Edith Barnum is flanked by her four sons

Wartime mystery solved after 60 years

Parksville-area soldier learns brother's fate during return trip to Italy for 60th anniversary of Italian Campaign

In early summer of 2004, World War II veteran Sgt. W.E. (Barney) Barnum, MM, CD, Royal New Westminster Regiment, was invited by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in Ottawa to participate in a pilgrimage to Italy commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Italian Campaign.

At that time my dad was 92 years old and gung-ho to go, and I jumped at the opportunity to go along on the trip as care-giver. Neither of us could have known at the time the pilgrimage would result in the solving of a 60-year-old family mystery.

Having joined the Canadian forces at age 26, when war was declared, Walter was joined in Europe several years later by his younger brother, my uncle Harlin. After the two met while on leave in London in early 1943, they returned to their separate units. Both were deployed the following year to the invasion of Sicily and Italy, but my dad never saw his brother alive again.

 

September 1, 1944:

The Allied forces had slowly made their way up the boot of Italy from their first landings in Sicily more than 15 months prior. While camped with his regiment near Gradara, Italy, Sgt. Walter E. Barnum was approached shortly before dark by the Westminster Regiment Company pastor, who informed him that his youngest brother Harlin had been killed in action the previous day at Point 204.

The pastor asked “Barney” if he would like to view the body and assist with internment.

“Yes sir. I would like that very much,” came the humble reply.

Early the next morning, under the cover of darkness, Sgt. Barnum was delivered by a dispatch rider to a remote farm location about 12 kilometers away.

Standing and stretching in the yard of that Italian country farm, miraculously spared from total demolition, Sgt. Barnum was directed, by the Corporal in Charge, to a small grassy area around the side of the barn. There, in a neat row, lie five bodies of Canadian soldiers, wrapped from head to toe in clean grey blankets, with faces covered.

A tag identified the first on the right as “Trooper Harlin James Barnum, Army, British Columbia Dragoons, R.C.A.C.”, followed by a short description of the events leading to his death.

The Corporal and Sgt. Barnum kneeled and slowly pulled back the blanket from Harlin’s body. Walter’s mind raced, not knowing what to expect. He knew Harlin had been killed in a tank. Was he burned, mangled, maimed and disfigured?

No. He lay there as if asleep: shirt clean, arms crossed, eyes closed, hair pushed back neat and not a mark on him. Even a bit of that boyish smile remained on his lips.

Harlin and each of his four companions were slowly put to rest. They were interred in a shallow grave, wrapped in wool blankets, each with a small inscribed wooden marker at their heads. With the help of the Italian family from the farm and the graving detail my Dad buried his kid brother, Uncle Harlin, near an apple tree in sunny Italy.

On the ride back to catch his regiment, his beloved “Westies”, Sgt. Barnum reflected and was thankful for the rare wartime opportunity to give his little brother a decent burial service with family present. For the next sixty years my Dad often thought about Harlin, his youngest and closest brother. Where had he been and what had Harlin done since the last time they saw each other in London? How did he get to that farmyard for the burial in war-torn Italy?

Each year, on Remembrance Day, while calling “The Role of the Missing” my uncle’s name, Barnum, H.J., was read aloud along with other names on the cenotaph. We never really know who he was.

What happened and how he was killed was always a family mystery. Until …

 

October 24, 2004:

While in Ottawa on the first leg of our pilgrimage to the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Italian Campaign, my dad and I were invited to Department of National Defence Headquarters, for a special event. It was the official unveiling of a new Canadian postage stamp commemorating the Victoria Cross Medal, the highest Military honour in the Commonwealth bestowed on an individual for an act of bravery in the field.

Among those attending was Ernest Alvia (Smokey) Smith, the last living recipient of the honour, who was awarded the VC for his actions defending his fellow Seaforth Highlanders in a battle at the Morro River, Italy, in 1944. Smokey was also Italy-bound and soon became one of our close travelling companions.

