Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Pilots of 17 Squadron at Rangoon
Pilots of 17 Squadron at Mingaldon airport in February 1942. Sgt. Barrick is second from left. On far left is another American, Lloyd "Tommy" Thomas from Chicago. On the right, leaning against his Hurricane, is "Bush" Cotton, a Flight Leader in the Royal Australian Air Force. The others are unidentified but may have been Canadians. (From the Aces of World War 2 website.)

Tex Barrick in the defense of Burma

(With a tip of the virtual hat to Edward Rogers)

Reading the diaries of the Flying Tigers in Burma, it's astounding at how long it took them to realize that most of the Royal Air Force pilots serving alongside them weren't "Limeys" as they had assumed. The first such mention I can find is by Charlie Bond, who encountered some Brewster Buffalo pilots at the Magwe fall-back field at the end of February 1942. "What I thought were RAF men actually are New Zealand pilots," he wrote of RAF 67 Squadron on March 1. "Good guys, and very much like Americans." (And of course they were "RAF men." They'd been trained in the RNZAF, and held their rank in it, but in Burma they were serving in a Royal Air Force squadron, under British officers.)

And apparently no Tiger ever noticed that there were also some Americans in RAF 17 Squadron, flying Hurricanes at Rangoon, Magwe, and across the border at Loiwing when the Allied air force retreated into China. One of the most notable, and a decorated British ace as a result of his combat alongside the AVG, was John Frederick Barrick, whom his squadron mates of course called "Tex." The nickname was merited: he was born in Sweetwater in 1928 and grew up in nearby Odessa, on the road between Fort Worth and El Paso. After graduating from Odessa High, he attended Dacatur Junior College, almost certainly meaning Dacatur Baptist College near Fort Worth, then a prep school for Baylor University.

Like those New Zealanders, Barrick was a sergeant-pilot, who learned to fly in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This was a regular route for young Americans eager to get into a war that their own country was trying to stay out of: they crossed the border and signed up with the RCAF under an arrangement that permitted them to enlist without swearing allegiance to George VI, which would have jeopardized their American citizenship. At least one of the future Flying Tigers thought of doing the same thing, before an AVG recruiter came along and offered him a better deal.

In September 1940, at the age of 22, Tex Barrick enlisted in the RCAF at Windsor, Ontario. After basic and intermediate flight training, he finished up at No. 10 Service Flight Training School in Manitoba, flying the Harvard, a British version of the AT-6 Texan. In May 1941 he was promoted to Flight Sergeant, and on June 18 he sailed from Halifax to train as a Hurricane pilot at 55 Operational Training Unit at Aston Down in the southwest of England. He hoped, of course, to become one of "the Few" who'd won immortality in the Battle of Britain, but the war by this time had spread to more distant theaters. Barrick was tapped for 17 Squadron, which was bound for Iraq toward the end of 1941. Its destination was the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, to defend the Baku oilfields from the advance of Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt's Army Group South. (When Hitler turned against Stalin earlier that summer, the Communist International immediately switched from pacifist propaganda to demanding "Second Front now," urging Britain to invade Europe or the Balkans, or at the very to send men to join the fight on the Eastern Front. Two RAF squadrons were already alongside the Red Air Force, protecting Allied convoys coming into the far-north port of Murmansk.)

The pilots of four Hurricane squadrons were distributed among troopships leaving Liverpool and Glasgow in November and early December. Traveling the long way around, the first of them reached Freetown, on the western bulge of Africa, shortly before Christmas. Here the commanders of 17, 135, and 136 squadrons learned that they were now going to Burma. The German advance toward Baku had been rolled back, and the Hurricanes were now needed to battle an invasion of Burma. The planes, however, were waiting for them in Egypt! So while the ground crews and headquarters staff continued to Rangoon by sea, the pilots flew to North Africa by Empire flying boat or any aircraft they could find. Not until January 14, 1942, did the first six Hurricanes set out for Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, India, the Bay of Bengal, and Burma. They were led by a Polish ferry pilot in what must have been a seventh Hurricane. The short-ranged fighters had to be equipped with bolt-on ferry tanks for their 4,000-mile journey.

