A year and half ago, I wrote this memorial of CPT Joseph Rhett Barker II for Memorial Day. I repeat it here in honor of Pearl Harbor Day. Hardly anyone has ever heard of Joe Barker, even in his home town of Birmingham. There is a line in the movie In Harm's Way that speaks an eternal truth: "All battles are fought by scared men who'd rather be some place else."
Joe Barker was one of those scared men, yet when he was given the chance to surrender, or to run and hide to try to wait out the end of the war in the Luzon hills, he did neither. He refused to surrender and he fought on the best way he could find. He fought until the Japanese captured him, tortured him and, finally, beheaded him.
If you remember anybody on this Pearl Harbor Day, remember Joe Barker, a soft-spoken Alabama kid who never, ever gave up.
"Only those who are willing to die are fit to live." -- Captain Joseph Rhett Barker II, Bilibid Prison, Manila, Philippines, a few days before his execution by the Japanese, 8 October 1943.
The quote above is sometimes attributed to General Douglas MacArthur. He said it, no doubt. You can find several times that he said it, after the war. But he stole it from Joe Barker, a young officer who was stuck with the consequences of MacArthur's poor generalship of the Philippine campaign and, though he paid for it with his life, wrote as bright a chapter in American heroism as anyone ever has or ever could.
"The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Joseph R. Barker, II (0-021155), Captain (Cavalry), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy (assigned to the 26th Cavalry Regiment, Philippine Scouts), while serving with the Philippine Guerilla Forces, East Central Luzon Guerrilla Area, in action against enemy forces from May 1942 to November 1943, in the Philippine Islands. Captain Barker's intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army. Headquarters, U.S. Forces-Pacific, General Orders No. 263 (1946). Home Town: Jefferson County, Alabama. Personal Awards: Distinguished Service Cross (WWII), Silver Star (WWII), Legion of Merit, Purple Heart."
So reads the synopsis of Joe Barker's Distinguished Service Cross citation. It doesn't begin to cover the truth of the sacrifice and fidelity to duty exhibited by the story of this boy from Birmingham, Alabama, who is almost entirely forgotten by fickle history. It is fitting on this Memorial Day, more than sixty-five years after he was beheaded by the Japanese and dumped in an unmarked grave, that we remember Joe Barker.
Joseph Rhett Barker, II, the second son of Joseph H. and Anna Barker, was born in Birmingham on 27 April 1915. He was christened by Dr. Henry Morris Edmonds of the Independent Presbyterian Church, and became a member of that church at the age of twelve. 1927 was a good year for the Barkers. His father was a mortgage banker in the heyday of Birmingham land speculation in the 1920's and became a millionaire. Joe and his brothers and sisters were raised in luxury on hilltop estate overlooking the city. As a boy, Joe was passionately fond of horses and became an excellent polo player.
With the Crash of 1929, however, the family's wealth disappeared virtually overnight. Forced to sell the estate, Joe's father moved his family to Milner Crescent, a modest home not too far from the church that was the center of family affairs. Reverend Edmonds, a vocal opponent of the Klan and a supporter of racial tolerance in the 1920's, often received death threats and yet the Barkers stood by him, even though it is certain that Joseph H. Barker lost business as a result. This must have had a profound effect on young Joe and I think it paid him dividends later in life when he was assigned to the Philippines.
Joe's love of horses led him to join the Birmingham Sabres, Headquarters Troop, 55th Cavalry Brigade, Alabama National Guard. While in the Guard he served as General Persons' orderly on several tours of strike duty in the Birmingham District. A statewide competitive examination sent him as the representative of the Alabama National Guard to West Point Military Academy, where after a distinguished career which included being named the editor-in-chief of the West Point annual, the Howitzer, he graduated in 1938, commissioned a Second Lieutenant.
Assigned to the 26th Cavalry Regiment, Philippine Scouts, he spent the two and a half years before Pearl Harbor training troops, playing polo, and spending whatever spare time he could learning the history, folkways and languages of the Islands. He quickly fell in love with the Filipino people. By all accounts, he followed the old dictum that if you take care of your troops, they'll take care of you. His Scouts loved him.
