This Veteran’s Day, the Clearwater Tribune would like to offer a special tribute to one of the community’s unsung heroes. It has been quite an honor to have been given the opportunity to share the incredible story of the late Lester “Les” Barger, originally of Vernal, UT, US Marine Corps, WWII POW and a long-time resident of this area.
Those who have lived here for a while may remember Les during his 31 year career with the Post Office, beginning in 1950.
Prior to moving to Idaho, Les had left working a small farm in Colorado, to be closer to his elder sister, Dorothy and other family members to have found their way here. Their mother had passed in a tragic drowning accident when Les was six, leaving his father to raise six children. Dorothy assumed the mother role at a tender age. The bond between them had been established early in their lives.
Les was introduced to Lillie Taylor through mutual friends. Lillie shares that she was still in high school. They were married in 1952, just before she had graduated that year.
The couple raised three children, Dale, Linda (Engle) and Jim. Dale has been the keeper of the news articles and documents related to his father’s and uncle’s service and was very instrumental in providing what information was known.
Dale recalls his father as being very family oriented. “He was kind of quiet and reserved. He was very laid back. And nothing ever seemed to upset him. He never had to be the disciplinarian, he didn’t have to. When he spoke, it happened. He loved hunting, fishing, and camping and every vacation was reserved for any combination of the three.”
The children grew up knowing only that their father had been held prisoner by the Japanese, little else. Nobody talked about it, Dale does remember his father had vowed to never leave American soil and to never go hungry again, but he never shared much more than that.
Not enough is known of the extreme situations these young soldiers were exposed to and the courageous way they did the job that they were called upon to do. In addition to all the men and women who lost their lives, were those who were taken prisoner, both in Europe and the South Pacific. It has been said and rightfully so, that these men paid the highest price of all for this great country we live in.
“While this great war was raging, the Moms and Dads went to work in defense plants, ship yards, bought war bonds, gathered scrap metals from off the roadsides, planted victory gardens, and anything else they could do to support their country.”
Dale and his brother, Les Barger joined the service in the summer of 1939 and June 29, 1940, respectively. Les attended boot camp with another school friend, Hoyle Chew.
Les was still underage, but the military only asked for his father’s signature to enlist, they wanted every man they could recruit.
The brothers were separated when Dale received an assignment with a Naval Air Station, Marine Air Group. Les and Hoyle remained together in San Diego until January or February of 1941 when they were both sent to Pearl Harbor, HI. Les left for Wake Island about six months later, Hoyle recalls arriving in November.
The following story is pieced together between the two narratives in Duane Hall’s book, The Keepers of Our Nation”. Each of the men tell the same story with different observations. It is with deep appreciation to these men and others, certainly for their service and their courage, but for coming forward and giving us a little better idea of what was sacrificed and what it took to have survived.
Wake Island is located two-thirds of the way between Honolulu and Guam. Stationed on Wake Island was a garrison of 180 US Marines. The US Navy had a small group of engineer officers and radio personnel. There were also approximately 1,200 civilian employees.
“These civilians were in the process of building a US Military outpost, complete with barracks, hospital, fuel storage, warehouses, and an airstrip,” explains Hoyle. “Either the construction started too late or the Japs struck too early. The base wasn’t completed.
“The various reinforcements received during the last 10 days of peace brought the total number of military personnel on Wake to 519. Of those, 379 were Marines. They also received 12 F4F Grumman Wildcat fighter planes. With the very limited resources they had, they set up the best defense they could.
“At 11:58 a.m. Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese bombers hit Wake Island. Because of the International Date Line, it was Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. You may say these are coordinated attacks. The military and civilians on Wake Island had no way to know the immense force that was to be thrown at them. They did know there were many Jap naval vessels to pound them with ship to shore shelling. The Japs threw air raids at them, one after another.
On the first air raid eight of twelve of the Marine’s F4F Grumman Wildcats were destroyed on the ground.
Hoyle tells us that “Scores of lives were lost in these air and ship-to-shore attacks.
“On Dec. 9, US Marines had two F4F’s flying cover for Wake. Incoming were 27 twin-engine Jap bombers with fighter escort. These two marine pilots took on the lot of them and are credited with shooting down the first Jap bomber in WWII.
“Marine ground fire took out five more of their bombers. Between raids and at night, Marines built dummy artillery emplacements to make the Japs think they were a stronger force than they were.”
“When the Japanese attacked Wake Island,” Les said, “they didn’t anticipate what they had ran into. Just a few hours before the attack, the marines received a scratchy, almost inaudible message that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
“Heavy clouds covered the island, hiding the approaching enemy aircraft. The bombers came in at 600 to 6000 feet up. The attack was so sudden that the anti-aircraft guns were knocked out before they could be used.”
