Through His Eyes
Reporter uncovers details of his grandfather’s service through photo album
I suspect I’m not the only grandson of a World War II veteran who would like to know more about his grandfather’s service.
Now, I don’t think I even want to know because I particularly care about what he did in the service.
Floyd J. Barkey of Barberton, Ohio, was a supply corporal in the 509th Fighter Squadron of P47 Thunderbolts. Not a particularly exciting line of work.
But he had a camera with him while he was overseas and, based on the handwriting of the captions, it’s clear that he and my grandmother put that album together once he returned with a pretty significant attention to detail.
So I can see what he saw, the things he thought worthy of being photographed. I’m in a line of work where I make decisions like that all the time so that obviously spurred some questions.
Before I get into the photos, though, I have to say that this wasn’t just any grandparent.
Grandpa was the grandparent that invested more time with me and my brother than the others combined times a factor of 10.
He was the grandparent teaching me how to swing a golf club in his backyard in Barberton or letting my brother Dan and I hammer and nail all kinds of wooden creations in his workshop (oh, what a waste of resources that must have been!). I could rattle off dozens of other very fond memories but I’ll stop there.
I knew he had served in the war from a young age — I think there’s a picture of me wearing his uniform when I was probably 7 or 8 and I remember the photo album. (I found it. But I couldn’t bring myself to publish it!)
At that age, I didn’t really have a conception for what it all meant beyond the knowledge that he kept all of these things — his uniform, his photo album and a bunch of other accoutrements — tucked neatly away in a cedar chest decades after he returned from Europe.
Plus, he never really talked much about it. I remember a watered-down comment about seeing some things in the wake of the Battle of the Bulge but that’s about it. He faithfully completed one of those life story books for us and he writes about his training and some of the odd or funny stories.
But his recollections — given decades later — cut abruptly when he went overseas in February 1944.
Since he died in 2007, I can’t go ask why he took those pictures and what he saw in their significance. They’re questions I have to hold until we meet again.
And even when that opportunity does come, this will be far down the list of things I’ll want to talk to him about. I’ll want to tell him about my family — about how my son is named after him. I’ll want to tell him about my career. I’ll want to tell him about the hundreds of times I wished I could speak to him just one more time.
But I digress… the best I can do now is try to understand what he experienced based on the photos that he took. I know there are things I’ll want to know that I can’t but when I set out to work through the captions and digitize the photos, my goal wasn’t really to uncover anything.
I wanted to digitize the album as a means of preservation if something ever happened to it.
I’m incredibly blessed that my uncle gave me Grandpa’s papers, his uniform, his “liberated” German bayonet.
And his photo album.
It’s a remarkably complete collection, though using the word collection seems flippant somehow.
Beyond preserving the album, I didn’t want to keep it to myself.
So once I processed each of the roughly 235 images, I posted it to Facebook to be able to share with family and took all of the privacy protections off of it.
That gets us to why I’m writing this today.
As I started reviewing the hand-written information on the backs of these photos — most of which thankfully are still legible — it became apparent that the photo album was put together chronologically.
The first few pages start with pictures at a park and then move to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana before moving to Camp Lee, Va., Kessler Field, Miss. and Walterboro, S.C.
The photos then jump to France.
The first European photos were taken in September 1944 at Reims and then Marseilles and also Paris.
There were photos taken on holidays — Christmas and New Years specifically — before the scenes shift to Belgium and Germany before a series of photos came up as marked “8 May 1945, V-E Day, Kitzingen, Germany.” Kitzingen is located in Bavaria, about 300 miles southwest of Berlin.
As I processed each photo, I now knew roughly how his unit moved across Europe.
And I knew what he was seeing on V-E Day. Now I’ve interviewed a few dozen World War II veterans and questions about V-E Day and V-J Day always brought a smile to their faces. They knew they had survived, that it was over. I can imagine the smile on Grandpa’s face when he came to that realization.
Pages of his album are then dedicated to a trip to Switzerland he then took after the close of hostilities. I was able to tag on Facebook the same hotel he stayed in (yes, it’s still open).
The photos that always stuck out to me are a blurry image of the Eiffel Tower taken from a train (evidence he had a camera and wasn’t buying postcards), some of the Switzerland photos (he always talked about wanting to go back there) and a couple of the V-E Day photos, especially one of a crashed German plane that the pilot and the pilot’s wife were climbing out of.
Now remember when I said I posted the album publicly on Facebook?
I logged on to Facebook a while back to 17 notifications.
Now I’m not that active on the platform so my first thought with that many notifications was “what the heck is going on?”
It turned out that each of the notifications were from an Austrian aviation historian who had found my photos.
He was specifically interested in the V-E Day photos.
Because he knew they were photographs of the surrender of Germany’s most decorated flying ace — Hans-Ulrich Rudel.
So I did what anyone would do — I googled Rudel. Turns out he flew 2,530 missions in the famed Stuka dive bomber and is credited with the destruction of 519 tanks, a battleship, a cruiser, 70 landing craft and 150 artillery emplacements.
Talk about a one-man wrecking crew.
I won’t identify the historian because I haven’t discussed this story with him but I was floored when he told me that the photos depicted “Ju 87s and FW 190s operated by German unit Schlachtgeschwader 2.
“These aircraft were flown from Czechoslovakia to Kitzingen airfield on 8 May 1945 by Germans attempting to escape the Soviets,” he told me, linking an article he wrote about the day.
He identified Rudel’s aircraft which features prominently in one of Grandpa’s photos and actually was able to identify some of the people in the photos (unfortunately not Rudel himself).
When he first identified Rudel’s Stuka, I reflexively questioned it. There was nothing in the caption to indicate what was really happening here. It’s clear my Grandpa didn’t know who he was looking at.
But the historian explained it — “The fuselage code on this Ju 87 G-2 indicates it belonged to the Geschwaderkommodore of Schlachtgeschwader 2. Many years ago I wrote an article about the German landings at Kitzingen,” emphasizing it was the “Junkers 87 G-2 aircraft of Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the highest-awarded German pilot of the war.”
Now this is but a blip in the larger story of World War II. I had never heard of Rudel until around the time the historian reached out to me.
But it has changed how I look at his album.
What other surprises might it contain?
I love that I have no answer to that question. Maybe there are more. Maybe there aren’t. But I now have a reason to believe there might be.
So I’ll keep looking because I don’t want to miss an opportunity to see Europe how Grandpa did.