who had worked for him from 1971 to 1989, told me that from the end of November or first of December, through the end of March, Russel was so preoccupied with the war that he got no work done, at all.
So Much Left Unsaid, Untold
There is so much I know he never told us. I tried for years to convince Russel to record what happened on his Dictaphone. For a while he said he would when he got old. Then he just flat refused. Quite honestly, I think it would have made it easier to understand why he did a lot of the things he did while my sister and I were growing up, some of which can only be described as abusive.
But maybe more importantly, as he always said, those who want to talk about the war didn’t experience it. We are losing so much history as those who actually fought “the war” pass. And if there’s one thing I have learned by reading original historical documents and contemporaneous accounts, those who lived our history would not recognize themselves in our history books.
I bring up the abusiveness only because it is a problem for so many families of combat veterans. I had a client who had been a Marine at the Khe Sanh Firebase in Vietnam. His PTSD drove his son to suicide at age 16. PTSD can lead a person to act in ways that are not rational, ways that severely hurt those closest to them. Secondary PTSD is only starting to be recognized as a disorder, and is not yet recognized by the DSM. It is a real problem for the families of combat veterans, but there is almost no help available for them, and none is available from the VA. It is long past time for the VA to provide this help to the families of combat veterans.
Images: Barrett family photo and U.S. Military and history sources
Military history of the 26th Infantry Yankee Division: https://history.army.mil/html/forcestruc/cbtchron/cc/026id.htm