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The sound of taps drifted through the church and a soldier laid a flag on a table near the altar. For the next hour, prayers, hymns, and stories about Bill Barnes, a World War II veteran, tumbled out in bits and pieces. Barnes had lived a life similar to that of many veterans of his time — boy joins the service, studies under the GI Bill, has a career and a family.
But Barnes was really that — a boy. He had been just 13 years old when he joined the army, Gary Drumheller told the assembled mourners.
"He must have been one tall stinker to get in at 13 years of age," Drumheller said.
"His spelling was creative. It gave him away, but nobody called him out," he said.
Bill Barnes was born in a home for unwed mothers on Feb. 24, 1932 in Memphis, Tenn. He was adopted at seven months of age, but his family life was unsettled. His parents divorced. He went to live with his father, who traveled often, Annalee Monroe writes in Since You Asked, an oral history of war veterans.
His father had a tough time taking care of him, so he put him up in a boarding house for a while.
"He came to live with my mom," said Dorothy Ledbetter, who Barnes stayed in touch with over the years. "He boarded there when he was a boy. His dad paid for his board, and he lived with my mom. ... He was like a family member."
Barnes went to live with his adoptive mother for a while, then decided to enlist.
"He was 13 and a half," Ledbetter said.
As the story goes, the war was nearly over when Barnes walked into the Navy recruiting office, which turned him down. As he left, the recruiter told him what to say if he tried to enlist again.
"The Navy didn't take him but they told him that if you're going to do this again, you need to not say these certain things," Drumheller said.
Barnes walked a couple blocks to the Army recruiting station, lied well, and got into the Army Air Forces. Not long after, he found himself in Biloxi, Miss., for his first roll call, where an officer noted he had put his belt on backwards.
"I was directed to 'get that peach fuzz off my face,'" Barnes wrote in America's Youngest Warriors, Vol. III. A sergeant on the target range saw that Barnes could not reach the safety of his pistol without using both hands.
"The sergeant took my pistol and fired for me," Barnes wrote. "I passed."
The organist played "Amazing Grace" as mourners entered the church. Then the big, silver pipes fell silent. Bouquets of flowers were laid out by the altar and sunlight shot into the room, diffused by the stained glass windows of American Lutheran Church, located in Sun City, a retirement community not far from Luke Air Force Base. When the soldier came down and left the flag at the front of the room and the bugler began to play taps, mourners could hear the din, faintly, of military jets passing overhead.
Barnes fell behind on his first march, 10 miles with a full pack. His group was near the front, he wrote, and he kept dropping back to the rear. The soldiers took 10-minute breaks from time to time and Barnes used them to catch up to his unit.
"That's one thing about him. He didn't quit," said daughter Kathy Botu.
Later, he left the base on a three-day pass and was late getting back. He was court-martialed and sent to the stockade for 14 days. Barnes worked KP — kitchen patrol — for a while after that, but was later transferred to MacDill Field, in Tampa, where his job was to repair flat tires on planes.
"B-29 tires were the largest I had ever seen," he wrote. In time, working on airplane tires led to working on airplane engines.
"He was a pretty smart guy because not everybody gets to be engine mechanics, and not everyone gets to work on airplanes," said John Henson, national commander of Veterans of Underage Military Service.
In December of 1946, Barnes boarded a ship bound for Yokohama, Japan. The war was over. Barnes was assigned a variety of tasks. When a fuel-transfer valve needed to be replaced, he squeezed his narrow frame into the innards of the plane and disconnected it, drenching him in 120-octane fuel.
"The crew chief sent me back to the barracks to shower and change clothes. No one asked me for a match!" he wrote later.
One fall day he went over the camp fence for a walk in the woods, though he wasn't supposed to leave camp. He came across an old man wearing a Japanese military uniform and carrying a shotgun, Barnes would later write. They were both startled.
"He motioned to the guy to lay down his gun," Botu said.
He unloaded the gun and placed the shell at the base of a tree. He walked away, placed the gun at the base of another tree and told the old man in fractured Japanese to stay where he was. He thought of telling someone at the base about the encounter, then thought better of it.
"Being underage meant that you did not do anything to call attention to yourself," Barnes wrote. His superiors suspected he was too young to be there, but they moved him from job to job until he wound up working in a Signal Corps radar room, which was dark. Most of the people in the room couldn't tell how old he was because they couldn't see him.
His honorable discharge certificate shows that he left the army on August 27, 1948.
He was 16 years old.
