James Ray Barnes may have a failing memory, but his family's service during World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor is something he will not soon forget.
"My memory is not very good, but I’ll never forget December 7, 1941,” Barnes, 94, of Wilson, N.C., told The Wilson Times.
It was Barnes's older brother, Robert Groves Barnes, an airplane mechanic for the U.S. Navy, who inspired James Ray himself to later enlist. R.G. Barnes, who enlisted in 1938, was assigned to the USS Lexington, the country's largest carrier and one of the world's fastest ships.
Remembering Pearl Harbor today. Was there in Oct and the sacrifices made starting that day by the “Greatest Generation” to save freedom for the world leaves me in awe and respect. #NeverForget pic.twitter.com/51jNsW2Vw4
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) December 7, 2017
“They were at sea when it happened,” Barnes told the Times. “That’s the reason they didn’t get caught with all these other ships, the Arizona and all that and got sunk right in the harbor.”
All told, more than 2,000 Americans were killed on a day President Franklin Roosevelt later declared “will live in infamy.” Twenty American naval ships and 300 aircraft were either damaged or destroyed in the attack.
“Mr. and Mrs. George Barnes have heard from their son, Robert G. Barnes, who was in Pearl Harbor at the outbreak of the Pacific war,” read a local newspaper clipping, according to the Times, kept by the brother's mother and preserved all these years.
— U.S. Dept of Defense (@DeptofDefense) December 7, 2017
“He is on the USS Lexington, and writes that he is well and safe, but cannot tell where he is at present or where he is going. His letter was written December 27. Robert, who is 20 years old, has not been home in two years.”
The USS Lexington may have escaped disaster at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but the ship's fate was sealed. Five months later, and after several major engagements in the Pacific, the USS Lexington took multiple direct hits by torpedoes and bombs from Japanese bombers on May 8, 1942.
“When the commander of the ship found out that they were going to sink, they went to the kitchen and got all the ice cream out on deck, and everybody ate ice cream before they went over,” James Ray said, recalling what his brother had told him.
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) December 7, 2017
“He never told me how he got off. Somehow they picked him up. They carried him to Australia and put him off. It was three months before we heard whether he was dead or alive."
The ship's crew fought valiantly to save the carrier, according to a first-hand account from a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent. But aviation fuel aboard the ship ignited, causing fires and explosions to envelope the ship.
R.G. Barnes was one of the 2,735 who slid down ropes or jumped into the sea that day. 216 crewmen of the Lexington weren't so lucky, either perishing in the attack or the subsequent explosions aboard the ship.
Thank you to the #GreatestGeneration for defending the US! My Grandfather, an Army Captain, fought bravely with his men in New Guinea & Philippines.
— Michelle Piper 🇺🇸 (@MichellePiper18) December 7, 2017
“I wanted to be like R.G.,” James Ray Barnes said, despite his brother's close call aboard the Lexington.
Like so many other Americans, Barnes wanted to sign up to serve his country in the war.
He did just that, becoming an aviation machinist, just like his brother. Unlike his brother, Barnes got an unusual assignment off the seaplane base.
— Sensenbrenner Press (@JimPressOffice) December 7, 2017
“One day, they sent me from the seaplane base to the land base. It was walking distance,” recalled Barnes to Times. “I don’t know if they were short-handed or something why they did that. They wanted me to check this plane out. They didn’t tell me who was going to fly the plane, but it happened to be George (H.) W. Bush. He was a year younger than I was.”
It was an SNJ trainer plane, and at the time, Bush was the youngest naval aviator in the country, according to the Times.
Barnes and his Navy ship were halfway across the Pacific heading for a planned invasion of Japan when the war ended.
December 7, 1941
— Rad123 (@Tombx7M) December 7, 2017
Both brothers returned home after the war. R.G. Barnes passed away in 1982.
James Ray worked many years with the N.C. Department of Transportation and now lives in Wilson.
But James Ray and his family will never forget Pearl Harbor.
“That was an unbelievable thing. We remember it as the biggest disaster that happened in our time,” Bobby Moore, the brothers' first cousin, told the Times. Moore was 11 years old in 1941. “It just seemed to mobilize everybody. The Marines were hot to trot. I didn’t hear of any dissension. We were ready to go.
"When you think December 7, you think Pearl Harbor, and when you think Pearl Harbor, you think December the 7th,” Moore continued. “It’s ingrained in my mind.”