Walker County resident Cheryl Arnold was attending a gathering when she noticed a table set up by the Fort Oglethorpe Veteran and Citizen Committee (VCC), which is building a tribute park in the city. Arnold spoke with the folks from VCC and learned they also have plans to develop a small museum at City Hall.

Would VCC, Arnold asked, be interested in having copies of top secret papers her uncle, Joe Barger*, salvaged from a waste basket on board ship when he was in the Navy? They were. Arnold formally presented the copied documents, as well as her uncle’s daily journal from his Navy years, at VCC’s monthly meeting in December.

Joe Barger was born in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925, the year of the Scopes trial. His family moved to Chattanooga for a while, but when the Depression hit, Barger’s dad decided they would return to Dayton where he could farm and provide. He found a one-day-a-week supplemental job and got to it on his motorcycle, the family’s only vehicle. His “take what comes your way and make it work” attitude, says Arnold, set the tone for how his children, including Joe, would handle life.

When the draft for World War II started, Barger, at 17 years old, knew his mind and had no intention of waiting for someone else to make a decision about his service. He joined the Navy and became a diesel engine mechanic. By the age of 19, he was on board the USS LST-716, situated in the waters off the shore of Iwo Jima, bombs raining from the sky, mines and Japanese submarines below.

One day, when Barger was below deck and things were slow, he decided to go topside to see what was up. He found some commanders looking over documents, then one of them tossed the papers into a waste basket. When the officers left the room, Barger glanced at the discarded papers and noticed the words “TOP SECRET” written on the cover. Farther down the page was the message “Every Precaution Must Be Taken To Prevent This Plan From Falling Into Enemy Hands!”

“Joe’s first thought,” says Arnold, “was ‘what if the battle goes awry and the enemy boards the ship and finds these papers?’”

Barger snatched the papers from the trash and stashed them in his locker. He didn’t read them, just made sure they wouldn’t end up with the wrong people. For many years after, Barger toted the papers along with him — as he finished his Navy service and returned to civilian life, worked, married, raised a family. For 20 years, he never looked at the contents of the papers. Then somewhere along the way, he learned they had been declassified.

The documents outlined the American plan for taking Iwo Jima, including troop movements, strategies and objectives. One order reads, “Unless directly attacked, no man will open fire on any airplane” — a handy thing for the enemy to know.

Iwo Jima fell Feb. 19, 1945, and Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, marking the end of World War II. Several years ago, over five decades after he made the swift decision to safeguard them, Joe Barger donated the original top secret documents to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Today, Barger is 93 years old and still going strong. He lives alone in Texas after having lost his wife of 67 years. When he was in his 60s, he took up running as a form of exercise and now competes in the biennial National Senior Games. In 2017, he won gold medals in the 500 meter, 800 meter and 5K events in Birmingham, Ala., (his brother, Warren, who also served in World War II and was four years older than Barger, set a new national record in the high jump at the same Senior Games and won gold and silver medals in a number of events).

“Joe has a mind of his own,” says Arnold. “He once had a doctor tell him that walking was enough exercise and running was too much. He changed doctors. It’s not surprising to any of his family that he would have taken the risk of having top secret documents in his possession.”

* The Joe Barger in this article is not the Joe Barger who was mayor of Ringgold.