John Barkley was an unlikely hero.
In his youth, Private First Class John Lewis Barkley was a bit of a troublemaker. He was known to sneak liquor into his unit area and had a not inconsiderable weakness for women both French and German. Interestingly, when he had originally attempted to enlist he was denied due to a severe stutter.
John Barkley ultimately made it into the Army on his second try.
Later, at age 22, Barkley found his way into the US Army after the need for troops became severe. Barkley was an otherwise typical young American hailing from a small town in Missouri. In World War 1 he found the greatest adventure of his life.
John Barkley’s job was to kill Germans and he embraced it.
John Barkley served with Company K of the 4th Regiment of the 3d Infantry Division in most of the major American engagements during the First World War. A reconnaissance specialist and sharpshooter, Barkley spilled more than his share of German blood. However, he understood the war to be a fight between good and evil and he had few qualms about the violence he visited upon the enemy. Barkley was satisfied with his lot as a private soldier and eschewed promotion when the opportunity arose. His job was to kill Germans pure and simple, and he threw himself into it.
A near miss from artillery during the Second Battle for the Marne changed Barkley’s life.
During the Second Battle for the Marne, artillery fire splintered a nearby tree and dropped a heavy branch onto him, leaving him unconscious for several hours. He awoke without his stutter. His mom viewed this as a miracle conjured from amidst a veritable sea of blood.
Barkley headed off to war a self-confident young sharpshooter.
John Barkley was born in Blairstown, Missouri, in August of 1895. A hard man from a nation of hard men, Barkley grew up knowing austerity and deprivation. When he went off to war he was enthusiastic, driven, and dangerous.
Barkley’s introduction to the messy bits of war was viscerally overwhelming.
As is always the case, Barkley’s introduction to practical war was both shocking and stark. On board a troop train packed with wounded these were his initial observations, “The train was packed with men. Men lying as still as if they were already dead. Men shaking with pain. One man raving, jabbering, yelling, in delirium. Everywhere bandages . . . bandages . . . bandages . . . and blood.”
The Medal of Honor
The Germans during World War 1 were well-trained and formidable fighters.
On October 7, 1918, World War 1 had just over a month to go before it bled itself dry. John Barkley found himself this fateful day in an observation post some five hundred meters from the German lines.
Cunel, France, was a desolate place during the war.
Before the war had blasted everything to hell, there had been a small picturesque French community nearby called Cunel. This particular bloodbath came later to be known as the battle for the Argonne Forest.
WW1 battlefields in 1918 were ravaged places.
Artillery, machine guns, and poison gas transformed the World War 1 battlefields into something out of Dante. This late in the war the toxic combination of tanks and desperation drove men to truly extraordinary efforts. That desperation became the soil from which true heroes are raised.
The WW1-era French Renault FT tank was small, lightweight, and vulnerable. More than 3,700 were produced.
An earlier assault had left a small French tank destroyed near Barkley’s fighting position.
Disabled weapons litter the industrial battlefield. PFC John Barkley found himself with a disabled German Maxim gun in need of attention.
Among the detritus of combat, he also found himself in possession of an inoperative German Maxim gun and an ample supply of belted ammunition. Like most men of his generation, John Barkley was fairly adept at fixing things. Throwing stuff away when it no longer works is a recent disease.
The classic MG08 Maxim gun mounted on a massive sled mount but was reliable and fairly easy to run.
In relatively short order he had the German MG08 up and running. It turned out that on this particularly bloody day he would soon have desperate need of that captured German gun.
The Germans in WW1 were smart and relentless. Over time, John Barkley came to read their intentions from the state of the battlefield.
A man in combat develops a sixth sense for trouble.
A nearby disabled French Renault FT tank became John Barkley’s improvised hard point.
John Barkley could tell the Huns were up to no good, so he climbed into the disabled French armored vehicle and mounted his captured German gun where it gave him a generous field of fire. In short order the Germans slathered his position with artillery fire, driving his comrades back or to ground.
John Barkley turned an enemy Infantry assault into a deadly ambush.
Throughout it, Barkley crouched inside the derelict French tank awaiting the inevitable Infantry assault that he could feel was coming.
Barkley waited until the Germans were abreast his position.
Barkley waited patiently until the advancing German troops were in line abreast his position.
John Barkley killed multiple dozens of German assault troops single-handedly.
When the moment was perfect he leaped up from the tank and triggered the German gun, mowing down the shocked Hun soldiers by the bushel. John Barkley’s audacious surprise attack splintered the German assault, killing or wounding dozens of enemy soldiers.
The Germans responded with concentrated artillery fire from a cannon like this 77mm monster. One 77mm round struck the derelict tank’s drive wheel and exploded.