The room fell still. A couple of soldiers came down and took up the flag on the table. They unfolded it, then refolded it, forming a tight triangle with the end tucked in. A few smartphone cameras came out to record this. The church was white brick, the choir chairs empty, the organ pipes standing tall. A sergeant knelt and presented the flag to Barnes' wife of 36 years, Lucy.
Barnes was not the only person to lie about his age during the war. The underage veterans group has had more than two dozen active members who first served at 13, according to the group's website. Its youngest member on record, now deceased, enlisted at age 12. Estimates on the numbers of underage soldiers over the years vary, Henson said. Some estimates range into the hundreds of thousands.
"There are estimates as high as half a million," he said. Henson said he thinks the number, impossible to track or verify, is probably much lower, and not all of these young men saw heavy combat.
"If you go back to the Revolutionary War, I would guess 100,000," he said. "Now some of them were drummers in the Civil War. Some of them were musket loaders in the Revolution."
The group has 2,951 members and meets at national conventions.
"My guess is that there are another 3,000 out there walking around that don't want to reveal it," Henson said. Their reasons for joining so young vary, but for the most part can be ticked off on one hand.
"Bad home life ranks right up there," Henson said. "Excitement. A lot of us just grew up with boredom. And we just decided to join. And in those days you could do it and get away with it. … Patriotism ranks right up there too."
Some kept their age a secret long after they left the service, afraid that it might lead to a loss of benefits, though Henson said he doesn't know of a single documented case where that has happened. Barnes kept his early home life and the age he enlisted a secret for years, even from his family.
"He didn't tell us a lot about his early years," said Bill's son, John Barnes, of Houston. "He kind of just shook it off, like no big deal."
"He kept all this from us," Botu said. "It came out when he saw this article in the newspaper." The article was about Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS). He contacted the group, met its members, told his stories. Barnes had a lot of stories.
More underage veterans are coming forward, as time goes by, Henson said.
"One of the wonderful things about America is we're very forgiving."
When the military honors were over, stories about Barnes' life fell about the room. Over time, the 13-year-old grew up, had a career, a family, reached retirement age and moved to Sun City.
The mourners recited the Lord's Prayer and sang "The Old Rugged Cross." A baritone sang in the back of the room and his voice carried forward. When it was over, the mourners filed out, some in walkers, some using canes.
Like many veterans, Barnes took advantage of the GI Bill to attend a civilian aircraft mechanic school and went to work for Boeing in Seattle. He joined the Washington National Guard, learned to repair radios. When the United States when to war in Korea, became a squad leader in 11th Engineer Combat Battalion, where he helped maintain supply lines and repair roads and bridges.
After his discharge, he returned to the States and attended Georgia Tech University, graduating in 1961. The army had prepared him for a career in engineering, and the soldier gave way to the contract engineer. He married, had four children, learned to fly small planes. He worked hard. They moved often. He worked on the Apollo Program, the Alaska pipeline, John Barnes said.
He was frequently on the front end of contract engineering projects, Botu said. When he started working on the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile project in North Carolina, he loaded his books and clothes into a camper, headed east, and slept in the parking lot of a high-security facility. His family still lived in Mississippi.
"He was living in a parking lot in a trailer," she said. There wasn't much to do except work, sleep, play poker. After about six months, he moved his family.
John Barnes remembers his father going to a parent-teacher conference in North Carolina. A teacher wanted to know about John's active imagination.
"He said you've got an airplane," the teacher said.
"Well, I do," Bill Barnes said.
"He said you landed it on the beach."
"Well, I did."
"It wasn't much of a plane," John said. Just a fabric covered Piper Cub his father found at a bargain price.
"My last flight the seat broke," John Barnes said. He had to sit in a funny position so his dad could fly the plane.
Years passed. Bill Barnes divorced, remarried. He eventually retired in Sun City. He was active in his church.
In the mid-'80s he hired a private investigator to help find his mother. She was still in Memphis when he found her.
"On Mother's Day he showed up with flowers at her door," Botu said.
Some who knew him said he began to look stooped as he got older, but Henson said he never complained.
"He was bent over at the back," Drumheller said. "He was really tilted over . … but it didn't seem to bother him, he was not a complaining individual."
In 2012, he took an Honor Flight back to Washington with Botu, telling stories on the plane. On the way back, he walked to the front of the plane, picked up the microphone, started talking and singing songs from the Korean War.
Henson said that VUMS has a number of doctors, lawyers, successful businessmen. Now a tradition going back to the Revolutionary War may be fading, he said.
"All of us guys who enlisted as kids are now old men. … When I look out at this group I can't help but be in awe with what these people have done with their lives. We were all just high school dropouts. … I am so proud to be a part of this."