PARIS – When Edmund Barker signed up for a three-year stint in the Army in 1938 at the age of 16, he lied about his age for a military paycheck – $12 a week.
Two weeks’ pay covered the bus fare he needed to get from his home in Waterford to classes at Norway High School.
That lie – and a week’s worth of more lies from his wife, family, relatives and friends – came full circle 68 years later on Saturday morning, when they stunned the speechless 84-year-old Stoneham man with a surprise World War II medals ceremony at the Maine Veterans’ Home on High Street.
A fictitious letter and the fibs convinced Edmund Barker that another veteran, not he, was to receive long-overdue medals at the Western Maine Veterans’ Advisory Committee program.
“It took a lot of lying and back-stabbing to get my father here,” Edmund Barker’s son, Cecil Barker of Harrison, joked, drawing laughter from the crowd of family members, friends and veterans packed into a small conference room.
“It was truly a remarkable effort, but once we got him here, we had him bagged,” he added.
Edmund Barker, a former rifle squad leader and staff sergeant with Paris’ then-Company C, 103rd Infantry, served with the 43rd Division, fighting back Japanese invaders in four beachhead campaigns in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater: Guadalcanal, northern Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Luzon in the Philippines.
It was 4 more years than he’d expected to serve. Harrowing times of great hardship, said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who awarded the medals to Barker.
During World War II, the Army soldier earned seven medals, eight, if the shrapnel that clipped his left forearm during a firefight counts for a Purple Heart. That was the only physical wound Barker received in combat during the entire war. He said he just wrapped it up and kept fighting.
On Saturday, Collins presented Barker with six medals: three bronze service stars, World War II Victory, Good Conduct, American Defense Service, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and the Honorable Service lapel button.
“On the surface, these may appear to be mere bits of cloth and pieces of metal,” Collins said while holding the display case of medals and looking at Edmund Barker and his wife of 61 years, Bette, who wiped tears from her eyes with one hand and held her husband’s arm with the other.
“Each of them, however, symbolizes a story of courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty, and the gratitude of an entire nation. Memorial Day is the time, we, who enjoy the blessings of freedom, thank those who have secured it. May God bless you, Edmund, and may God bless America,” she added.
Missing from the case was the medal Edmund Barker most desired – the Expert Combat Infantry badge.
“She said she’d work on getting it for me,” Barker said of Collins after the ceremony.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get them all, because the government didn’t worry about the medals then,” he added.
But Cecil Barker worried.
In halting speech, fighting back flooding emotions, he said he first learned about the long-overdue medals after his own son, Steven Barker, wrote him a letter last August. Steven Barker, who recently returned from a 13-month Army tour in Iraq, is now stationed in California.
After reading in August that his son was awarded a Combat Action badge after the vehicle he was in was wrecked, Cecil Barker said he shared the news with his father, who then told him about the medals.
“My father never talked much about the war, and I never brought it up when I was a kid, because I knew it was a sore subject,” Cecil Barker said. His dad didn’t like to talk about it, because he’d lost so many friends to the war.
But, Cecil Barker doggedly pursued his dad’s due, with help from Carlene Tremblay in Sen. Collins’ Maine office.
“It was something I thought I can actually do for him to make both of us happy,” he said.
Not only did that happen Saturday, but Edmund Barker also began openly talking, sharing his past with interested family members and reporters.
“This is the most I’ve ever heard him talk about the war. I think my son being in the same situation triggered it,” Cecil Barker said, watching, eyes glistening with tears.