Barney Cummings: Work and the Corps – Labors of Love


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May 2002

ATHOL, MA – One World War II enlistment so influenced this Marine, that the rest of his life has included an extraordinary work ethic and commitment to community. At 83, Barney Cummings’ life is too full to consider his past – except his molding by the Corps.

His narration through easily recalled times six decades earlier is both humorous and startlingly poignant.

“It was 1941, July. I worked for the Hamilton Standard, a division of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in East Hartford, Connecticut. They had me ordering 60,000 screws, 200,000 bolts, I didn’t take to that real good, so my friend and I decided to join the Marine Corps.”

He rode the train down to Parris Island. “I’ll never forget that little train station, and that’s where I had my first contact with a drill instructor. He told us to ‘fall in’ and ‘fall out’ and we didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.” Then off to the barber and, “we didn’t have a lot of hair left.”

“The next thing that shocked me was the pool. The drill instructor told everyone who could swim to step up to the pool. Me and another guy didn’t step up. The D.I. asked me, ‘did you say you couldn’t swim?’ I replied, ‘yes, sir’. He told me to do an about-face. I did and the next thing I knew I was backwards in the pool. I swam.”

He recalls that the Island was putting through a platoon a day. Some of the horrors jump to his memory, including a recruit who fell back a platoon – for the third time, due to insubordination. Details aside, that Marine was singled out for retribution, and one day he didn’t appear. “We thought he went over the hill, but we didn’t know.”

Cummings admits he too was a candidate for difficulty, “I was a wise-guy when I went into the Corps. They straightened me out – well somewhat anyway.

“I know that since I’ve been out of the Corps, I coached high school kids for years, and I advised every kid that was the least out of line, ‘hey you should join the Marine Corps.’ I know six of them that have, and they come back to see me, and they tell me it was the best advice I ever gave.”

Back to the days of old, “I didn’t make sea school. They decided I should go to radio school, so I did. In Jacksonville, Florida and that’s where I was, in a chow line, when we heard of the attack of Pearl Harbor.”

“I was good at semaphore and Morse code. They used us as patrols on a black cat, and we flew over Cuba. Finally they were developing Marine Air Group 24, and that’s where I got assigned; on the west coast.

His train trip from Florida to California includes several stories alone.

“It’s when they still segregated people. The first car was all Negro people. One was a Master Sergeant in the Army. He had some beer that’s probably how I got to know him. So I go in and sit with him. And Corporal Eustis [another Marine from the group] is going nuts. We pull in this little train station, so we’re out of beer. I go to the station house. So I ask where I can some beer. I go outside and there’s a bicycle, so I grab the bicycle and I take off. I get the case of beer, I come back – no train.

“The guy says they gotta stop up there, they’re liable to be 15 minutes. At the station was this old touring car, you know the kind Elliot Ness used to ride in, he locks up the place. Right out across the prairie, we cut up the break, there’s the train. Well, I said good bye, but I can’t get on, the door’s locked! So I crawl under the coal car, with the beer, and I get in the other door.

“When I get in they’re crying, the women were crying – all of a sudden they see me and I say, ‘Hey!’ and they go like crazy. Eustis comes running in from the other car, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I had a lot of fun with that Army Sergeant. And they cared about me more than any white people did. Finally we got to Santa Barbara.

“I got pretty good friends with this Marine Master Sergeant who lived in Los Angeles. And when we ran out of money we went down to the Stage Door Canteen. You couldn’t get booze but that’s where I met Joel McCray and his wife JoAnn Drew.

Barney Cummings with Heddy Lamarr
“So one night I was in there and Heddy Lamarr was in the back room. A guy comes up to me and says that Collier’s magazine was there and they wanted a guy representing the Marine Corps, so I go back there. So I’m sitting here, she’s sitting here, an Army guy is there and I think a Navy guy.

“Earl Carroll’s follies was very close by. Heddy asked if we wanted to go to Earl Carrolls, I said I didn’t have any money. Anyway we go outside the place and there’s a car four blocks long. The guy comes around and opens the door for us. So, it seems to me it’s just around the block and we go to the show.

“Another time we went there and Fred McMurry was there, then we went up to his place and spent the night.

“From there they sent us over to Hawaii on a liberty ship – USS Moremacklin. The Merchant Marines had it good. They’d give us a gallon of Coke and they’d give us 150 percent alcohol and then go stand gun watch!

While in Hawaii, Cummings got a taste of the difficulties of air warfare. “One night, here’s the strip, right here is a building, right here is the operations building, with Major Seagraves, a ninety-day-wonder, a judge in California, we’re playing cribbage. This plane lines up down here, night flying, its raining, and an F4U hits the corner of the building took the top off a jeep, hit our building, the Major’s with his back to the building, there comes the shaft , four or five feet away from the Major. I swear he runs out of the building over to his quarters and got under his bed. They had a time getting him out of there. This is no baloney.

“At the time I was a two-stripe sergeant. They decide to have a party, they rebuilt the NCO club. So, I’m Officer of the Day, because they don’t have enough officers, they use us as officers. So I say, to Captain House, who is second to Colonel Delano in Operation, ‘I wish I could go to that party,’ he says, ‘you can go, I’ll fill in for you.’

“We don’t know at the time that this Major Seagraves is the base OOD, the big wheel. They sent the Marine Corps Buses down to Canal Street, and when the cat house girls got through they piled into these busses and came to our party. All of a sudden in comes the Military Police and they grab me, ‘Seagraves said you’re supposed to be on duty and he didn’t get any word.’ They threw me in the brig.

