The B-17 mystery, and how a Cranston janitor was also a prisoner of war

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CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — For more than three decades, starting in the 1950s, kids in Cranston knew Raymond Barnes as the school custodian, cleaning buildings like Park View Middle School and Garden City School. But the man who worked in such a humble position carried with him a tale of heroism that even his own children didn’t know — until one of them went digging recently.

Ron Barnes, Ray’s son, had been looking for the name of the plane – the B-17 bomber – that his father flew in World War II. Instead, he unlocked a mystery about a photo in the Providence Evening Bulletin on January 20, 1944.

Four American airmen had been taken prisoner in Germany, and that was newsworthy for the Evening Bulletin. But nobody knew the man on the far left was actually a local – Staff Sgt. Raymond Barnes – a Wickford native.

SSgt. Barnes had been a radioman, part of a ten-man crew, when it was attacked months before the photo, on November 26, 1943. The plane was shot down, and Barnes was one of only three men who survived. He became a prisoner of war.

“I knew a little bit about my dad, based upon the fact that he had a glass eye his whole life, but I never really knew why,” Ron said Monday.

The Ray Barnes who went to work for Cranston’s schools didn’t talk about being in a plane shot down by the enemy. He didn’t talk about how he became a prisoner of war for a year and a half.

“He was part of that ‘Greatest Generation’ where he was glad he served, and would do it again, but never wanted to talk about it,” Ron added.

The quest of curiosity – the name of the bomber – started for Ron some 20 years after his father passed away. For all that time, Ron hadn’t known about his father’s ordeal.

Ron was able to find the plane’s serial number, and that led him to the official crash report, which contained his father’s handwritten account of what happened. An excerpt:

“We were above the clouds, so I couldn’t see where I was going to land. A German fighter plane circled around me while I was coming down; I guess he was radioing my position to the people on the ground. I thought I was a goner, but he didn’t shoot.”

It’s a striking passage for Ron as he pieces together part of the past for the man he called ‘Dad’ – but now knows as a hero.

“Now, knowing all the pieces, I’d give anything to sit with him and have a talk with him and say, ‘Hey, tell me everything,'” he said.

Ron’s investigation didn’t lead him to the nickname of the bomber plane in military records. Talking to family about his father’s hidden history did instead. His father had apparently told his nephew – when he, too, joined the service – the plane’s title: “Melancholy Baby.”

Ron said he now has a new appreciation for not just his father, but for all veterans of military service.

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