Ralph K. "Ken" Barnes, a retired Koppers Co. manager who was a prisoner of war during the twilight months of World War II, died Saturday from complications of a stroke at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The longtime Cockeysville resident was 89.
The son of farmers, Ralph Kenneth Barnes was born in Gist, in Carroll County, and after his family lost their farm during the Depression, they moved to Waverly. He was a 1941 graduate of Polytechnic Institute, where he was an outstanding baseball pitcher, and later earned a degree from the Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. Barnes was working as a mechanical draftsman for F.X. Hooper Co. Inc., a Glen Arm manufacturer of machinery to make corrugated boxes, when he was inducted into the Army in early 1944.
After spending 17 weeks at Camp Blanding, Fla., where he was trained as a combat infantryman with a specialization in 60 mm and 81 mm mortars and bazookas, he joined the 106th Infantry Division at Camp Atterbury, Ind.
In the fall of 1944, the 106th embarked for Europe aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth and the RMS Aquitania, and a week later landed at Greenock, Scotland.
"Our morale was high. We were ready and anxious to join the fight. The war was going well for the Allied forces and we wanted to be a part of it," Mr. Barnes told author William F. Rutkowski for his book "We Regret To Inform You …"
After crossing the English Channel and landing at LeHavre in early December, the 106th Infantry began a two-day, 270-mile trip across France and Belgium, which ended at the front along the Schnee Eifel, a heavily wooded area on the German-Belgian border, where they relieved the 2nd Infantry Division and took control of the sector.
At 5:30 a.m. Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched their attack with heavy shelling, as part of the Battle of the Bulge.
"When the attack began, my battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 423rd Infantry, was in Division reserve near St. Vith. The suddenness of the German attack delayed critical decisions until the upper echelons could get a better understanding of the strength and direction of the attack," Mr. Barnes told the author, who described it as his "baptism by fire."
Two days later, as a Panzer regimental team closed in on the 422nd and 423rd, which was critically low on ammunition and medical supples, they were ordered to "dig in and engage the approaching enemy and delay his advance until reinforcements could be brought in," he said.
On the fourth day of combat, Dec. 19, Mr. Barnes said, he and his fellow infantryman were ordered to advance toward Schonberg.
"We knew we had to be move or be doomed to die in our foxholes. I can remember the final day as if it were yesterday," he told the author.
As Mr. Barnes was making his way, an enemy tracer bullet tore through his field jacket and singed his skin only inches away from a hand grenade.
"As I lay on the ground, I thought to myself, 'by what miracle am I alive,'" he said.
There was no way they could fight their way past the overwhelming German forces that blocked their escape, and refusing to subject his men to certain slaughter, Col. Charles Cavender surrendered.
After spending eight days and eight nights aboard boxcars — without food and water — the soldiers were unloaded at a POW camp. Mr. Barnes was interned at Stalag IV A and B near Dresden.
Mr. Barnes' family in Baltimore was initially told by the War Department that he was "missing in action" and it wasn't until April that they learned he was a prisoner.
Mr. Barnes told the author that camp guards would rush the men for morning roll call so quickly that many did not have time to put on shoes and stood on the frozen ground.
"Our diet was about 200 calories per day and we began to lose weight rapidly," he said.
Mr. Barnes worked in a blanket factory and repaired bombed-out railroad lines.