On Dec. 11, the Japs began moving in for the kill:” tells Hoyle. Two cruisers, six destroyers, two troop transports and four gunboats. They had no idea of the caliber of men they were dealing with. At 6:10 a.m. the Marines opened fire on the Jap Flotilla and at 7:10 a.m. were ordered to cease fire because the ships that were not on the bottom of the ocean were out of range.
Les had said “On the third day, (Dec. 11) the Japs tried to make a beach landing. That was when they learned it isn’t nice to mess around with the U.S. Marines. The attack was stopped and the Japs pushed back into the sea.”
“As the days passed they hit harder and harder, added Hoyle. “The Marines had less and less to strike back with. They had no reinforcements at all.”
“For sixteen days,” said Les, “the islands were bombed at least twice a day. Naval guns pounded mercilessly at the marine stronghold,” recalled Les.
“Relentless air attacks took more and more of the American defenses. The marines were given orders from President Roosevelt to hold out for at least twelve days.
“The Japs launched their heaviest attack at 3 a.m. on the sixteenth day.
They beached two large ships on the island, and hundreds of Japs came ashore. At 11 a.m., the American marines were out of ammunition and supplies. There was nothing they could do but turn Wake Island to the Japs.”
Hoyle has this to say about those final hours, “At 1:20 a.m. on Dec. 23, the Japs began coming ashore. There were several landing zones. The Marines by this time were so low in fighting equipment and had so few men, they were unable to hold back the massive onslaught of Japs. As was written by the Navy Minister, Admiral Shimada, “It was a battle which would make the Gods weep.”
“At 9:30 a.m. the order went out to cease fire,” continues Hoyle. “Wake Island was surrendered to the Japs. Only the man who has walked that walk would possibly know the feeling in the bodies of the surviving Marines at that point.”
Les shared that the Marines were then marched to the airstrip where they were stripped and searched. They were only allowed to put back on their pants and shoes. Their hands were tied behind their back with wire and looped around their necks. They were then taken to a camp to await shipment to Japan.
Fifteen days later a Japanese cargo ship came in as close as it could get to the island. The prisoners were put aboard small boats to be ferried out to the cargo ship. The prisoners were packed into the rat infested cargo hold so tightly they couldn’t all sit or lie down at the same time. Toilet facilities were a bucket. Beatings were almost the order of the day.
The prisoners were loaded aboard another ship and taken to Shanghai, China. Over the next two years, Les and the other prisoners built roads from Shanghai and Peking and up into Manchuria.
After the roads in China were completed, they were put on a train and taken to Pusan, South Korea. While at Pusan the prisoners spent several weeks loading salt onto ships to be taken to Japan.
Les and about 200 other Americans were loaded aboard a ship to be ferried back to Japan to be taken to another prison camp. Les couldn’t remember where they landed, but it looked like it may have been Fukuoka. Japan.
Here, they were crammed into box cars and headed north. They passed through Hiroshima, Japan, several weeks before the atomic bomb had been dropped.
At one place the railroad had been bombed out, so the prisoners had to walk several miles to be loaded aboard another train to continue their journey north. While making this walk, the Americans were exposed to extremely harsh treatment from the Japanese civilians.
They were taken to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. It was here they were put to work in the coal mines. This was excruciating work, especially when you are fed two cups of rice per day.
“On Aug. 14, 1945, there was a real commotion in the prison camp,” recalls Lester, “The prisoners learned the Japs had surrendered. Right away all conditions got much better for the prisoners. The guards began disappearing and then B-29 bombers began making drops of food and clothing.”
Les and the other prisoners were taken back to Tokyo. Here, they were loaded on U.S. Navy ships for their journey home.
Hall writes “Lester, I cannot be completely sure, but I believe the first ship to load American POW’s was the USS Lansdowne. A crew member on that ship was Don Walker from Vernal.”
Hall continues, “On the tape Les sent, he made it very plain that he would not dwell on the blood and gore. He did make mention of needless, brutal treatment and lack of food during the 44 month ordeal.
“Les suffered from malaria the entire time. He weighed 95 pounds when he boarded a US Navy ship in Tokyo Bay. The scars on his body and mind are still there after more than 50 years.
“Les spoke very fondly of having been a Marine. Even more than that, the pride of our flag and country.
“Thanks to you, Lester, and the others like you for what you did so that we all can and do enjoy the greatest nation on earth.”