By Sharla Kattenberg and Mary Hurd
I moved to South Dakota just a few years ago and am enjoying getting to know the state’s agrarian landscape as well as its fascinating residents. This summer, while visiting my friend Mary Hurd on her family’s farm near Springfield, SD, Mary handed me a worn paperback book with the intriguing title, “A Sparrow Among the Bluebirds.” She explained it was a self-published autobiography that one of her friends, a World War II veteran, had written. The author’s name was Wayne Barham. The book covered his entire life, including his experiences fighting in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. I’m a WWII history buff, so I was fascinated. Then Mary told me that Wayne is still living, and resides at the Veteran’s Home in Sioux Falls, SD! I finished the book within 24 hours and went to visit Wayne a few days later. This is Wayne’s story–and the story of his best friend, Jack Rich.
16 million American soldiers served during WWII. Wayne Barham is one who came home and told his story. His best friend, Jack Rich, is one of the 400,000 who did not make it home. Wayne has spent the rest of his life keeping Jack’s story alive.
Wayne Barham joined the Marines in August 1942, just after graduating from high school in Champaign, IL. He and Jack Rich met during their training on the west coast.
One night, Wayne and Jack were at a dance. Jack, with his bright red hair and charming smile, never had any problems wooing the ladies, which sometimes led to trouble. Suddenly, Jack nudged Wayne. “See that pretty girl out there dancing with that big sailor? I’m going to go cut in and dance with her.”
“No way,” Wayne said. “That’s a bad idea. That sailor is huge and you’re not!”
Jack wouldn’t give up on the idea though, and strode confidently out on the dance floor.
Wayne watched with growing tension as Jack approached the large sailor and his dance partner. Without hesitation, Jack reached out and tapped the sailor on the shoulder. The sailor wheeled around, and for a split second Wayne was sure Jack was going to get knocked to the floor. Then, the sailor’s dance partner was throwing her arms around Jack and everyone was smiling. Jack led the girl back to Wayne and explained, laughing, “This is Gertrude and she’s my sister’s best friend from my hometown, Springfield, SD!”
Another time, still stateside, Wayne and Jack were strolling past some bars. Jack suddenly spotted a Marine major. Wayne and Jack, of course, were mere privates. Marine privates revered few things as much as a Marine major. Jack, though, immediately told Wayne, “I’m going to go kick that major’s ass!”
Wayne was shocked. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh, yes I can,” replied Jack. He walked right up behind the major, raised his foot, and tapped the major’s behind with the tip of his shoe. The major instantly spun around, rage and disbelief on his face. Just as suddenly, the major’s face broke into a huge grin as recognition spread over it. “Jack!” he said. “Imagine running into you here!” It turned out the major was also an old acquaintance from Jack’s hometown.
Both Wayne and Jack were sent to the Pacific Theatre to fight the Japanese. They were foxhole buddies. While huddling together in their foxhole, Jack would often described what an idyllic, peaceful place his hometown was, in stark contrast to the ravages of the war around them. He insisted that Wayne had to see this place.
On August 1, 1944, Jack was mortally wounded by a grenade. Wayne still gets tears in his eyes as he recounts these events many decades later. “Both of Jack’s legs were shattered. I touched his legs and they felt like a rabbit that had been shot at close range by a 12-gauge shotgun. Jack was still conscious and full of morphine. It was pouring rain, and his foxhole was full of water and blood. He looked up at me and smiled, ‘Don’t cry, buddy. Remember to go see my Mom and Dad. Okay? It doesn’t even hurt. Honest. Please don’t cry.’ The medics came. They carried what was left of Jack down the hill. His legs were amputated, but he didn’t make it. I knew he wouldn’t. They buried him in Hawaii. I sat in that damned blood-soaked hole and sobbed for a long time. No one came near me. I kept repeating, ‘Why?’ I don’t even know where we were that day. We were somewhere on Guam, on top of a mountain. Dammit…what a price to pay for a mountain.”
Wayne was critically injured just two days after Jack was killed. A grenade exploding near his face blinded him. Thankfully, surgery was able to restore partial sight to Wayne’s left eye a few months later.
After leaving the service, Wayne moved back to his hometown of Champaign, Illinois, where he married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy. However, memories of his best friend Jack kept pulling him to Jack’s beautiful hometown of Springfield, SD. “Jack and I always talked about going there after the war and playing football for the Pointers at Southern State College, the local college. Well…Jack never made it back. After he was killed, I just felt it was something I needed to do…for Jack, and for me.”
Wayne did enroll as a student at Southern State College in Springfield, SD, and despite his poor eyesight, he joined the football team just as he and Jack had discussed.
After college, Wayne became a high school teacher and counselor. Except for a few years in Wisconsin, he spent the rest of his life living in and near Springfield, SD. The rolling hills and peaceful fields kept Jack’s memory always near.
It was amazing sitting at Wayne Barham’s bedside and hearing him describe his still-vivid memories of wartime and his best friend. I’m privileged that my own story, however briefly, has overlapped with Wayne’s story. A world war and seven decades later, I sit and listen to the memories, held in awe of the sacrifice our soldiers have made–both those that lived to tell their stories, and those that didn’t.
My son and I visiting my friends’ farm near Springfield, SD