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Enlisting in the US Coast Guard

USS PC-590

Experiencing an Air Raid


William Barnes was born and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi. After high school he attended Bowling Green Business University in Kentucky where he got a degree in accounting. He graduated and returned home shortly before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On 8 December 1941, Barnes enlisted in the US Coast Guard. On 7 December 1941, Barnes had just returned from church with his family and had started eating when someone turned on the radio and he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. He was shocked beyond words and felt the urge to accept the call to defend this country. Barnes went to Memphis, Tennessee where he originally intended to enlist in the navy, but when he got to the recruiters office the line was about two miles long so he walked off down the hall. He tripped over a sign and an officer helped him pick it up. The officer asked him if he wanted to join the Coast Guard. Barnes was a country boy and had never heard of the Coast Guard. The officer told him that if he joined it would keep him out of the army. Barnes signed up. After receiving his letter to report for duty he had to go to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was accepted into the Coast Guard. The first thing they did was take a physical. There were 50 naked men in the room moving down an assembly line of doctors who were checking the recruits. After induction, Barnes was sent to New York City to Sheepshead Bay. At the time there was no training center at Sheepshead Bay. When Barnes reported he was given a hammer and told to go out and tear down all of the bath houses in the area where the new training facility was to be built. Barnes did not have a uniform so he had to work in his own clothes. It was two weeks before Barnes got his uniform. After someone learned that Barnes played the piccolo he was recruited for a Coast Guard military band; this was in February and March of 1942. When Barnes learned that he would have to compete against a professional musician for his spot in the band he gave his piccolo to the man and quit the band. After leaving the band Barnes was sent to the Walter Chrysler estate on Long Island. The estate had been sold to the federal government and was being converted into the Merchant Marine Academy. After some time there Barnes was promoted to the Postmaster General of the Merchant Marine Academy. Barnes thought the war was passing him by and wanted to get into it. When he saw an advertisement in the Coast Guard magazine looking for a yeoman for a PC [Annotators Note: Patrol Craft] boat being commissioned in New Orleans, Louisiana he volunteered for the position even though he had no experience as a yeoman. The New York District Office approved his request and made him a Yeoman 3rd Class over the telephone. He got his orders that afternoon and took off for New Orleans to join the commissioning crew of USS PC-590.


William Barnes served aboard USS PC-590 which was a patrol craft. During the early part of 1942 the navy was desperate for antisubmarine ships. That duty fell to the patrol craft since it was easier to build a PC than a destroyer. Of the 450 patrol craft that were ordered only 360 were actually made. The PCs looked like destroyer escorts but smaller. They were 173 feet long and 31 feet wide and has a crew of 60 enlisted men and four officers. Space was tight. There were only two sinks and two salt water showers for 60 men. Aboard ship Barnes was the number one gunner on a 20 millimeter anti aircraft cannon. There were three of the 20 millimeter cannons aboard. There was one on the flying bridge and one on either side of the aft part of the ship. The ship was also armed with three three-inch fifty-caliber guns and several racks of depth charges. The ship was built for antisubmarine duty. Barnes says his ship dropped a lot of depth charges on submarines and knocked down a lot of Japanese planes. After a shakedown cruise the ship put in at Miami where they took aboard their ammunition. After leaving Miami they passed through the Panama Canal. When the ship developed engine trouble they had to put in El Salvador. Since El Salvador was a neutral country they could only stay in port for 24 hours. The ship’s engineers were able to get the problems repaired after which they steamed for San Diego. From San Diego they went to Christmas Island they steamed to Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was their home port but Barnes only saw it two times in three or four years. Barnes and his crew were assigned to convoy duty guarding troop transports on their way to the battle zone. It was active duty and Barnes liked it. When Barnes arrived at Pearl Harbor it was still a wreck even though the attack had taken place many months before. There were large cranes cutting steel off of sunken ships and putting it on others that would take it back to the mainland to be melted down and used to build other ships. It was heart breaking seeing the battle ships in their condition. The Coast Guard had several ships at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked but they only lost one. The attack was a surprise. After a couple of days Barnes’ ship picked up their first convoy and steamed to Guadalcanal and Tulagi. After returning to Pearl Harbor they were sent to Midway. This was in 1943. After escorting the convoy vessels into the lagoon at Midway Atoll they patrolled the mouth of the bay. While they were there a hurricane hit the island. The ship went up to flank speed in an effort to get away from the reef surrounding Midway. Even though they were going as fast as they could the storm pushed the ship onto the reef. After the storm, engineers examined the ship. The holes in the hull were filled with concrete. The damage was pretty extensive. After the engineers patched the hull with concrete Barnes and the other crewmen had to wait about three hours for the concrete to set up. Barnes liked that. He sat on the reef and watched all of the wildlife. After the concrete set up, two tug boats came out to pull the ship off the reef. When the ship was pulled off the reef it swamped the smaller of the two tug boats, which capsized. Some of the men aboard ship with Barnes jumped overboard and swam to that tug and managed to save two of the crewmen. One man from the tug boat went down with it.