On January 16, His Majesty's Transport Neuralia docked at Rangoon with the ground crews and headquarters personnel of 267 Wing and the fighter squadrons assigned to it. Not for another week did the first three Hurricanes arrive. They landed at Mingaladon airport outside Rangoon at 9:15 a.m. on January 23, having left four fighters and their pilots (including the Pole) at various spots along the way.

Forty-five minutes after they touched down at Mingaladon, the air-raid siren went off, warning of a swarm of fixed-gear Nakajima Ki-27 fighters on their way from Thailand. The Wing Commander and 17 Squadron Leader Cedric "Bunny" Stone pulled rank and commandeered two of the Hurricanes and took off, together with the just-arrived commander of 136 Squadron. They were of course still burdened with their ferry tanks and the desert fuel filters intended for the sands of Egypt. They managed not to be shot down by the more maneuverable Ki-27s, but Stone's Hurricane was holed through its empennage, fuselage, and starboard ferry tank, and it never flew again.

Tex Barrick and five more pilots arrived on January 29. They included a second American, Jack Gibson, along with an Australian and three Canadians. The only Englishman in their flight had crashed and been killed as he was taking off from RAF Habbaniya in Iraq. There were many such accidents along the ferry route: altogether, 36 Hurricanes were dispatched to Rangoon in December 1941, with only 20 of them managing to reach Mingaladon airfield.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

The new arrivals slept in the derelict barracks at Mingaladon or found rooms at the Minto Mansions hotel downtown, pending assignment to the abandoned houses of British civilians who had fled Rangoon. Tex Barrick's first combat may have been on Friday morning, February 6, when two sentais of Ki-27 fighters swept in from Thailand, to a total of perhaps three dozen aircraft. Between them, the RAF and the AVG claimed no less than 12 Ki-27s, with no Allied losses. Two of the kills were credited to Barrick, plus a third plane damaged in the battle. (Japanese accounts list only one plane lost over Burma that day, with Lieutenant Kikamura of the 77th Sentai killed in action. Major Hirose, the group's executive officer, was apparently hit over Mingaladon, but he made a forced landing at the former RAF field at Moulmein, now in Japanese hands, and he returned to his unit next day. For their part, the Japanese pilots were claiming five Hurricanes and Tomahawks shot down. "Obviously," wrote the British aviation historian Christopher Shores of this battle, "enthusiasm had run riot." This was often the case in the furballs over Rangoon.

Barrick came to the attention of the Americans a couple weeks later, on February 18, when a false alarm sent the Tomahawks, Hurricanes, and a few airworthy Brewster Buffaloes aloft. They'd climbed to 22,000 feet and throttled back to cruise speed when Barrick spotted a radial-engine fighter that he assumed was Mitsubishi A6M Zero. He accordingly shouted "Snapper!" into his microphone, a term he'd picked up in Egypt as a warning of enemy aircraft in the vicinity. To his astonishment, all the Allied fighters dropped their noses and dove for Mingaladon's dust-white runways, including the Buffalo he'd mistaken for a Zero. In Burma, it seemed, "Snapper" was the control tower's signal for an immediate recall of all aircraft.

The so-called Zeros did turn up that month, in the form of three big-engined retractable-gear Nakajima Ki-44 Shokis, experimental fighters flown by the 47th Independent Chutai. On February 25 they joined a fighter sweep intended to reduce the Allied fighter strength at Mingaladon. They were accompanied by 23 Ki-27s of the 77th Sentai. Barrick was credited with one kill that day. "I attacked and shot down one [Ki-27] and was then jumped from above by a 'Zero'. I went into a tight turn which caused one of [my] gun panels to fly open. This made the aircraft 'flick' and probably saved my life, because the 'Zero' was in an excellent position behind me. As it was my plane was not hit."

According to the Shoki pilots, that must have been Lieutenant Mitsumoto, for Barrick was the only Allied pilot day to report seeing a retractable-gear fighter that morning.