Barker also became interested in relics of the Ming Dynasty, when for centuries the Chinese had occupied the Philippines. He accompanied Professor Olav Janse of Harvard University on several archaeological expeditions. Joe by that time spoke five of the native dialects and acted as interpreter.
Then came Pearl Harbor, followed by MacArthur freezing and allowing the Japanese to destroy his air force on the ground followed up with the Japanese amphibious landings. Once again, Dugout Doug dithered. When he finally made up his mind, the 26th Cavalry drew the short straw to try to stop the Japanese who were driving south from the Lingayen Gulf beaches toward Manila. It was vital that the approaches to Bataan be held open long enough for the rest of MacArthur's force to come up from the south.
On Christmas Eve, 1941, at the battle of Binaloan, Joe Barker won the Silver Star for gallantry in action. From the official U.S. Army history of the campaign:
The action of 24 December placed the Japanese in position for the final drive toward the Agno River. At about 0500, with the 4th Tank Regiment in the lead, the Japanese made contact with the 26th Cavalry outposts north and west of Binaloan. Although the Scouts had no antitank guns, they were able to stop the first attack. (MBV: By using Molotov cocktails made of Coca Cola bottles, dropping hand grenades down the hatches and firing .45 pistols in the vision slits.) The tanks then swung west to bypass the American positions, leaving the infantry to continue the fight for Binaloan, By 0700 the 26th Cavalry had blunted the assault and inflicted many casualties on the enemy. Pursuing their advantage, the Scouts counterattacked and the Japanese had to send in more tanks to stop the 26th Cavalry. Even with the aid of tanks, the Japanese made no progress. Sometime during the morning the 2nd Formosa joined the attack, and the cavalrymen found themselves in serious trouble. Too heavily engaged to break off the action and retire, they continued to fight on.
At this juncture, General Wainwright arrived at Binaloan to see Selleck. He found neither General Selleck, who had gone to Wainwright's command post to report, nor any 71st Division troops, but did find the 26th Cavalry, which now numbered no more than 450 men. He ordered Pierce to get his wounded men and supply train out as quickly as possible and to fight a delaying action before withdrawing southeast across the Agno to Tayug. For more than four hours the cavalrymen held their position against overwhelming odds, and at 1530 began to withdraw. By dusk the last elements had reached Tayug and the 2nd Formosa entered Binaloan. "Here," said General Wainwright, himself a cavalryman, "was true cavalry delaying action, fit to make a man's heart sing. Pierce, the day upheld the best traditions of the cavalry service." -- The Fall of the Philippines, Louis Morton, p. 138.
Finally, the last of MacArthur's troops made it into Bataan. Joe fought throughout the battle of Bataan, further earning the Legion of Merit for the handling of his troops in many bitter engagements. Joe, the consummate horseman, along with the rest of the 26th, had to shoot his horse so that the wounded and sick could get some protein.
By the 9 April, 1942, the fight for Bataan was over. Barker and another Lieutenant of the 26th, Edwin Ramsey, were cut off at the end with about 60 men, so they didn't get the order to surrender. But they knew from the silence it was over. From Ramsey's memoir:
"I had never been close to Joseph Rhett Barker II; indeed, I had never particularly cared for his aristocratic Alabama manner and West Point hauteur. But there was little of that left now. Barker too was emaciated; it was a brotherhood we all shared, an inescapable fraternity of malnutrition, exhaustion and doom.
"How do you feel Ed?" he asked me when I reported to him.
"Pretty good, sir."
He gave a disdainful frown at the "sir."
"We're all in it now," he shrugged. He put out his hand and I shook it.
In FOR it now, crossed my mind, but I said nothing. (Lieutenant Ramsey's War, p. 75)
. . .
Joe Barker and I divided up our rations and cooked it among some rocks by the river. For the past few days we had made the march together, falling into step with each other and sharing desultory conversation. All formality had dissolved between us as our condition worsened, and I had come to admire his stoicism and courage.