William Barnes was aboard USS PC-590 when it was thrown onto the reef which surrounds Midway atoll. After making repairs and being pulled off the reef by tug boats they were taken out and tied up to a troop transport that was headed to Pearl Harbor. Things were fine during the first day and night but on the second day the captain of the transport ship told the captain of Barnes’ ship that they had detected a Japanese submarine on sonar. The troop transport cut PC-590 loose and took a zigzag course back to Pearl Harbor. The transport said they would send out a tug to get the stricken vessel. Barnes ship drifted into the circular currents that began pushing the ship toward Tokyo. After the first week adrift the ship ran out of food so they tried fishing. A carpenter’s mate made some hooks and lines and the men were able to catch salmon which they ate for 62 days while they were floating around out there. Two months after being cut loose an American submarine spotted them. The submarine surfaced right next to the ship. The men went to general quarters and Barnes aimed his 20 millimeter gun on the submarine. When Barnes saw the submarine raise the American flag it was a beautiful sight. The submarine called Pearl Harbor for a tug. (They had sent one when the troop transport called for one but the tug couldn't find Barnes ship.) Seeing the tug come over the horizon was a wonderful feeling for Barnes. After being towed to Pearl Harbor the ship was put in dry dock for repairs. Since the crew had endured such hardship they were put up in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel where submarine crews were sent to relax. They had no duty for 10 days. When their ship was ready, Barnes and the rest of the crew went aboard and left Pearl Harbor. That was the last time they saw Pearl Harbor. They went to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Bougainville. Barnes’ ship was notified that there were a number of new pilots flying bombing missions from Midway to Wake Island. Barnes ship was sent to Wake Island where they steamed circles around it in case any of the planes were shot down. One of the planes was shot down and Barnes’ ship rescued its crew. Barnes served aboard the ship for two years, from 1942 to the middle of 1944. While at Bougainville, Barnes got orders to return to the United States. It took him three months to hitchhike from Bougainville to San Francisco. The Coast Guard paid for his train ticket from San Francisco to New York. When Barnes got to New York he reported to the New York office where he was given his new orders. His orders were to take a train that afternoon to San Francisco where he was to board a transport for Saipan. At Saipan he was to report back aboard the ship he had just left. He was informed that all 30 day leaves had been cancelled. Barnes requested to talk to the commanding officer. The officer was away and would not be back for three days, so Barnes stayed in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church until the officer returned. The commanding officer told Barnes that he had heard nothing about leaves being cancelled and called for the man who Barnes originally spoke to and ordered the man to put Barnes on a train to Clarksdale, Mississippi, or he would be issued the orders he had given Barnes. The man had Barnes on a train 30 minutes later.


William Barnes was sent home on leave after returning to the United States from the Pacific. He enjoyed seeing his family. Barnes was one of six boys in his family. Of the six boys, five of them served in World War 2. Each one of them served in a different branch of the service and all five of them got back. Barnes had a brother who served in the 29th Infantry Division who was badly wounded in Germany. After the war ended, Barnes had to stay in the service to write up discharge papers for people leaving the military. Barnes was discharged in November or December [Annotator's Note: of 1945]. Barnes did not participate much on combat. The primary role of his ship was to escort convoys to and from the battle zone. All of the combat Barnes saw was antiaircraft and antisubmarine. Barnes did shoot down a Japanese Zero [most likely not a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane as it was a single-seat aircraft]. The two crewmen of the plane parachuted down into the water. The men aboard ship tried to rescue the two men. They pulled one of them to safety but the other swam away. The man they saved spoke perfect English. The enemy airman had graduated from UCLA and had been teaching English. This event took place in the Marshall Islands in the latter part of 1943. Barnes manned a 20 millimeter cannon located on the flying bridge above the pilot house. He only had a voice tube to communicate through. One job the men aboard ship had was to investigate islands to make sure there were no enemy troops there. The sailors would row ashore in a small boat then would explore the area. Near one island, Barnes saw something floating in the water and notified the captain. The ship went to general quarters. When they got closer they noticed that it was a Higgins boat that had been built in New Orleans. It was a brand new LCVP [Annotators Note: Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel]. Barnes did not know if the landing craft had fallen off of a transport or cargo ship or maybe lost its mooring somewhere. They did not want to leave it there so they took it in tow. When the men landed on the next island they were going to investigate they used the landing craft and landed just like the Marines. The LCVP gave them better protection than the row boat did. After towing the LCVP around for about six months they put in at an island where someone told them they had to leave the Higgins boat there. They never found a thing on any of the islands that they investigated. Barnes once spotted a mine and notified the officer of the day. The officer decided to get a better look at it so he brought the boat close to it. When the captain realized what was going on he ordered Barnes to sink it. Barnes shot the mine several times with his 20 millimeter cannon and it sank.


