Over the years, I’ve made countless trips through Benezette, a small community known by many as being the heart of “Pennsylvania’s Elk Country.” The community, which sits along the Benezette Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek, has countless visitors each year to view the majestic elk that roam the region.
Mike and I had spent the morning exploring the region and while the elk had avoided us, I had a number of places to visit and hoped we would see some before leaving the area. One of those places on our journey that morning included a stop at the Benezette Cemetery along Route 555. Although I had been through Benezette numerous times, I had not realized the community’s cemetery was located just off Route 555 due to it being on the hillside overlooking the road and community.
“Don’t get too close to the edge,” Mike spoke as I drove slowly up the road that led from Route 555 to the cemetery. The dirt road was narrow, with a steep drop-off on one side and a dirt bank on the other – the road would be unforgiving to any careless driver.
Where the dirt road ended there was a small area to turn around and park. We got out of the vehicle and studied the cemetery that clung to the hillside.
“This has to be a pain to mow,” Mike observed as we walked along the hillside, pausing to study the stones of those buried here.
“I can’t imagine being the one having to mow it,” I replied. I paused to read a stone was set into the hillside. It – like most of the stones on this sacred plot – was plain and simple.
As we examined the stones, a particular memorial caught my attention. It was a little larger than the majority of the stones within the cemetery and was mostly hidden by the hemlocks growing in the middle of the cemetery.
As I approached, I could make out the etching of a bomber in the middle of the stone. The information on the stone read: “S/SGT Robert L Barr / 1918 – 1945.” Beneath the bomber was more information: “20th Command. 677th Bomb Sqdn. 444th Bomb Grp. Lost Over Japan on Bombing Mission.”
“What did you find?” Mike asked as he walked over to join me.
“A cenotaph for a soldier killed during World War Two,” I answered. “He was lost during a bombing run over Japan and this is a memorial for him.”
Robert Laverne Barr was born July 13, 1918, in Karthaus, the son of Merritt and Elizabeth Barr. He grew up in Medix Run, a small community at the junction of Route 555 and the Quehanna Highway. Note: The Barr family were early settlers of Elk and Cameron Counties and Merritt settled in the hollow near Medix Run that still bears the Barr family name.
In October 1942, Barr joined the Army Air Force, enlisting in Erie for his term of service. By April 8, 1944 Barr was serving as a B-29 tail gunner as a member of the crew for bomber #42-63496, also known as “Naughty Nancy.” Note: While “Naughty Nancy” appears to be the nickname of the bomber, in many places it appears as “Naughty Money.” I’m not sure where this other name originated from, but “Naughty Nancy” appears to be the correct nickname of the bomber and is the one I’ll be using in this article.
The unit was initially stationed in India, where they were part of a squadron which took supplies over “The Hump” – the nickname for the Himalayas – to Allied bases located in China. In 1944, the group was transferred to Tinian Island in the Marianas. While stationed there, the crew of the “Naughty Nancy” was a part of a squadron assigned to making bombing runs over Japan. On February 7, 1945, Barr was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
Barr was twenty-six years old when, on June 1, 1945, the 58 Bombardment Wing, 444 Bombardment Group left Tinian Island to make another bombing run over Osaka, Japan. As they approached Osaka, they encountered overcast skies. The “Naughty Nancy” collided with bomber #42-65270 – “Big Poison Second Dosa.” Reports of the incident state that “Naughty Nancy” was in its assigned spot, when the other bomber drifted out of formation and struck it.
The planes crashed near Cape Shionomisaki, Japan. One of the bombers crashed into the Pacific Ocean, while the other crashed near Shionomiya.
According to records released by Japan in regards to Prisoners of War, twenty people were killed in the crash. In the aftermath of the crash, nine bodies were recovered and locally buried. Eleven of the men were never recovered.
These records state there were two survivors of the crash. The first was Lieutenant John F. McGowen who parachuted down to the sea roughly one kilometer off the coast of Shionomisaki Village and was recovered by Japanese soldiers. The second listed was Staff Sergeant Robert L. Barr. Both men were treated for their injuries and were taken to a POW camp. Shortly before the Japanese surrender, Barr and McGowen were listed as being deceased, but it is not clear if they died from their injuries or if they had been executed.
We finished remembering Staff Sergeant Robert Barr’s military service before we carefully made our way down along the hillside, leaving his memorial standing among his family and the other residents of the Benezette region.