As retired Command Sgt. Maj. Clarence Barney leaned forward into the dining table to begin the story of when he first joined the Army, the ray of evening sun poked through the blind slats into the dimly lit kitchen and caught his eyes.
“I was 18 years old,” Barney said.
As he began telling his storied career, the kitchen filled with chattering family and friends fell silent and diverted their attention to his gravelly voice. That week, Barney’s nearest and dearest congregated from all around the country to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Born Sept. 24, 1918 in southern Illinois to parents who were coal miners, Barney joined the Army April 24, 1937. Although a century old, Barney has a keen memory in remembering dates when it came to his Army career. As he blurted crucial dates marking milestones of his career, his son Ron Barney would nod in agreement to Barney’s facts.
Barney said he tried joining the Army prior to turning 18, but wasn’t successful. As soon as he managed to enlist, he remembers sharing the news with his stepfather one morning when they were both working at the coal mine together.
“I said, ‘today I am 18 years old and I’m going to Indianapolis to join the Army’,” he said. “And then I left my family.”
The day he walked out of the coal mine, three miners were killed on the job. And with that Barney said he knew joining the Army was a path he’d rather forge for himself than any fate the coal mine could offer him.
His first assignment was to be his commanding officer’s driver, a duty he performed while in the 5th Infantry Division until the day he went to combat where he served as an artillery first sergeant in World War II.
Barney was shipped off from New York to Iceland for two years. Following those years, he was pulled into England for nine months, then he was shipped to Ireland where they went out to sea several times leading up to D-Day. Barney was only 22 years old when his unit participated in the Invasion of Normandy.
“The 1st Infantry Division was ahead of us and when they hit the beach, we hit the beach behind them,” he said. “I hit the beach on the seventh day after (1st Inf. Div.). We fought one solid year until the war ended.”
Barney’s unit fought their way south of France then switched their course north into Germany.
He spent five years in combat from the day he left the homeland until the day he returned to American soil. During his years in Europe, he fought many historical battles.
“The Battle of the Bulge was rough,” Barney said. “At that time we were the best trained regiment in the Army and we were shoved into that battle and we had no problem. We pushed right in.”
One of the most profound memories of that period was the impact of the cold it had on him.
“That winter I had just as much clothes as I have right now and it was 5 below zero at the Battle of the Bulge,” Barney said as he pinched the double layers of his T-shirt, one of which had “Happy 100th Birthday Dad!” sprawled across the chest.
He wore only a light jacket with no gloves. His unit pushed forward so quickly, he said, that weather appropriate uniforms did not catch up with them. He remembers being knee-deep in snow the day they broke through the enemy lines.
“Being the first sergeant, I was so busy all the time that I didn’t have time to wonder why I’m cold,” he said. “We lost a good many men the first day. I don’t remember how many men, but the medical officers said we had a bad day and didn’t want to explain what happened or how many were killed. In my company, I know I lost five men.”
The highs and lows of service
Despite seeing the terrors of war and watching his comrades fall in battle, for Barney one of the hardest parts of being at war was suffering from hearing loss. During the Battle of the Bulge, he fought right behind a gun battery. At that time, they didn’t have proper ear protection to use.
“I tried to get some cotton for my ears, but nobody had any cotton except the medics,” he said. “But they wouldn’t give me any because even they didn’t have enough to dress wounds.
“It was awful because we did everything (to win the war) by artillery fire and nobody made the effort to protect (our hearing). Well, we were also busy and weren’t concerned with our health — we were concerned with doing our job.”
After the war was over, when Barney arrived in New York by ship, he realized he couldn’t hear the sounds of cars zooming past him in the city.