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Memories of War: Oklahoman remembers the Battle of the Bulge

Even though he's 91 and has lived a lifetime since then, Clayton Barnwell will never forget the cold and bloody winter of 1944.

That's when Barnwell was a 19-year-old Army medic, and he found himself in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most pivotal moments in World War II.

Beginning on Dec. 16, 1944, through Jan. 25, 1945, the Germans mounted a last-ditch effort to alter the trajectory of the war. Between Allied and German forces, a combined 87 divisions of troops and tanks locked horns.

"They called it the Battle of the Bulge because the Germans threw all their troops in one area to break through the line, and we threw all of ours in to stop it," Barnwell said. The resulting "bulge" in the allied front lines gave the battle its name.

Danger was everywhere. German bullets were one thing, but it's what he couldn't see coming that scared him most.

"The artillery is the part you worry the most about," he said. "Tree bursts. Shrapnel."

It was all a world away from Shawnee where Barnwell grew up in a house at the top of a hill. He built scooters and raced them to the bottom. Fishing for crawdads was a summer pastime. He was raised by his mother and two uncles. His childhood was typical of that time, he said.

Barnwell wasn't old enough to enlist when the war broke out but it wasn't long before he was able to sign up.

"I asked for the Navy but they gave me the Army," he said. "I wanted to learn how to swim. I crossed the Atlantic twice and the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge and I never learned how to swim."

With his basic and medic training finished, Barnwell shipped out to Europe, eventually landing in France. His unit marched 11 miles before catching up with Germans.

Combat medics had their hands full but their value to the war effort was clear. Wounded soldiers had a 70 percent chance of surviving thanks to their work. That rate was up from World War I when the majority of casualties succumbed to wounds, or disease.

The U.S. Department of Defense reported 19,000 Americans were killed in the Battle of the Bulge and another 47,000 wounded. Some of them Barnwell treated himself.

"I carried a kit and took care of their wounds," he said. "You'd try to get a tourniquet around the wound and give them morphine. Even the Germans learned to say morphine."

When he wasn't treating the wounded, he was digging holes and trying to stay warm. The thick Army issue coat took care of that for the most part, though he jokes the red cross on his helmet was nothing more than a magnet for bullets.

Seven decades later he struggles to talk about that horrible winter he spent in Belgium. His voice begins to crack as he picks up a photo of some of the men he served with. They're in some long-forgotten village holding a captured Nazi flag.

"I lost several of these boys," he said. "This one was Capt. Joe DiMaggio (not that one), he was Italian and a doctor. All of the rest of us were medics."

Somehow Barnwell made it through the Battle of the Bulge, and the pace of the war began to pick up.

"You could sense it was coming to an end," he said. "We would take a new town every morning."

Barnwell finished the war and returned to Oklahoma. He married and had kids. He spent his career as a printer, and later as an office supply salesman.

He never learned how to swim, but he did get a new car out of the war. A nonsmoker, Barnwell sold his Army issue cigarettes to other soldiers for $20 a carton. By the end of the war he had enough to buy a Plymouth coupe.

While he is proud of the job he did saving lives, all these years later he wonders if the war was worth the carnage and the pain.

"I always thought it was a war that maybe we shouldn't have fought," he said. "We went to help somebody else. It's all right, but a lot of boys lost their lives or were wounded for life. That was the worst thing, having friends that you had to take care of. But that was part of the job. You just try to survive the next day."

'Memories of War' project seeks readers' help

Seventy-five years ago on Dec. 7, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted America's formal entry in to World War II, a conflict that would transform the nation and along with it Oklahoma and its people.

Almost 5,500 Oklahoma service members would die in the conflict. Those who survived the battles are either long-grayed or gone now.

To commemorate this landmark anniversary, The Oklahoman presents the series “Memories of War,” which will include photos, videos, archival accounts, interviews and other elements that seek to recreate those turbulent times as they unfolded.

More than anything, we want to tell your stories, to share your memories. To do that, we need your help.

Do you have photos, letters, diaries, mementos or a good tale you'd like to share with our readers related to World War II? If so, drop us a line at mpatterson@oklahoman.com or poconnor@oklahoman.com.

Also, visit the Memories of War special coverage page for all content related to this project.

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<p>Clayton Barnwell</p>

Clayton Barnwell

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c_4abc4c0cecee0e2a9f376c66e30360f2.jpg" alt="Photo - Clayton Barnwell " title=" Clayton Barnwell "><figcaption> Clayton Barnwell </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-506bc3541ad20d1495b5bc63273d09c6.jpg" alt="Photo - Clayton Barnwell stands in front of an ambulance. [Photo provided] " title=" Clayton Barnwell stands in front of an ambulance. [Photo provided] "><figcaption> Clayton Barnwell stands in front of an ambulance. [Photo provided] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-3af8a3e1278bf6657eab3ae8017dbf7c.jpg" alt="Photo - " title=""><figcaption></figcaption></figure>
Matt Patterson

Matt Patterson has been with The Oklahoman since 2006. Prior to joining the news staff in 2010, Patterson worked in The Oklahoman's sports department for five years. He previously worked at The Lawton Constitution and The Edmond Sun.... Read more ›

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