The closest Herb Barnum ever got to a battlefield during his World War II service was while deer hunting with another pilot in Luxembourg.
While Barnum was stalking game in December 1944, the Germans decided to stalk the Allies’ armies. The Battle of the Bulge began in the deer hunters’ immediate vicinity.
Barnum, who will turn 98 next week at his birthday on June 13, was a co-pilot for Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army — a million men in more than 40 combat divisions. This duty normally kept Barnum well behind the battle lines.
“We never flew Bradley anywhere near the front. I guess he had to go there, he took a ground transport,” Barnum said.
Barnum said tensions at headquarters were high after the battle began, and the missing pilots, who had told no one they were deer hunting, were presumed captured or dead.
“Our group really thought we were killed or captured, because it took the two of us so long getting back, but we just didn’t know anything was going on,” Barnum said. “When we got back to headquarters, they said, ‘Well, we’re sure glad to see you guys. We thought for sure the Germans had captured you.’”
Barnum said the general’s crew did not fly anywhere during the first days of the Bulge because of bad weather and the location. The hotel in which Bradley had headquartered was near the battlefront, so the general did not have to fly anywhere.
At Bradley’s headquarters, the Paris Hotel in Luxembourg, Barnum remembers seeing the battle maps, which were kept in a secured area, with all the units in action pasted on the wall with German, British and American forces marked.
“The only time I really remember ... it looked like we were getting beat up something terrible because the Germans was all around us,” he said.
The main duty of Barnum and the rest of the crew became guarding Bradley’s plane.
“The road leading north of town was where we had the general’s plane on an airstrip. The Germans were approaching that and they asked us to rush up there and get the plane out, so we did after dark the same day.”
Barnum said they took the plane over France until Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s forces came up from south France and the Allied forces were able to push the Germans back.
Barnum said he didn’t think there was any special reason why his crew was chosen to fly Bradley.
“They just selected us,” he said. “We were probably a pretty good crew, but no different from any other crew. It was just the roll of the dice, I would say.”
There was no jealousy between Bradley’s crew and the other members of the 74th Squadron, Barnum said.
“It was just the case of them saying, ‘Boy, you sure got a good deal there, Herb. I wish we could sleep in a hotel and have a French chef cook us breakfast in the morning.’”
“We’d say,’Yeah, it’s pretty nice.’”
Barnum describes Bradley as a true gentleman.
“He was the boss, but a very nice boss,” he said. “He would agonize over sending boys to their death. It really bothered him. He knew some of them would be killed —everyone knew that.”
Barnum said the plane and the crew were often loaned to other generals. Although Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, had his own aircraft, Barnum said they flew him sometimes.
Eisenhower was “quiet and generally very polite,” Barnum said.
As for Patton, Barnum said he was a “100% military man.”
“He was tough. Bradley never took anything from him. They were good friends, but Bradley was the boss. There was no way around that.”
Barnum remembers when Patton once had him arrested.
“We flew Bradley down to south France one time,” he remembers. “After Patton picked up the general (Bradley), we were walking around camp there and some MPs (military police) arrested us — the whole crew — for not having our helmets on.”
That was a strict rule with Patton, Barnum said.
“The Air Corps wore a cap we called a crush hat everywhere we went, we never wore our helmets.”
“When Bradley wanted to go back, he had to come get us out.”
The crew also flew British Air Marshal Bernard Montgomery occasionally, but Barnum said there was a “slight animosity between Bradley and Montgomery.”
“Part of the reason was the British press kept insisting that Monty was winning the war. We were there, too, and that kind of irked us a bit. Monty did this, Monty did that.
“I’m sure Monty did as good as he could, just as we were. Of course, he did beat up (German Field Marshal Erwin) Rommel, pretty much by himself, in North Africa. You couldn’t really argue with them because he had a pretty good success story behind him.”