With the Pratt & Whitney engines roaring to his left and right, Emerson Barker guided the big P-61 attack plane down the runway. The Black Widow was a tough plane to fly, but Barker and his crew were tough men, young though they were.
At 24, Barker, a 1941 Indiana Central grad, was the eldest of the three-man crew. He had already served his tour of duty and was given a chance to go home to live out the rest of the war stateside with his wife and infant son. He declined the offer, choosing instead to remain in the South Pacific training other fighter pilots.
It was a selfless, fateful decision.
Captain Barker was a decorated pilot, having won the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. In November 1943, he led a dark-of-the-moon raid on Rabaul, a strategic enemy air base crucial to the Solomon Islands campaign. Less than five months later, the Bloomfield, Indiana, native was given a field promotion to major and command of the 419th Night Fighter Squadron.
The mission on June 12, 1944, was a training run. The Allies were preparing to invade Japan, believing they would have to fight street by street to end the war. Barker’s squadron would defend the battleships steaming into Tokyo Bay. The twin-fuselage plane lumbered at first, and then, in only a thousand feet, became airborne. It could accelerate to 350 mph. Designed specifically for missions at night, the P-61 was a flying arsenal, laden with cannons, machine guns, and three tons of bombs. Once aloft, Barker would have checked on his crew and the rest of the squadron, keeping the planes in formation. Then, somewhere in the vicinity of Guadalcanal, the P-61 exploded mid-air.
Nothing was ever found of the plane, the crew, or Major Barker. His name is listed on the Tablets of the Missing in the American Cemetery in the Philippines along with those of all the others who never returned.
A sacrifice honored
Not content to see their brother’s name on a plaque thousands of miles away, Dwight and Kenneth Barker made it their quest to have Emerson’s memory honored on American soil. And so, 68 years and one day later, June 13, 2012, Major Emerson Barker was honored by his country with the most prestigious of its ceremonies: commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
I attended that ceremony and had to fight back tears through most of it. Fifty of Barker’s friends and family gathered at Arlington and followed a caisson drawn by six white horses to the place where a headstone was installed in the major’s honor. The caisson, a wagon really, carried only a flag—the one that would have draped Barker’s coffin. Escorting the flag was a crew of white-gloved airmen in immaculate dress uniform and mirror-shined shoes. Medals, not just ribbons, hung over their hearts; gold braids, looped from epaulets, crossed their chests. A military band tapped cadence as the entourage walked behind the caisson.
A rifle squad stood behind us at the grave site as another squad guarded us from the brow of a nearby hill. The band, General Pershing’s Own, stood among the gravestones and played hymns that covered the city sounds around us. Then came the shouted commands, and three volleys of seven carbines gave Major Barker the final gun salute. Blue smoke still hung in the air as the color guard began to unfold and then refold the flag over the spot of ground where the major’s catafalque would have been. Leaning in to inspect and to take the flag as it was passed to him, each man folded his section with automatic precision.
The color guard commander inspected the tri-cornered flag, then held it tightly to his chest as if to imbue the cloth with the respect of an entire nation before handing it to the chaplain who, on bended knee, presented it—the token of a grateful nation’s appreciation for one its heroes—to Emerson’s brother, Dwight.
A student remembered
Before he was a hero, Emerson Barker was a student. Our student. He entered Indiana Central College in 1937, majoring in History and Physical Education and intending to become a teacher. He was an active member of the campus community, singing in the glee club, competing in intramural and varsity sports. Like many students, he also had a campus job. Emerson worked a rather un-heroic job in the cafeteria, peeling potatoes for 25 cents an hour. He was a normal college student, doing what college students do, soaking up a campus experience. Becoming a hero came later.
In his junior year—the war going in full—Emerson entered a pilot training conducted at Stout Field in Indianapolis that eventually led him into advanced pilot training. He became proficient at flying the fastest, most agile pursuit aircraft: P-38s, P-40s, P-47s, and then the P-61. In 1942 he married his college sweetheart, Frances Van Buskirk. They had one son, Emerson Jr., who never got to know his dad. He followed in his father’s footsteps though, becoming a Navy veteran and pilot in his own right.
World War II demanded much of this country. Ordinary citizens had to do extraordinary things. So it was with Emerson Barker, a normal college student who planned to become a teacher. In the end, it was his intention to become a teacher that was fulfilled. He could have come home after his tour of duty ended. Instead, he remained in the Pacific Theater, teaching other young men how to fly. Some seven decades later, he was honored as a national hero on our country’s most hallowed grounds.
—David W. Wantz ’84
Photo credits: Susan Fleck Photography