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Ralph K. 'Ken' Barnes, World War II POW

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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.

The POWs could hear the rumble of the guns of advancing Russian forces from the east, and the Germans broke camp on May 7, 1945, marching them westward toward the American lines.

The war ended the next day with Germany's surrender. "From my viewpoint, the Russians treated us with courtesy. They questioned us to make sure we were truly American POWs and then let us go on our way," he said.

On June 14, Mr. Barnes sailed for home aboard the Admiral Mayo, arriving in Boston 17 days later, where he wired his mother in Baltimore that he had landed and was safe.

Mr. Barnes was discharged in December 1945 with the rank of corporal. His decorations included the Bronze Star for "meritorious achievement in ground combat," a Combat Infantry Badge, two Purple Hearts and the POW Medal.

He was a member of the 106th Infantry Division Association and the American Ex-POW Association and was a life member of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

Mr. Barnes career as a product manager at Koppers Co. spanned 35 years until he retired in 1983. He also held a real estate license and worked for Coldwell Banker Grempler for 22 years, and earned a real estate broker's license in 1988.

The former Lutherville resident moved to Cockeysville in 1971. He enjoyed woodworking and was an avid Orioles and Baltimore Colts fan.

His wife of 55 years, the former Catherine Marie Cooney, died in 2002.

Mr. Barnes was a communicant of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 100 Church Lane, Cockeysville, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Surviving is his wife of 10 years, the former Beverly Jane Beckstrom; two sons, Clay M. Barnes of Timonium and William H. Barnes of Reisterstown; two daughters, Joan B. Schultz of Stevenson and Linda B. Siciliano of Parkville; and five grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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