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WWI aviator from Hall had some close calls

POSTED: February 9, 2014 1:00 a.m.

One of the first military aviators from Hall County who fought in World War I had some narrow escapes in the air, but luckily returned with hardly a scratch.

He was Lt. B.G. Barnwell, who had grown up near Antioch Campground.

Barnwell had joined what was then called the naval aerial service, later the Marine Aviation Corps, shortly after America entered the war against Germany. It was quite a leap for a country boy as airplanes would be used extensively for the first time in a war.

He must have taken to the air like an eagle because he became an instructor after only about a year of training. However, Barnwell soon left for overseas on a troop ship. Even that voyage was an adventure as a German submarine unsuccessfully tried to sink the American ship, which landed safely in France the summer of 1918. Allied destroyers sank the sub.

Barnwell’s missions usually targeted submarine and ammunition supply bases. Anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes would greet the fliers on their runs over enemy territory. The Germans were pretty much ahead of other countries in aerial combat and had become quite proficient already in use of anti-aircraft weapons that could down planes flying as high as 30,000 feet.

The Hall County lieutenant, during an interview back home, recalled three different planes he flew being hit by German fire. Although he landed safely each time, the planes were so damaged they had to be scrapped.

On one occasion, Barnwell had the armrest of the pilot’s seat shot out from under him, but he didn’t suffer a scratch.

His saddest experience was losing a fellow pilot with whom he had trained before going overseas. He and Harvey Norman had entered the service about the same time, learned to fly at the same bases in Florida and were shipped to France together. In the same squadron, they were flying side by side on one mission when ground fire struck Norman’s plane. It fell to the ground from 18,000 feet, but just inside allied lines. Barnwell and others were able to recover his body from the plane’s wreckage once they returned to base.

Barnwell’s best memory was when the war ended, and Americans, French, Belgians and British linked arms and marched through the streets together in Calais, France, where they were stationed. They all sang and yelled in celebration in their individual languages.

The trip back to the United States turned out less than a luxurious cruise. He and 800 other aviators and 2,000 wounded Americans were on the ship Mercury, a German vessel before the war. A ferocious storm almost capsized the ship. They arrived in Newport News, Va., just a week before Christmas, and Barnwell was able to come home for the holidays.

Airplanes’ role in World War I and Charles Lindbergh’s exploits accelerated interest in flying throughout the world. Hall County at the time had no real airfield, but barnstormers and fledgling local fliers would use the fairgrounds or cow pastures such as one off Athens Street. Gainesville began to campaign for a real airfield in the late 1920s, and about 40 acres originally were assembled at the present Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport site, owned by the city. It officially opened in May 1928. Dean Parks gets credit for being the first solo flier out of the airport July 5, 1929.

No doubt Lt. Barnwell was an interested observer if not in the air himself.

• • •

A new Clark’s Bridge is a-building on Ga. 284 across Lake Lanier. Several bridges or ferries have operated there before and since the Chattahoochee River became Lake Lanier.

In late fall of 1919, a flood washed away the covered Clark’s Bridge, which had replaced the ferry operated by Elizabeth Clark. She also had engineered and helped build the original Clark’s Bridge. Heavy rains had flooded all streams in the area, sending the 1919 bridge 300 yards down the Chattahoochee.

It was later rebuilt and eventually another bridge replaced it when Lake Lanier came about.

During the same 1919 floods the approach to New Bridge, which also crossed the Chattahoochee on Cleveland Road, washed away. Keith’s Bridge’s approaches off Brown’s Bridge Road also were damaged, putting a crimp in traffic all around Gainesville.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, Ga. 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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