Walter “Barney” Barnum of Coombs, right, catches up with fellow WWII veteran Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith during GTEC Week at the Ottawa Conference Centre in October of 2004. — Image credit: John Barnum photo

It seemed that Smokey and My Dad had more than a few things in common. They both grew up in the Lower Mainland playing soccer around Port Moody and New Westminster in the 1920s. They may even have met on the pitch as opponents before becoming Brothers in Arms. Both were awarded medals for bravery by the King of England, George VI, although in separate ceremonies.

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and a host of other yet-to-be-introduced dignitaries mingled with veterans, media, active military personnel and civilians. As we watched we were approached by an older veteran, also clad in a beret and a blue blazer decorated with a long bar of medals. The chap asked my Dad if he was Barney Barnum.

“Indeed I am,” came the jovial reply. The gentleman introduced himself as Bruce Delgarno of the British Columbia Dragoons and mentioned that he and his grandson, Chris Churkewich, would be joining us on our junket.

Bruce told us that he had served in Italy with The British Columbia Dragoons (BCDs) and during those terrible war years had become great friends with another buddy, also known by the handle “Barney” Barnum.

He confided that he was present at Point 204 the day his friend, Harlin (Barney) Barnum, was killed in action.

 

August 31, 1944:

Using more than 15,000 slave laborers, the Germans had created more than 2,000 machine gun nests, casements, bunkers, observation posts, supply depots and concrete-lined and heavily fortified artillery positions, stretching like a garter belt across the leg of the Italian Peninsula. This line monopolized all the strategic high points, foreshadowing the inevitable. Included in the defensive lattice work were a maze of intricate mine fields and the deadly accurate 88mm cannons, “tank killers”, designed to repel any attempts to infiltrate Northern Italy.

The Canadians were on the Adriatic coast with the objective of breaking through this “Gothic Line” as part of Allied Central Command’s Operation Gatecrash.

As daylight arrived battles spread across the landscape. The B.C. Dragoon’s Tank Core was to link up with The Perth Regiment, which with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Cape Breton Highlanders Regiments, in concert, closed ranks from the east and west to their objective, Point 204.

Lt.-Colonel Fred Vokes’ RHQ squadron of four tanks was mobilized, heading out to seek and support his imperiled B.C. Dragoons in their struggle atop Point 204. Tank Driver, Trooper Barnum, H.J., peered out of the operator’s forward portal of No. 2 Sherman tank in the line, squinting through the dust clouds created by No. 1 lead tank “Dragoon” (9th armored brigade’s mobile RHQ, with LT. Col. Fred Vokes aboard).

No. 1 “Dragoon” was driven by Trooper Barnum’s, friend Cpl. Bruce Delgarno. Immediately astern of Harlin ran the No. 3 tank and about 50 yards arrears No. 4 tank hurried to close up ranks.

While churning along the narrow path seeking the location of the remainder of the BCD Regiment, in hot, loud, dusty and claustrophobic conditions the four tanks of mobile headquarters squadron overshot a left turn on a small spur road at the base of Point 204, leading them away from their hilltop rendezvous and into enemy held territory.

Like ducks in a shooting gallery, plodding in single file, the foursome headed into a vulnerable position.

Two German mobile anti-tank guns and a Panther Mark V tank, utilizing a hit-and-run strategy, had been marauding the area, inflicting severe damage to various Canadian groups. The enemy’s constantly moving location could not be identified nor neutralized. Canadian command observers, atop 204, had spotted RHQ’s four-tank command group at the base of 204 and were desperately trying every wireless frequency to contact Lt. Col. Vokes and get them to turn tail and retreat from their looming predicament.

Ironically, radio communications were sporadic despite the No. 1 and No. 2 tanks having been stripped of their heavy artillery cannons to make room for radio equipment used by RHQ and Command Central. These tanks had been fitted with wooden gun barrels to deceive the enemy of their important personnel, role and cargo. They were virtually impotent.