Desperate for a breakthrough, the German commanders directed concentrated artillery fire on Barkley’s already ventilated tank at point blank range. One 77mm high explosive round struck the tank’s drive wheel and exploded, rocking the little vehicle and showering the surrounding area with dirt. Throughout it all John Barkley remained in position, manning his gun singlehandedly in the face of overwhelming odds.
When the dust settled German dead were scattered all around Barkley’s position.
Satisfied that this one American soldier with his captured German gun had been silenced, the Huns launched a second massive assault on Barkley’s position. The lone American repeated his performance a second time, shattering the attack and leaving more than a hundred German dead surrounding his position.
Barkley held his position through guile and force of personal will.
The resolute defense PFC Barkley established enabled American troops to advance and seize the strategic hilltop near John Barkley’s last stand. When fresh troops retook the area they found more than four thousand expended shell casings inside John Barkley’s ruined French tank.
The Human Cost
The sights, sounds, and smells of war tend to change a man.
John Barkley sent his brother a letter soon after his heroic defense of that forlorn moonscape. His words explain what a close thing that engagement actually was. Time, distance, and the limitations of the language conspire to mute the horror of that day.
The end result of John Barkley’s implacable defense was bodies stacked like cordwood.
“Don’t think I’m going to tell you anything about that tank deal. It is too bad to tell a civilized man. I played them dirty every chance I got, and this is not the first time I ever did this.”
“I fired my last round of ammunition from the machinegun but kept my automatic pistol for hand-to-hand fighting: plunged out of that tank with a sudden dash. I had three bullet marks in my clothes and a burnt legging string.”
The original German MG08 Maxim gun was adapted from Hiram Stevens Maxim’s original design.
The MG08 Maxim gun revolutionized the way men killed each other. The brainchild of American-born British inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, the infamous Maxim gun armed both sides throughout World War 1. While the Germans employed what may be seen as the definitive model, the British Vickers was based upon the same internal mechanism.
The MG08/15 was a lightened version of the earlier sled mount gun. Despite its svelte lines the gun still weighed 39 pounds empty.
The Maxim was a recoil-operated weapon and was actually one of the first recoil-operated guns ever devised. The Maxim in its ground configuration was a water-cooled beast that fired at around 600 rounds per minute.
The British version of the Maxim action was the improved Vickers gun.
The Maxim ultimately saw service with the English, Russians, Germans, Finns, Chinese, Americans, and many more.
When properly serviced and supported the MG08 Maxim would run almost indefinitely.
The Maxim gun was sinfully heavy by modern standards and was typically crewed by between four and six men. However, when properly stoked and supplied with an ample supply of water for the barrel jacket the gun could fire almost indefinitely. The end result was carnage on an unprecedented scale.
The Colt 1911 pistol was a revolutionary gun for its day.
The automatic pistol John Barkley carried was an early example of the legendary Colt 1911 in .45ACP. Designed by the firearms luminary John Moses Browning, the 1911 was the finest combat handgun of the war. Offering superb reliability, exceptional accuracy, and unrivaled knockdown power, the 1911 remains in service with some specialized military units even today.
The Colt 1911 .45ACP pistol that John Barkley carried for personal defense was a rugged and effective combat handgun.
The combat handgun has evolved profoundly in the past century. However, John Barkley’s 1911 set a standard for battlefield effectiveness that has not since been bested. Despite indescribable gore and deprivation aplenty, Barkley could take solace in the fact that the pistol that rode on his hip in October of 1918 was the best combat sidearm on the planet.
John “Blackjack” Pershing was commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during WW1.
PFC John Barkley received his Medal of Honor in 1919 from the legendary General John “Blackjack” Pershing.
Field Marshal Ferdinand Foche was renowned for his ample whiskers.
He also received the Medaille Militaire from French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foche. When Foche kissed him on the cheeks, per the French custom, his bushy mustache brushed Barkley’s face and caused him to sneeze violently. A young American officer named Douglas Macarthur was in attendance and nearly disrupted the proceedings with laughter.
John Barkley’s memoirs were republished years after his death. This book has been likened to All Quiet on the Western Front.
Barkley published an autobiographical work in 1930 titled “No Hard Feelings.” In more recent years the book has been edited and republished as “Scarlet Fields: The Combat Memoir of a World War 1 Medal of Honor Hero.”
John Barkley remained a humble man throughout his life.
John Barkley came home from the war and settled into a humble life, farming two hundred acres around Johnson County, Missouri. Barkley died in 1966 at the age of 70.
John Barkley’s grave is nondescript with little to inform the casual observer of his remarkable wartime feats of heroism.
He is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
John Barkley was a highly decorated WW1 American hero.
John Barkley has been described by those who knew him as unassuming, likable, and modest. On a particularly dark day in October of 1918, Barkley singlehandedly stopped an aggressive German Infantry assault using a captured German machinegun and a knocked-out French tank. John Barkley personified American heroism and courage.
Barker’s exploits have been memorialized in his home state of Missouri.
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