This is the story of how a scrap of paper and a certain word written on it saved a young man’s life.
When 18-year-old Bruce T. Barber was drafted into the military in World War II, he was soon on his way to Camp Upton, Suffolk County, where he was processed, he says, “like cattle into the Army, along with 18,000 other youngsters.”
Well, of course, that was the case. World War II was raging. Germany and Japan sought to conquer the free world.
“Casualties were high. Our ranks were being depleted. In the Pacific, it was malaria and jungle fever claiming many of the soldiers,” Barber says, recalling how he received a number of inoculations at Camp Upton. “You walked between eight medics, and each gave you a shot on each arm. Guys dropped like flies.”
For Barber, though, he wrote his own lifesaving prescription.
“We were in a huge room and given index cards,” he says. “An officer said, ‘Write your name in the upper right-hand corner, your serial number in the left-hand corner and below that, your occupation.’ ”
Barber reflected for a moment. He had come straight from Bennett High School and had never worked. But he recalled his hobbies of model-making and artwork: “So I listed myself as an artist and turned the index card in.”
He arrived in the Pacific in January 1944 aboard the former civilian ocean liner, the Matsonia, along with 5,000 shipmates, all members of the 41st Infantry Division, which had already been fighting in the Pacific for more than 18 months and needed replacements.
Barber’s first enemy encounter occurred at Hollandia, New Guinea.
“It was a major operation involving aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers that shelled the harbor. When we landed, we had air support,” Barber says. “But everyone was surprised because there was very little resistance. This was the first of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s leapfrogging strategy which isolated major pockets of Japanese army troops, literally cutting them off from supplies.”
The next target was the island of Biak, part of the Dutch-owned Schouten Islands.
“The value of Biak was that it had three airfields, which were a threat to the American advance,” Barber says. “The major obstacle of Biak was its caves. Biak is a coral upthrust completely formed of coral. The Japanese were inside the caves that were part of a huge palisade overlooking both the airstrips and beachhead. That’s what made it so difficult.”
The cover of one magazine from that time, Barber says, described the taking of the island as “Bloody Biak.”
“The enemy was raining down fire on infantry troops trying to reach the airfields,” he recalls.
So commanders decided to fight fire with fire, dropping combustibles above the caves and then igniting the material after it had seeped through the porous coral.
Barber, though, had been spared the beachhead blood bath. He says he had previously been reassigned from his infantry platoon to the division’s reconnaissance unit, where he scouted out other sections of Biak to draw maps and locate a high-priority target.
“We were looking for a prominent Japanese admiral protected by elite Japanese marines,” Barber says. “We never found him but ran into ambushes and got into firefights. After everything cooled down at Biak and the airstrips were secured, myself and two other companions who’d also been taken out of the infantry unit decided to revisit our old platoon.
“When we found our platoon camp, we were shown into the tent, and I turned and asked a survivor what was the reason for so many empty cots. He said three-quarters of the platoon were casualties of the fight to gain the airstrips. I was puzzled, and when I returned to camp, I asked the commanding officer why I had been plucked out of that platoon.
“He said all of the commanding officers of the division who needed replacements visited the division command post and went through the alphabetized index cards that had traveled with the troops. He told me, ‘I was looking for a replacement artist map-maker and got past the A’s, and there was B, and under it, ‘Barber,’ and under that, ‘artist.’ He did not know I was not a professional artist, but only a mere student of art.”
Ever since then, when Barber recalls this war story, he ends by saying, “The index card saved my life.”
After returning to Buffalo, he attended Albright Art School, which launched his career in advertising.
And it turns out that the 18-year-old draftee was right about himself when he dashed down the word “artist.” Throughout his life, he often spent his spare time as a watercolorist.
Three of his paintings are in the permanent collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
“Ironically,” he says, “one of them is of Biak. It’s a war scene.”