"No artillery today," he said, pinching some rice and fish between his fingertips and fitting them into his mouth. His face was haggard and hollow, and his beard hung in dirty tangles. His uniform, like mine, was in rags and stained with sweat from the unbroken weeks of marching, fighting, and hiding. As he scrupulously gathered up the buts of food from the bottom of his tin mug, I noticed that his fingers had become so thin that he now wore his big West Point ring on his thumb.
"You thinking it means what I'm thinking?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "I don't see how it could be anything else. We'll find out soon enough."
"What'll you do?"
"Don't suppose I'd last long in a prison camp. How 'bout you?"
"Me neither. I guess I'll take my chances."
Barker nodded. "If it comes to it, I guess I will too. Try for the southern islands, then maybe New Guinea and Australia."
"What do you think are the chances?"
He smiled wanly. "Slim to none. Surrendering doesn't appeal to me, though."
It was a sentiment I appreciated instinctively. "You want to try for it together?" I suggested.
He thought it over a minute and put out his bony hand to me. "You're on," he said. (Ibid, pp. 83-84)
Together, Barker and Ramsey made their way through Japanese held territory, making for the mountains north of Bataan. Along the way they picked up a starving, sick Private Gene Strickland of the U.S. 31st Infantry. Though it held them up and almost cost them their lives, they stuck by Strickland and brought him out too.
Eventually, they made their way to Colonel Claude Thorp, who had been sent out of Bataan by MacArthur's orders before the fall to gather arms, form local Philippine Constabulary men into a guerrilla force and disrupt the enemy from behind. Thorp assumed command of all irregular forces on Luzon. Barker and Ramsey joined Thorp and began their career as guerrilla leaders. Ramsey recalls:
A few days after my meeting with Colonel Thorp, Joe Barker returned. We now were commanders of a nascent guerrilla force with responsibility for the vast central plain of Luzon, Bataan and the city of Manila, and we had not the slightest idea how to go about organizing them. We began timidly, making contact with civic leaders in the nearby town of Porac who were known to be loyal and anti-Japanese. Five of these we commissioned as officers in the East Central Luzon Guerrilla Area force and charged them with recruiting local people into cadres. To each cadre we assigned a soldier from our headquarters who was to provide basic military training.
From the first, Barker and I had to improvise tactics. Under Thorp's instructions we followed the structural formulae of the Communist guerrillas who were already operating in Central Luzon. Call the Hukbalahap, or Huks, these guerrillas were the military wing of the Philippine Communist Party, and they had had years of experience in clandestine organizing. By the time Bataan fell, they were already mobilized and moving swiftly from one battlefield to the next, scavenging weapons and supplies.
Their tactics were derived from the writings of Mao Tse-Tung, who at that time was supreme commander of the guerrilla army in China. Through contacts within the Huks, Barker and I managed to obtain a copy of Mao's book on guerrilla warfare, and we passed it back and forth, studying it in our spare time and discussing its lessons over meals and on the march.
The essential principle framed by Mao was that a guerrilla army could not compete with a regular army in the field. Instead, it must be made of irregulars: peasants and villagers highly trained and organized. For us it was a wholly new approach to warfare, in many cases the reverse of everything we had been taught.
"Pretty good stuff," Barker remarked one night when we were lying on straw mats on the floor of our hut, a candle burning between us. "This business about the guerrilla commander being like a fisherman casting his net wide and drawing it in tight again. . . the fellow's a poet."
"He's a damn commie," I grunted.
"But he knows what he's talking about," Barker countered.
"All the worse for the rest of us," I said.
"Well, he could be a Jap for all I care, so long as we can use what he says. What do you make of this business about fighting a war of contradictions?"
I rolled onto my side to face him. "The way I see it," I said, "what 'Comrade' Mao is saying is that we have to turn our weaknesses into strengths. We have to stay on the defensive but assume the initiative, take advantage of the terrain and the fact that the Japs are fighting in a foreign country among a hostile population. We have to stay flexible but organized and avoid pitched battles. Most of all, we have to build our credibility and get the people on our side. We fight only when we have the advantage, but we don't take on the enemy directly."