“So they put me in a cell and I tell them to call the Colonel, Delano, he was the nephew of the president, they call him up. He says, ‘leave him there, he’s shipping out in a couple of days.’

“Next day, they make you run to the chow line, hands up in the air. They bring us back around noontime. They give you a cigarette and you have to smoke it, while you’re walking around the tree one way, walking around the other, no kidding.”

Cummings got the last word, even if it was 20 years later. “Seagraves happened when I worked at the Daily News. A boy from Athol went to California and he was charged with murder and I asked the San Jose paper if they could send their story each day. One day I call up and ask to speak to the judge, and they put the judge on the phone. And I said, ‘Are you the Roy L. Seagraves that was in MAG 24?’ He says, ‘I am the same.’ I said, well you are the #$%^ that hooked me up!’ And I hung up on him.

Another unfortunate trip to the brig started out as a trip ashore. I’m in Honolulu. That’s the first time I went to Laui Kai’s. Anybody that’s in the Corps could tell you about Laui Kai’s, that’s where they have signpost to every big city in the world, a fairly nice restaurant. I got cocked, and they put me in the brig.

“They give you duty, you know what I did four eight hours one day? I shined one drain in a latrine. That’s all I did. You stop moving that rag, if they see you, they’d whack you with a wet broom,” still, Cummings is laughing.

“Colonel Delano was a great guy. You know what he liked to do all day? Knit. You know, sweaters and stuff. And we had another guy, Sleepy Jim Booth, he was a Major. He’d fall asleep at the desk, he was a hell of a guy.”

On to Sunlight Field in the Effete Islands, “that was the first place I saw people with orange hair. Naturally we find the bar, and they used this root on their hair – and it was orange, bright orange.”

Effete was the last stop before Bougainville where Cumming spent the rest of his enlistment. What innocence he had left was about to leave him.

“There were two air strips there, Piva north and Piva south, were with the scout bombers, Piva north, the fighters were on Piva south. While we’re going in, they were going out. That’s the saddest bunch of Marines I ever saw in my life. I don’t know how long they’d been there, enough to build an airstrip and secure the perimeter, their expressions, nobody was grinning or anything like that.” Cummings has said that was the only time during the war that his eyes welled up with tears.

“We were flying missions most every day, TBF’s Torpedo Bomber by Fairchild and SBD’s Scout Bomber by Douglas. I was overseas for 32 months, two years elsewhere, so most of my time was on Bougainville.

“Well they were saying that Pappy Boyington was coming in – going to be stationed there. Well it was true. He came in with the Black Sheep.

“We’d send up 30 SBD’s and maybe 15 or 20 TBF’s on bombing missions. It was high cover, low cover and middle cover. I think Pappy flew middle cover because the Army flew high cover with the double tail aircraft and low cover with the ones that look like a shark.

“So the rest of the planes come in. But no Pappy Boyington. We used to lose airplanes, but this day everybody came back in the fighter squadron, except him. All of a sudden here comes the plane. Smoking like hell and it lands.

“Col. Delano sees him coming says, ‘come on’ and I’m driving the Jeep and I drive the Colonel and he’s out to greet him and I’m still sitting in the Jeep.

“He gets out of his plane and he’s covered with oil, got his helmet in one hand, and this Second Lieutenant walks up and cold-cocks him. I mean hammered him. Knocked him right onto the ground. I’m enlisted and I’m saying, ‘boy that bastard’s in trouble.’

“Pappy Boyington gets up off the ground, puts his arm around the guy, who’s shaking in his boots I’ll bet, reaches around to his pocket pulls out a bottle half-full of booze! Tells him to have a drink. The Colonel comes over and tells me to take him to the Officer’s Club and believe me to this day I don’t know what happened and neither did anybody else out there.

“Nobody could handle the Black Sheep. His squadron were the best Navy pilots and maybe a few Marine pilots, there were. They were guys who were incorrigible, that’s why you got them.”

Cumming’s left the Marine Corps what was then a Master Tech Sergeant – three stripes up and three down. To this day he’s frustrated that he can’t find a set of those old stripes; today the bottom stripes are rockers, they were straight when he was in.

But that’s the extent of his dismay. After the Corps he gained his Animal Husbandry degree from the University of Connecticut. For several years he worked on farms and bred sheep. He’s always had horses, and even today he owns two.

He has four daughters and two sons. One of who entered the Corps, but even he couldn’t ever find those stripes.

Cummings loved to write. From the Pacific he would send home poems and letters to family members. One day, a few years after the war, his wife saw an ad in the Boston Globe for a sports writer. She said, ‘if you write sports half as good as you write letters, you’ll do fine.’ That ad was with the Athol Daily News – 52 years ago.

Today Cummings is the Editor in Chief of the Daily News, as he has been for many, many years. Everyday he walks a mile and half to work before dawn. He puts a paper to bed in about eight hours and gets a ride to his horses in Petersham, 12 miles away. There he cleans stalls, feeds and rides his stallion and mare. At night he comes home to his house in Athol, has dinner and listens to ball game on the radio.

For more than 30 years Cummings coached little league and high school sports. One day he was hit in the eye with a baseball. Today he’s completely sightless in that eye. Another eye disease has claimed the other eye – in which he is legally blind. He reads the wire stories and edits reporter’s writing on the computer using special glasses.

He’s in every patriotic parade, participates in every veterans fundraiser, attends every Marine Corps anniversary. Possibly why he refuses to sum up the Corps effect on his life.

“I had a relatively uneventful stay in the Corps. A lot of guys have much better stories than me.”

Photos: Cummings with Heddy Lamarr at the Stage Door Caf�, 1942. Cummings at the end of his enlistment, 1946.