The Allied squadrons abandoned Rangoon early in March, moving back to a dusty field at Magwe in central Burma. Japanese aircraft then replaced them at Mingaladon and the RAF dispersal fields that had been built nearby, as they built up their air strength to continue the conquest of Burma. The Allied pilots struck first, however, launching a bombing and strafing attack on Mingaladon on March 21. Tex Barrick scored again, credited with destroying one Ki-27 in the air and two on the ground. That would have made him an ace in the Flying Tigers, for the AVG very sensibly regarded a plane strafed and burned on the ground as important as one shot down in a dogfight. The RAF took a more traditional view.

The reinforced Japanese bomber and fighter squadrons effectively destroyed Magwe the following week, and the Hurricanes and Tomahawks that could still fly retreated across the frontier into China, where they set up a new combat base at Loiwing. Tex Barrick was among them. (Not to offend Chinese sensibilities, the RAF pilots were at Loiwing only during the day, spending the night across the border in Burma.)

Loiwing in turn became a major target of the Japanese 64th Sentai, based at Chiang Mai in Thailand and equipped with the fast, maneuverable, and long-range Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa which would become the mainstay of Japanese Army fighter squadrons in the early years of the Pacific War, as the retractable-gear fighter replaced the obsolete Ki-27. (The same airframe, with a massive bomber engine, was the basis of the Ki-44 Shoki that Barrick had escaped in Burma.) It was on the second of these raids by the 64th Sentai, on April 6, that Barrick had his last encounter with a Japanese fighter. He was credited with one Hayabusa shot down and another damaged, thus becoming an ace by Royal Air Force standards. He was then shot down by another Ki-43, striking his face on the gunsight -- always a risk for fighter pilots, who tended to loosen their safety harness for better handling of the controls. His citation in London Gazette dated July 24 tells the story this way:

"During another engagement he shot down an enemy aircraft which was closing in on one of his fellow pilots. Sergeant Barrick himself was attacked by two fighters during the combat, his engine failed and he was compelled to make a landing. Although almost blinded by oil he succeeded in his purpose without the assistance of flaps. The enemy continued to fire at him whilst he was on the ground. Although suffering from shrapnel splinters and the effects of hot oil on his face, chest and arms, Sergeant Barrick walked for some two hours until he reached some Chinese troops. Throughout he displayed great courage and fortitude."

According to British sources, Barrick was treated by missionary doctors, probably meaning the "Burma Surgeon" Gordon Seagrave, whose hospital was at Namhkam on the other side of the river separated Burma and China. (It was also the town where the RAF personnel were billeted.) He was soon invalided out to India by C-47 transport and was able to rejoin 17 Squadron as it reformed there. In August he was decorated with a Distinguished Flying Medal and promoted to warrant officer, the DFM being the enlisted man's equivalent of the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to officers -- rank has its privileges! In November 1942, Barrick himself was commissioned, and the following summer he took part in ground strafing missions against an enemy airfield at Arakan, in Burma. His tour ended in December 1943, and he returned to England and then to Canada to train future RCAF pilots. He ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant. He settled afterward in Alabama, where he died in September 1997 at the age of 79. I tried very hard to locate him when I was researching my history of the Flying Tigers ten years earlier, but that was before the internet changed our lives, and I was quite unable to find him. What a pity! I would have loved to hear his stories of the Burma campaign. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Edward Rogers gave me the nudge that led to this article, and he sent me emails and attachments to get me started. I also relied on Christopher Shores's Aces High and volume one of his Bloody Shambles books; my history of the Flying Tigers; Kenneth Hemingway's Wings Over Burma; the Aces of World War 2 website; and various other sources. Sadly, the 17 Squadron Operations Record Book was apparently lost when the RAF abandoned the field and Magwe and back into India in the spring and summer of 1942.

17 Squadron's four Americans were Sgt Barrick, Sgt C.E. Wisrodt (also called "Tex"), Sgt Jack Gibson, and Pilot Officer Loyd "Tommy" Thomas, all holding rank in the RCAF, plus six Canadians, along with pilots from Britain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and Rhodesia.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

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