Barker raised an index finger professorially. "Exactly. We attack only when we know we can win; otherwise, we stay low and concentrate on organizing, gathering intelligence, and sabotage."
"It's all his political stuff I don't swallow," I said. "Our job isn't to start a revolution, it's to prepare for MacArthur's invasion. We're military men, not politicians."
"That's what Mao calls the purely military viewpoint," Barker said with mock admonition. "It's heresy."
"For a professional soldier, it's dogma," I grumbled. "Though God knows there's precious few of them around."
Barker opened the book to the page he had been studying. "Listen to this," he said, and he began reading in his lilting Alabama accent: "The regular officers assigned to the guerrilla forces should shoulder this sacred task conscientiously, and they should not think their status lowered because they fight fewer big battles and for the time being do not appear as national heroes. Any such thinking is wrong. Guerrilla warfare does not bring as quick results or as great renown as regular warfare, but a long road tests a horse's strength, and a long task proves a man's heart." He glanced up triumphantly. "He goes instinctively for the equine metaphor. Maybe Mao's a cavalryman."
I rolled over onto my back. "And maybe he's just a horse's ass," I said.
Barker blew out the candle. I settled myself on the mat, and as I slipped into sleep I could not help but wonder what sort of a war this was in which a West Point graduate and Southern gentleman, dressed in a uniform of rags and lying in a jungle hit, read from the works a Chinese Communist revolutionary about tactics, logistics, and the philosophy of the human heart. (Ibid., pp 11-113)
In time, Thorp was captured by the Japanese and Barker took over the entire area of operations, leaving Ramsey to run the East Central Luzon Guerrilla Force. This perforce led Joe Barker to make dangerous trips to Manila to organize espionage and sabotage activities there. Barker brought to the entire guerrilla enterprise an energy and competence that Thorp had lacked. His force grew and grew again. The Japanese became alarmed at Barker's successes and redoubled their efforts to find and eliminate him.
In the middle of all this, Barker found time to put out an underground newspaper in English and Tagalog called the "Liberty News." A surviving edition dated 6 December 1942 declares it the "organ of the USAFFE Liberty Crusade," its place of publication, "In the Field." In a box at the left and right are the words, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" The feature article reads in part:
"The time is fast approaching when you the people of Luzon will be able to free yourselves from the cruel oppressors who have attempted to enslave you. The rising tide of victories over the Axis powers is growing every day. Here in Luzon, every city, town, or barrio has its fighting guerrilla unit and in some provinces they have virtually eliminated the Japanese soldiers by sniping along the roads and in the towns. These guerrilla forces of Luzon headed by American officers left here for the purpose by General MacArthur are composed of brave men who have sworn to wage unremitting war on the enemy. To them I send greetings and congratulations from the High Command. To those of you people of Luzon -- be you man or woman, young or old -- who have not yet joined the movement, I beseech that you arm yourselves and join the local unit at once so that when the day comes you will be ready to rise up and destroy the enemy. To the ill-fated Japanese soldiers I say what they have already found out: The people of Luzon would rather be dead than be your slaves." -- Captain Joseph R. Barker II.
