The odds are good that you’ve met Jesse Barnes. He frequents Turnage’s Drugstore about three days a week, and can be found at the Depot on Saturday mornings when the Lions’ Club hosts pancake breakfasts. And if he wears the same hat that he did during our interview, you already know that Barnes is a veteran of the United States Navy.
“I’m proud of my country,” Barnes tells me as we sit at the kitchen table in his home out near Enid Lake. “Did you see the flag out front?” he asks me, and I nod. “I fly that flag every day the sun shines.” Barnes goes on to list the specific days he flies the American flag: “on my dad’s birthday,” he finishes. “He was proud of the country too.”
During the 1930s, Barnes grew up in Gaston, Alabama surrounded by two things: patriotism and machinist skills. Both were learned from his father, a veteran of World War I and a full-time machinist since the age of ten. In 1944, just a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday, Barnes asked his father to sign the papers that would allow him to enlist in the Navy.
“He said he would, on one condition,” Barnes says. “That I would finish high school, either while I was in the service, or when I got out.” Barnes accepted his father’s terms, and so in March of 1944, he joined the United States Navy.
After boot camp in Camp Perry, Virginia, Barnes was briefly stationed in California, waiting to be shipped out.
“I had a three-day pass over Christmas,” Barnes tells me. “Those three days were the high point of my life. See, they were asking people to take servicemen into their homes for the holiday,” he says, and goes on to explain that Barnes and two friends were picked up by no other than one of the Three Stooges, the one called Larry with the flat-top hair. (This was most likely Jerome Lester Horwitz, the first of the two Larry’s.)
Barnes and his friends spent Christmas in Larry’s house: the stooge made them pancakes “with a slice of ham in the middle” and gave them billfolds with five dollars tucked inside.
The day after Christmas, Barnes shipped out. By that February, he found himself at one of the most historic sites of World War II: Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima is an island south of Japan. During the first part of World War II, the Japanese used it as an air and naval base: they would shoot down American planes flying towards Japan, and ships in distress could regroup nearby. The Allies decided to take it over, and so launched Operation Detachment on February 19, 1945.
Jesse Barnes was there.
“We carried the marines ashore,” Barnes tells me, adjusting his veteran’s baseball cap. His hazel eyes sparkle. Ferrying the Marines ashore was a big job: by the evening of that first day, over thirty thousand Marines had landed.
Four days after Operation Detachment launched, soldiers saw the American flag fly from the top of the island’s mountain. On the 26th of March, the island was deemed officially “secure,” but Barnes’ stay at Iwo Jima was far from over: he was stationed at the island for over a year.
“We set up pup tents in black sand a foot deep,” Barnes recalls of his first four weeks; after March 26th, he and the other seamen returned to sleeping on the ships.
When the island was judged secure, Barnes and others began exploring. Barnes found a Japanese rifle that he shipped home. He takes it out to show me, pointing out that it’s designed so that a cleaning rod rides right next to the barrel. The stock is made of wood, and has Japanese characters carved into it. Barnes thinks they’re the same as a rifle his father had brought back from World War I. “It uses thirty caliber ammo,” Barnes tells me. “I enjoy it, because it’s almost like Daddy’s.”
Then a friend of Barnes came across a wounded Japanese soldier hiding in a cave. There were over three thousand Japanese soldiers left in hiding after the island’s surrender; some killed themselves, in accordance with their tradition, and some hid for as long as six years.
“Did your friend shoot him?” I ask.
“I don’t remember,” Barnes says. He adds, “But I never went exploring after that.”
Barnes finished his naval career in 1946. He came home, fulfilled his promise to his father by finishing high school, and turned down an offer from his grandfather for paid tuition to veterinary school so that he could become a machinist like his father.
“I heard Daddy say he wanted one of his boys to follow in his footsteps,” Barnes tells me. Since his two brothers had died young, “I said, ‘Granddaddy, I’m just going to have to do it,’ and he didn’t blame me.”
After marrying Carolyn, a Memphis native, and raising two daughters and two sons, Barnes and his wife bought their home near Enid Lake in 1982. They retired here in 1985; Carolyn passed away ten years later.
Now, Barnes attends Sylva Rena Baptist Church. He still does all his own yard work, although “my kids say I can’t use the chainsaw by myself anymore”, and raises an impressive vegetable garden. Though his daughter in Arlington, Tennessee keeps him a room, Barnes says he has no plans to move north anytime soon.
“I’ll stay until I can’t take care of myself anymore,” Jesse Barnes says, and then asks if I’d like an eggplant from his garden.