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A Bridge and a Hero

An effort begins to rename the Crooked River Bridge after Rex Barber Sr., the Culver man who brought down Yamamoto during World War II but quietly kept out of the spotlight
By Troy Foster
   News Editor
   Rex Barber never sought fame.
   Those who knew the ex-World War II flying ace from Culver said he was a humble man. He was the kind of guy that bragged about the grandchild that bears his name -- not his war exploits.
   But there is a local movement to honor the late war hero, whose most storied accomplishment was tempered by a controversy that still lingers today.
   It's a small gesture, one that would probably embarrass Barber, who passed away July 26, were he around today. But it's an appropriate one nonetheless.
   An Eagle Crest man, backed by a network of veterans organizations, has petitioned the Oregon Department of Transportation to rename the Crooked River Bridge after Rex Barber -- the man most believe shot down Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto in one of the most famous fighter sorties of the second world war.
   "It's just me, Joe Average citizen, who thinks, 'wouldn't this be a nice memorial to Rex and the Barber family?' " said Lee Flegel, who is spearheading the effort. "It just seems so obvious that we should do this and I'm sure some other folks will arrive at the same conclusion, too."
   The effort carries the quiet blessing of Barber's son, Rex Jr. of Terrebonne, and Margaret Barber, his wife of 54 years.
   Rex Sr., who was born in Culver in 1917 and lived his last years in Terrebonne, was "much more than the Yamamoto mission," as Rex Jr. once told a reporter. He was an accomplished insurance man, a proud father of two boys and was always an active member in his community. He even served as Culver's mayor three decades ago.
   Yet, an act of bravery Barber displayed on a spring day 58 years ago forever placed him among World War II legends.
   April 18, 1943
   The story of Rex Barber's famous act of heroism on April 18, 1943, has been told many times -- even in a full-length book -- but it's worth mention one more time.
   In the spring of 1940, just prior to the outbreak of World War II, Barber left Oregon State College a few weeks before he would have received his degree in agricultural engineering to join the U.S. Army Air Corps.
   Three years later, he found himself among the 339th Fighter Squadron in mid-April about to embark on the deadliest of missions. U.S. military intelligence had intercepted a coded Japanese signal that outlined Adm. Yamamoto's precise flight plans.
   The 339th was stationed in the South Pacific and Major John Mitchell, its commander, was ordered to lead a dangerous mission to intercept and shoot down the Japanese admiral -- the mastermind behind the infamous Pearl Harbor raid.
   Barber, along with 15 other pilots flying twin-engine Lockheed P-38s, left their air base on Guadalcanal in the early morning of April 18, 1943, to intercept the enemy's commander in chief in the air before he reached his destination, which was the Japanese-held island of Ballale.
   The pilots flew a calculated, meticulously planned flight path over 425 miles of ocean, cruising just 10-50 feet above the water to avoid enemy radar. Barber was one of four pilots assigned to the "Killer Flight," the group of men who would attempt to destroy the admiral's "Betty" bomber while the other pilots were to engage the numerous Zeros expected to be escorting the man who once said he feared he had awakened a sleeping giant.
   What the 339th found was two Betty bombers and a small group of Zeros. Two of the Killer Flight P-38s had trouble engaging their targets, which left only Barber and another pilot, Capt. Tom Lanphier, to carry out the kill.
   What happened next remains confusing and shrouded in controversy.
   When Barber returned to base -- his aircraft riddled with bullet holes -- Lanphier was boasting how he had single handily brought down Yamamoto's bomber.
   Barber had been the first to fire upon one of the Betty bombers. He said he pumped bullets into the lead bomber's fuselage, shred its rudder to pieces and watched the plane slow and veer toward the jungle tops as smoke began billowing out of its right engine before incoming zeros chased Barber away. Moments later, Barber said he glanced back and saw a huge plume of smoke coming from the jungle. Barber later helped finish the second Betty bomber off and damaged his aircraft in the process when it flew through the exploding debris.
   Lanphier, on the other hand, had initially climbed altitude to engage some Zeros. According to his story, he then saw a Betty bomber well below him flying over the treetops and fired upon it, saying he saw its right engine burst into flames and the wing tear off with it before crashing. Later investigations reportedly indicated that the wing had not come off of Yamamoto's aircraft.
