The Editors' Blog

Learning about my dad’s war

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. But on the days that the war ended in Europe and Asia, everyone didn’t head home. In fact, many American soldiers didn’t come home for a while. This led to a fair amount of grumbling on the home front, and anxiety.

I learned of the anxiety in my own family a few days ago when a package arrived from the National Personnel Records Center. More on that in a bit.

I had sent away for my late father’s military records. My father served in the China-Burma-India Theater. His squadron moved around, listening in on Japanese radio transmissions. Their intercepts helped Army intelligence try to figure out what the Japanese were up to.

My dad, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his war. So I have always been curious to learn more about his experience. One way was to send away for his military records, which are stored in St. Louis in the government archives. God bless the folks who look after these documents, incidentally.

Truth be told, most of the documents related to making sure that Alan Solomon Barkin was properly paid by the U.S. government for services that commenced on Feb. 11, 1943, when he was not yet 19. There are a lot of pay forms over the period of around 3 years that he was deployed with the 5th Radio Squadron. But here and there I could see glimpses of Staff Sgt. Barkin, who left behind the University of New Hampshire and his high school sweetheart, who would become his wife and my mother.

The records indicate that he received a Good Conduct Medal, a Victory Medal, an American Theater Campaign Ribbon and an Asiatic Pacific Theater Campaign Ribbon. The Army said he weighed 146 pounds upon induction and stood 5’ 9”, which is a little surprising because he always looked taller to me. He was a little nearsighted, the records show, and his posture was just “fair.” His BP was 130 over 80 at his physical. They took fingerprints from his right hand.

He completed something called a sex morality course on Aug. 16, 1943, the essentials of which he never shared with me. (Well that’s not entirely true. Once he warned me in high school to “Be careful.” That was that.) According to the Army, his character was “excellent” and his efficiency rating as a soldier was “excellent.” He was a private when he took his oath, made PFC in six months, corporal a month later and then was busted down to private “for cause” while training in Utah. The rumor in our household was that he had taken a poke at a superior who had voiced anti-Semitic remarks. Somehow, he made it back up the ranks while overseas.

The documents have him arriving in Calcutta on Nov. 10, 1944. He left India for China on June 25, 1945. The next entry put him in Shanghai on March 21, 1946.

Right about that time, his parents back in Massachusetts noticed that his letters, which came regularly, had stopped coming. Who knows why. The demobilization, by historical accounts, was a little ragged and chaotic. Things were a little dicey in China, what with an incipient civil war and all. My dad was 22, had just come through a war, and may have been distracted. Maybe the mail service was spotty between Shanghai and Brookline, Mass.

At any rate, my grandfather, no shrinking violet believe you me, decided to write his congressman. Find my kid, he said.

I found his letters at the bottom of the stack of pay forms and immunization records (yellow fever, cholera and typhus) and documents stating that my father qualified with a carbine. Nearly seven decades later, I can see Grandpa George pounding on the typewriter, seeking help from Rep. John McCormack, then the very powerful majority leader of the U.S. House but also his congressman.

The first letter was brief, one paragraph:

“Dear Sir:

I appreciate the fact that this war has flooded your office with requests from worried parents and I used every other agency to get information before writing you but get very little results, now or at any time in the past four years except when I do contact you. My son Alan who has written consistently since overseas has not been heard from in over seven weeks. This fact wouldn’t disturb us had it not been for the fact we did hear regularly about every two weeks. We think he may be sick. Last letter from Shanghai. We wrote Adjutant General - cabled also direct. Can you tell us anything. Thanks -- wire our expense.”

Three days later, a second letter went out from Grandpa’s typewriter. In this one, he referenced the fact that they had already been through a very rough patch in December 1941 when my father’s older brother, David, who had joined what was then the peacetime Navy, was on a ship in Pearl Harbor and it took three weeks for word to get back home that he had survived the Japanese attack. So Grandpa George was in no mood.

“Now it has been over seven weeks since we heard from our boy in China,” he wrote, “when as a rule we heard every two weeks. Is he sick physically or mentally, is he alive or dead, did he get into trouble as kids will sometimes.”

I shuffled through the documents to see if I could tell where dad was. Where he was while my grandparents were beside themselves was on a merchant vessel called the Marine Phoenix, somewhere in the Pacific steaming towards Seattle. He had left Shanghai. I know this because a document from the ship’s sick bay said that at 3 p.m. on March 25th, he was being treated for rashes on his arms and face. He was a mess, suffering from acute conjunctivitis as well.

Meanwhile, McCormack was on the case, because the commanding general in Shanghai got a wire stating that the congressman was trying to track down Sgt. Barkin, and if he turned up, write his parents.

As you can imagine, trying to locate a soldier in those days before email, satellite phones, and Skype was a slow, laborious process. It took a month, actually.

On April 29, a letter went out from the adjutant general of the U.S. Army, essentially the chief administrative officer, to McCormack that Sgt. Barkin had been returned to the States, specifically Ft. Devens, Mass. for discharge. Major Gen. Edward F. Witsell (Citadel, ‘11), understatedly ended his letter: “He has undoubtedly communicated with his father by this time.” In fact, that was true, because by the time the letter reached McCormack’s office, my father had been home for two weeks, having become a member of the reserves but otherwise a civilian on April 15.

Through the grace of God, my father made it safely by truck down the Burma Road and in planes over the Himalayas as his squadron roamed Asia. He came back home at long last, an old 22, ready to get married, get through law school and have kids.

Today, had he lived, we would be celebrating his birthday with him, my sister and I. He was born 91 years ago, March 13, 1924. Happy birthday, Sgt. Barkin.

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