Finally, on 14 January 1943, Joe Barker's luck ran out. Betrayed by his bodyguard, Joe was taken while asleep and sent to Santiago Prison where he remained, under torture, for eight and a half months. He was transferred to Bilibid Prison about 1 October. In the nine months that Joe Barker was a guerrilla commander, he managed to grow his secret army into more than 20,000 fighters, support troops and spies. There may have been as many as twice that many. Many outlived him and provided critical support to our landings on Luzon in 1944. But his finest hour came after he was taken, tortured and beaten almost to death a half-dozen times or more. From the eulogy by Reverend Edmonds at the time of the award of the Distinguished Service Cross in 1947:
One (witness) reports seeing him in Santiago Prison where he was in a cell three by three by five opening only on an underground passage through a window a foot square. Joe said: "Keep fighting." Col. Santos writes: "When we left Barker in Ft. Santiago he was already thin and emaciated. While we were leaving . . . he was signaling 'Thumbs up.' 'Thumbs up.'" Every voice that has spoken of his behaviour in prison has echoed the statement of Commodore Hersey: "Captain Barker was utterly defiant toward his captors. Though his attitude increased the hardships of his confinement it had the effect of bolstering up the morale of the other prisoners. His example enabled a lot of them to resist torture." He and Col. Thorp were taken out, manacled, and told to speak to the Filipinos. "Joe spoke: . . .'I am a prisoner of war. Our Commanding Officer has commanded us to cease firing and I know my duty. The war is not over. Let us hope for the best.'" On his refusal to tell the whereabouts of his comrades or to broadcast his guerrillas to surrender, his jailors laid his head on a block and said they would kill him. He answered: "I'd rather die than go home ashamed." Another quotes these words from him: "Only those who are willing to die are fit to live." One writes: "Joe was too much the West Pointer that he would not even lie to the Japanese. He simply said nothing." The order went out to bow to the conquerors. Joe never bowed. Father Duffy, Chaplain of the 26th, saw him in Bilibid Prison and wrote in carefully chosen ecclesiastical language: "He was the same old grand Joe Barker that every one loved and if he'd had half a chance he'd have torn all the lousy Nip guards to pieces. The enemy admired him and his spirit. They also feared him. They knew his spirit could not be broken."
On 8 October 1943, Joe Barker was taken from Bilibid Prison with Lt. Col. Thorp and about ten others, trucked to Manila's old Chinese cemetery, where they were made to dig their own graves, then one by one, they were beheaded. The grave was unmarked, and its location uncertain.
Joe Barker was 28 and he would never see Birmingham and his family again.
After the war, a last letter to his family, including a living will, made its way to the house on Milner Crescent. Written at Guagua, Luzon, it was dated 14 September 1942:
I am writing this while sitting in a clump of bamboo where I am hiding from a Japanese patrol which is searching the barrio for me. It is cool and quiet here. I will give this note to a friend of mine asking him to preserve it till the end of the war and then send it on its way.
I was with my regiment till the end of Bataan; we fought in practically every battle and I was in them all. When the surrender came I did not surrender. I hid in the mountains and worked my way across the lines. On April 27th (three weeks after the surrender) I found Col. Thorp and turned in to him for duty. Acting under his authority I have spent the rest of my time organizing guerrillas and now have many thousands. During the last few weeks this work has brought me into more dangerous places and more risky barrios than those of the Zambola Mountains. I am trying to secure passage to Australia so as to be able to inform General MacArthur of our progress and of the enemy force here. This is a dangerous undertaking -- hence this letter.
If I do not come back, here is my will. . . (redacted).
My service in the war has been very much to my liking. It has been a pleasure to do my duty and I have not expected to survive even this long. I feel certain that had I surrendered I should have been dead before this time as the Japs have killed either by outright brutal murder of prisoners or by lack of food and medicine most of those who turned in -- according to the reports we have received.
I could retake the Island now with the guerrilla forces at hand but do not want to do it as we could not hold out long without aid and it would only give the Japs fresh excuse for the slaughter of innocent civilians and women and children. We have enough of that as it is.
I will be very sorry if I do not get to see you all again. Never has there been such a wonderful family. I know that you would do the same as I have done under these circumstances.
All in all I am very happy about everything except the possibility of losing you.
The wind makes a nice swishy sound passing through my bamboo. There is a beautiful sunset.
So if you have no one to pause and remember this day, no one to mark their grave with an American flag, stop and give a few moments to remember Captain Joseph Rhett Barker, II. No one deserves it more. And remember, please, the words that are in truth his epitaph, though he lacks a gravestone: "Only those who are willing to die are fit to live."
The Manila Chinese Cemetery (founded in 1879), the second oldest cemetery in Manila. During the Second World War, the Japanese turned it into a bloody execution spot--a killing field. Joe Barker was beheaded and dumped in an unmarked grave here.