Notable Oregonians: Rex T. Barber - WWII Fighter Pilot and Ace
Rex T. Barber was born in Culver, Oregon, on May 6, 1917. He briefly attended Linfield College then transferred to Oregon State College where he majored in Agricultural Engineering. Barber enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September, 1940 and applied for pilot training. He won his pilot wings and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Lieutenant Barber’s first duty assignment was with the 70th Fighter Squadron at Hamilton Field, CA, where he initially flew Curtis P-40s and Bell P-39s. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the 70th Squadron moved to Guadalcanal where the Squadron acquired twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightnings.
The most significant event of Rex Barber’s military career occurred in mid-April 1943. A coded Japanese message was intercepted, telling in precise detail the planned route and scheduled arrival for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s flight to the island of Bougainville on the morning of April 18, 1943. Yamamoto served as Commander in Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy. He was Japan’s foremost military leader and architect of the infamous December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Major John Mitchell, Commanding Officer of Barber’s squadron, the 339th Fighter Squadron, was selected to plan and lead a flight to intercept and to shoot down Yamamoto's plane. Four pilots had been designated to carry out the actual attack against Yamamoto’s bomber: they were Capt. Tom Lanphier, Lt. Rex Barber, Lt. Besby Holmes, and Lt. Ray Hine. The flight took off on schedule on April 18.
The question of who shot down Admiral Yamamoto has been disputed for several decades. The U.S. Air Force gave Lanphier and Barber each half credit. In 1997 the American Fighter Aces Association gave Barber 100 percent credit for shooting down the bomber carrying Yamamoto. In 1998 the Confederate Air Force recognized that Barber alone and unassisted brought down Yamamoto's aircraft and inducted him into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame.
In all, Barber flew 110 combat missions from Guadalcanal. He transferred to China in early 1944 and flew another 28 combat missions in P-38s. During the course of the war, Barber shot down several more enemy aircraft. He also suffered injuries, but managed to evade capture, after his plane was shot down. Upon returning to the United States in January 1945, Barber test flew the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the country's first operational jet fighter.
By the end of World War II, he was credited with five confirmed kills conferring "ace" status, sinking one destroyer, and three "probables," including what was likely the most notable aerial victory of the war - the downing of Yamamoto's plane. Barber was awarded the Navy Cross by Admiral Halsey, two Silver Stars, a Purple Heart, numerous Air Medals and a wide array of theater ribbons, campaign medals, and decorations from foreign governments.
He married Margaret, his partner-for-life, in Panama City, Florida in 1947. They had one child, Rex Jr. After more than 20 years of distinguished military service, Barber retired from active Air Force duty as a Colonel in 1961. He maintained an active interest in veteran organizations over the next 40 years.
Colonel Barber and his family returned to his hometown of Culver, Oregon, where he enjoyed a successful insurance career and served as justice of the peace and mayor. He was noted for never having missed a Little League ball game and as a person who would repeatedly take in stray kids.
Rex Barber died at home in Terrebonne, Oregon on July 26, 2001. His son noted that his father had enjoyed a good 84 years, then his "afterburner just flamed out on him."
On April 18, 2003, the 60th anniversary of the Yamamoto shootdown, Oregon Governor Kulongoski proclaimed that day as "Rex T. Barber Day." The previous week saw the Oregon legislature rename the new bridge over the Crooked River on U.S. Highway 97 the "Rex T. Barber Veterans Memorial Bridge." The bridge joins Jefferson and Deschutes counties where Rex Barber lived before and after his distinguished military career.
Based on recent evidence, the governor and legislature also concluded that Rex Barber deserved 100 percent credit for the Yamamoto shootdown. The new bridge, plaque, and kiosk honoring Rex T. Barber and veterans were dedicated on August 9, 2003 at the Peter Skene Ogden State Park immediately adjacent to the old and new bridges. The same day he was enrolled in the Legion of Honor.