As he approaches his 99th birthday, Retired Lt. Col. Oscar Ray Barney Jr. spends his days reminiscing on his life.
“I remember a lot now,” said Barney, who turns 99 on June 7. Macular degeneration has been claiming his vision, so reading or other activities he used to enjoy aren’t possible these days, but he can recall many of the details from his long and illustrious life.
Barney entered the Army during World War II. With a musical background, he was first assigned to be part of the band, but that’s not where he wanted to be.
“You can’t win a war tooting a horn,” he said.
He exaggerated the amount of time it had been since he’d played while hoping to get another assignment, and eventually he did. He went into the infantry first, then into the Army Air Forces Academy. At the time, what is now the Air Force was part of the Army, according to a history at army.mil. The Air Force became its own military branch in 1947.
At the academy, he could train to become a pilot, which took three years, or he could become a navigator.
“It was a short time for a navigator,” he said, opting to train as a navigator.
His training occurred at a couple of bases stateside.
“They gave us brand new B17s and told us we were going to fly to England,” he said.
It was nearing the end of 1944 when he boarded a plane for England via New Jersey and Labrador. Barney said they used a different aircraft after their training.
“They took the pretty one away and gave us one that was used,” he said.
He flew on missions from England to Germany. They’d fly in groups of 14 to 15 and form a box, he said. Once over Germany and under fire from the enemy, they’d drop the bombs and return to England.
Barney spent May 8, 1945, also known as VE Day, in Paris. Planes flew past the Eiffel Tower and Arc De Triomphe, and he recalls seeing “people elbow to elbow.”
At the end of the war, he helped transport prisoners of war back home.
When he returned stateside, Barney had a choice of staying in the Air Force.
“If you stayed in, you had the opportunity for additional training,” he said.
And when the military offered to let him stay in and return to his hometown of Atlanta, he decided to stay in.
He met his wife, “a beautiful young brunette,” at a supply store in East Point.
Other short stints included some time in Illinois and then to Germany, where he worked with the Berlin Airlift.
The Berlin Airlift was the response to the first crisis of the Cold War in June 1948 “when Soviet forces blockaded rail, road and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in western Germany. The crisis ended on May 12, 1949, when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin,” according to the Office of Historian, U.S. Department of State website, history.state.gov.
His first assignment in Germany had been as a supply officer, but the Air Force needed navigators for the airlift.
“We took loads of coal and food. Somebody started dropping candy for kids,” he said.
After the Berlin Air Lift, Barney headed to Washington state. It wasn’t long before the United States was involved in the Korean War, and the Air Force needed Barney in Korea.
Before heading to Korea, however, he went through a survival course in the Sierra Mountains. On the trip out of the United States, he stopped in Los Angeles, where he phoned his wife, who told him she was pregnant.
“I said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time,’” he said.
He flew 25 missions in Korea.
“We had some planes with special equipment that made us look like a huge bomber,” he said. “We were dropping flares to locate targets.”
The North Koreans took notice of that, he said.
“We turned on our fancy equipment, and they turned on their fancy equipment,” he said.
He spent the next several years stateside, completing assignments and getting a college degree. Toward the end of his Air Force career, he was sent with his family to Turkey with little information.
Even when he arrived in the country, he didn’t know what his job would be or to whom he would report.
“I said ‘Where’s my commander?’ and was told ‘You can’t talk to them,’” he said.
He would later find out that he was doing logistical support for NATO.
That assignment would be one of his last as an Air Force officer. His future options would have included the Pentagon, and he didn’t want to go there.
Barney looks back on his Air Force career with a sense of accomplishment.
“I went in to defend our country. Hopefully, I did that. I didn’t go to be a hero,” he said.
Instead, he moved back to Georgia and settled in Atlanta. He eventually found himself working with vocational rehabilitation and that brought him to what was then Talmadge Hospital, now Augusta University Medical Center.
Barney helped people find alternative careers after they were unable to continue in the career they trained for after a disability.
He spent his last five years at Gracewood State School and Hospital doing vocational rehabilitation.
“I enjoyed all of it,” he said.
Years after he retired, he’d still hear from people who thanked him for helping them find a new career path.
He continued to travel after his retirement, taking more than 100 cruises. He said he sometimes wakes from a nap at Camellia Walk and wonders what port he’s in.
Barney said he’s looking forward to celebrating his 100th birthday next year.