After both the lead Dragoon tank and the No. 3 tank were hit by anti-tank fire and badly damaged, trooper Harlin J. Barnum and the No. 2 tank crew were forced to attempt a difficult maneuver. Back down off the road, over the bank and around the crippled No. 3 tank then gain open level road and attempt to return machine gun fire from their Browning 50-caliber guns to give the other imperilled Canadian tank crews supporting cover fire. As the tank crested the bank back onto the road it suffered a direct hit from more 88-mm antitank cannon fire.

The German artillery round delivered at No. 2 struck but did not penetrate the tank’s one-inch armor. Because of the angle of deflection the well-placed round exploded on impact then ricocheted upwards. The hit centred on the tank driver’s steering compartment, sending a concussion shock wave through the steel hull and immediately rendering Harlin unconscious and stunning the other occupants.

Dazed and scrambling from the disabled tank, the crew pulled Harlin from his seat and quickly made their way to safer territory. They didn’t know if Harlin was alive or not.

Lt.-Col. Vokes reported all other crews from the forward tanks had been either killed or taken prisoner. While tending to his men, giving direction and aiding wounded comrades that had somehow slowly crawled in from the wreckages, he was struck by shrapnel from an incoming mortar shell and, after being evacuated to an aid station, died of his wounds.

The three surviving crewmen from tank “Dragoon”, including Bruce Delgarno, clamored out of the burning tank, over the bank, into the ditch and headed overland trying to put distance between themselves and burning equipment. As they retreated they encountered a German patrol and were captured and made prisoners of war. Their Canadian uniforms saved them from being executed on the spot. They spent the remainder of the war in Germany and Poland doing slave labor in munitions factories in squalid conditions. After the armistice Cpl. Delgarno and his tank mate were turned over to Allied liberation troops.

Of the 20 BCD men in the four tanks of RHQ Squadron, only nine survived the day.

 

October 30, 2004. Near Gradara Italy.

While visiting Italy in 2004 Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Italian Campaign, this story and detail were shared with my Dad by Bruce Delgarno.

Cpl. Delgarno told us Harlin had died immediately of concussion shock when his tank suffered a direct hit from enemy 88mm cannon fire. His crewmates had carried Harlin back to safety where he was held until he could be tended to.

Bruce spoke of an unwritten policy for all fallen BCDs whenever possible: soldiers were to be interred wearing long-sleeve shirts, cuffs rolled down, dressed in slacks and any exposed skin was to be coated with a cleansing cream. My Dad was at peace after hearing the details of his brother’s passing and being so graciously cared for, by his BCD brothers, at the time of his death and in preparation for interment.

So ended the 60 year family mystery of how Harlin was killed and why he looked so calm in death.

After the war Walter returned to Coombs then settled in Parksville. He survived the war unscathed and lived on Vancouver Island until passing in his ninety-sixth year, in 2009. As a co-founder of the Parksville Volunteer Fire Department, he served terms as Fire Chief and taught many of the paramedics who have since passed down their knowledge to current members.

King George VI, in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in 1946, awarded Sgt. W.E. Barnum the Military Medal (bravery in the field) for defending his men from the enemy while pinned down and grossly outnumbered facing bazooka and heavy machine gun fire in an altercation near San Pancrazio, Italy, on Nov. 30, 1944.

The Westminster Regiment was reassigned from Italy to Holland in 1945 where Walter met his wife Francis after volunteering to spend an additional seven months after the war to help secure and stabilize the battered country.

From August 25, 1944 until December 20, 1944 Canadian Forces suffered 4,511 casualties 1,375 fatal and another 1,100 were evacuated suffering physical or mental exhaustion.

It is estimated that between September 1943 and April 1945, some 60,000 Allied Personnel and 50,000 German soldiers died in Italy.  Allied casualties, killed and wounded, during the campaign totaled about 320,000 and the corresponding German Axis figure was about 336,650. No campaign in the West cost more than the “Italian Campaign” in terms of lives lost and wounds suffered by infantry forces.

Lest we forget.

This article is a short excerpt from a series of stories chronicling the Barnum family’s life in the area since 1938. John Barnum is a lifelong resident of the Parksville area. He can be contacted at jbarnum@bcsupernet.com.

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