William Barnes manned a 20 millimeter antiaircraft gun aboard USS PC-590. When an enemy plane came at the ship it looked to Barnes like it was coming right at him. There were three men who manned the 20 millimeter gun. One man was there to keep tension on the magazine and the other loaded fresh magazines into the gun. Barnes was the man who actually fired the weapon. He kept the other two men on his gun crew busy. Barnes was lucky that his ship was able to knock down a number of enemy planes, including a Zero [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, referred to as a Zero or Zeke] he shot down. Many of the enemy planes were not going after the ship Barnes was aboard. His ship was usually surrounded by much larger ships like cargo ships and troop transports. When enemy planes would come at them all of the guns on Barnes ship would fire at them. They would even use the three inch gun. Barnes did not have a sight on his gun. He fired tracer ammunition so he could see where his rounds were going. Barnes thinks that during his tour his ship shot down five Japanese planes. Barnes served aboard a navy ship that was manned by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard was given credit for sinking 13 German submarines and two Japanese submarines. Barnes is convinced that his ship sank two submarines, but since they could not prove it they did not get credit for it. Locating submarines was done by sonar. The sonar would detect the submarine then the captain would maneuver the ship over the submarine. The ship could drop depth charges two at a time by rolling them off the back. The ship also had a K-gun that would shoot depth charges out to the side. The plan was to get the charges to go off under the submarine and force it to the surface. When the depth charges went off the water would come up like the geyser in Yellowstone National Park. Many of the enemy submarine crews would try to fire their deck guns when they surfaced but the ship Barnes served aboard had more firepower and could blow the deck guns off the submarine. The Coast Guard-manned ship USS Spencer [Annotators Note: USCGC Spencer (WPG-36)] was good at sinking enemy submarines. [Annotators Note: Barnes and the interviewer discuss two presentations that Barnes is putting together.] Barnes's ship would get within four blocks from the beach off of Bougainville. When they were off Bougainville they were under orders not to fore at night. While Barnes was sitting on a magazine a bullet hit the magazine right next to him. On Bougainville the fight was for an airfield. The Japanese would come down out of the mountains at night and capture the field; then the Marines would recapture it during the day. The Japanese did not have any air support there. After two or three days off Bougainville his ship got orders to take some ships up to Saipan.


William Barnes got orders to get off at Bougainville. He was ordered to get back to the United States the best way he could. Barnes hitched a ride on a banana boat that took him to Guadalcanal. Barnes spent about three weeks on Guadalcanal. He felt strange being there because he had joined the Coast Guard to stay out of the army and here was. The army was housing and feeding him. The army also helped him get aboard a troop transport heading to San Francisco. The army treated him just great. Ships heading back to the United States were usually packed full. If the army had not gotten him a spot on a transport he would probably still be on Guadalcanal. When the ship Barnes was aboard passed under the Golden Gate Bridge it was showered with confetti. Soldiers let their families know they were coming in, and their families were there to meet them. Barnes was not able to let anyone know he was coming so nobody was there waiting for him. Barnes let all the soldiers get off the ship first. Barnes did not have any money so he had to hitchhike from the dock to the Coast Guard district office where he got his train ticket back to Clarksdale, Mississippi. When Barnes returned to Clarksdale he learned that the state was short of auditors. He had a friend who worked for the state who encouraged him to take a job with the state too. Barnes had planned to become a CPA. He had graduated from Bowling Green Business College with a degree in accounting. However, the four years he spent in the military took something out of him. He no longer had the ambition to be a CPA. He took a job with the tax commission and stayed there for 36 years. During that time he served as the chief of the income tax division and the sales tax division. When he retired in 1980, he was working was serving as director of revenue for the commission. Barnes’ wife was a school teacher. She retired in 1979. After they retired they decided to become tour directors. They hooked up with a tour company and guided tours around the world for 16 years. One of the places they visited was Nagasaki, Japan. Woodworking is a hobby of Barnes, but when he developed lung cancer in 2000 he had to stop because of the saw dust. He is doing fine at 90 years old as of the date of this interview. After returning to New York from his 30 days leave Clarksdale he was sent to the Coast Guard air station at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. There Barnes worked with Dr. Igor Sikorsky developing equipment and techniques for rescuing people using helicopters. Barnes liked that work and stayed there until he was discharged. Sikorsky had a son who was in the Coast Guard who was stationed at the same air field. Barnes liked working with the son. While Barnes was in Times Square one day he was recruited for a radio show called Blind Date which was hosted by Arlene Francis. Barnes went on the show and competed against a soldier from Brooklyn. Barnes won and was taken with his date by limousine to the Stork Club. There were several movie stars in the back room and Barnes was able to get their signatures. The girl who had selected Barnes was the host of the show Kiss and Tell but Barnes never got to kiss her. He did not even get to hold her hand. Barnes feels that people should know about the contributions of the Coast Guard.

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