   The pilots were never formally debriefed when they returned to their airfield. Lanphier insisted he had shot down Yamamoto and reportedly even helped write a formal report that credited him with the epic kill.
   Barber only briefly confronted Lanphier after the mission, asking him how he was so certain he had destroyed Yamamoto's bomber, but backed off when Lanphier became angry and defensive -- so the story goes.
   After all, there was no way to determine which plane was actually carrying the admiral at the time.
   History skewed
   Yamamoto was shot down well before the war was over, but the public wouldn't know this for at least another few years.
   The American military didn't want the Japanese to find out they knew how to break their coded messages. The pilots of the 339th were sworn to secrecy.
   But Lanphier broke security when he spoke to the New York Times, telling them how he had single handily brought Yamamoto down and further tilting the story in his favor.
   Meanwhile, Barber kept the significance of the April 14 mission and his side of the story under wraps.
   When he returned to Culver in August of 1945, for example, an article in The Pioneer vaguely described how during a daring mission Barber had "got one of the bombers" and "shot another," but there was no mention Yamamoto.
   He went about his business and continued to fight in the war. After Guadalcanal, he was transferred to the 449th Fighter Squadron of the 23rd fighter group where he was shot down over China and injured. But he managed to evaded capture.
   By the time the war was over, Barber was the recipient of the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart -- while Lanphier was the recipient of sole credit for one of the most famous wartime kills.
   Barber married on Oct. 3, 1947, and retired from the military 14 years later on April 1 as a colonel. He eventually made his way back to Culver, trying his hand at insurance, farming and eventually mayor.
   "That's what really argues for the bridge being named in his honor," Flegel said. "He did so many heroic military things but he also had a tremendous civic record."
   He lived a humble life, his family says, and didn't speak much of the Yamamoto mission unless he was asked about it.
   "These things were not terribly important to us at the time," said Margaret Barber. "We had another life just like everybody else."
   Rex Barber Jr. said the way his father handled the bungled story over the decades provided an example for his the surviving family members.
   "We think it would be an honor to have the bridge named after him, but we, as a family, have decided to conduct ourselves like Dad conducted himself," he said. "He never sought fame and we're not out to seek fame now that he's gone."
   But friends and former colleagues who believed Barber had taken down Yamamoto eventually decided to mount an effort to give credit where credit was due.
   Veterans groups began lobbying the Air Force to change its records. An organization called The Second Yamamoto Mission Association began piecing together evidence and eyewitness accounts that supported Barber's version of the story.
   Independent studies and research also led to the conclusion that only Barber had mad the kill. So in 1973, the air force decided to split credit between Barber and Lanphier.
   However, in 1997 the American Fighter Aces Association gave Barber full credit and the Confederate Air Force followed suit in 1998.
   A footnote
   ODOT officials in Central Oregon have entertained the notion of changing the bridge's name with enthusiasm, and are preparing to send a proposal to the Oregon Transportation Commission.
   "We don't often get an opportunity to consider naming a highway feature after a prominent local citizen so we're looking forward to working with this," said Bob Bryant, ODOT's Region 4 Manager.
   And if the powers that be are looking for one more reason to support the placing of Rex Barber's name upon the new $18 million bridge, they need hear nothing more than this story:
   Sometime during what was believed to be the year 1945, a gathering of Central Oregon folks lined up on the High Bridge, which was replaced by the Crooked River Bridge last October, to watch Barber's piloting antics in action.
   He was on leave with a buddy. Both were flying a new P-80 Shooting Star, the Air Force's first operational jet fighter.
   Against better judgment, they were going to fly into the Crooked River Canyon and swoop under the High Bridge that carries Highway 26.
   "The way the story is told, there were lots of people standing on the bridge watching," said Rex Barber Jr. "Dad flew under the railroad bridge first and the High Bridge no problem."
   But the pilot following Rex Barber Sr. hit some turbulence and had to pull up between the bridges and nearly collided with the High Bridge and the people on it.
   "It was a pretty dumb thing to do," said Margaret Barber.
   Added Rex Jr.: "If his buddy had hit the bridge Dad would have still be in the brig.
   "But back then the war was over, they were heros and they could do whatever they wanted to do."
   It was a long struggle straighten out the history books for Barber and his colleagues. Maybe honoring the Jefferson County native with a bridge in his name won't be such a daunting task.