Shot down behind enemy lines during the Second World War, fighter pilot Bill Barker had a pistol put to his head by a man even more desperate than he was. A smattering of French recalled from high-school classes back home in Vancouver saved him from summary execution.
One of his best friends would not be so lucky, taking his place on a mission only to be killed in the conflict’s waning days, the vagaries of war sparing one man while claiming the other.
Barker, who has died at 93, crashed two aircraft during his military service, walking away unscathed both times. He was credited with shooting down four enemy aircraft, while damaging two others, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Robert Bruce Barker was born in Vancouver on Dec. 4, 1918, to the former Teresa Greer and Bruce Hamilton Barker, a clerk. An uncle dubbed him Billykins and for the rest of his life he was known as Bill.
As a boy, he won a contest to be a passenger aboard a flight over the city at a time when air travel was still a novelty. He would not get to indulge his new passion until after graduating from high school. He worked on the assembly line at the American Can Company on the Vancouver waterfront, often walking from his home in the Kitsilano neighbourhood to save on streetcar fare.
After enlisting in August, 1940, he received instruction in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec. He trained on Tutors, Ansons, Harvards, Magisters and Tiger Moths before taking the controls of a Hurricane for combat training while stationed at Bagotville, Que. He crashed this plane and was sent – as punishment, he was told – to Goose Bay, Labrador. After a long war spent in the air over Canada and Newfoundland, he was finally stationed overseas in the summer of 1944.
Like many pilots, he was superstitious and, for him, the number eight was fortuitous. He maintained a daily journal and his entry for Feb. 8, 1945, reads: “Good ole No. 8 – so I finally made it – got me a Hun today.”
Barker engaged a Junkers 87, a Stuka dive bomber, in the skies over Europe. Later that month, he recorded his second kill, a Messerschmitt fighter.
“I followed my first one down to see him hit the deck in flames,” he told a war correspondent at the time. “My second just broke up in the air.”
Barker was serving with No. 412 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force when his Spitfire was damaged by flak and he was forced to crash land in a rutty farmer’s field behind enemy lines. He noted a German racing away on a bicycle before being confronted by a man wielding a pitchfork, as Barker told military historian Wayne Ralph for his 2005 book Aces, Warriors and Wingmen.
The man with a pitchfork turned out to be a forced labourer from Poland, who was placated by the gift of Sweet Caps cigarettes. Barker began trudging down the road in the direction of the front line.
“Then, out of nowhere, this guy had a Luger at my throat,” Barker told Ralph, “and I said, ‘I am a Spitfire pilot. Parlez-vous français?’ It turned out that he was an escaping Polish prisoner of war. He and his companions picked me up on their shoulders.
“It saved my life to speak those three words in French, because one of them recognized what I said.”
Thirty-six hours later, Barker returned to his squadron, relieved not to have been killed or captured as the war wound down.
A comrade would not be so lucky.
In May, 1945, Barker’s journal entries included terse accounts of world-shattering events (“Hitler died today”) and mundane accounts of his own health (“Feel terrible tonight. Maybe flu. Bed early”).
One day, Barker was driven to base hospital by his friend, Donald Mathew Pieri, a fellow flight lieutenant known as Tex for his birthplace at Pecos, Tex. Barker had been grounded by illness, so Pieri offered to take his plane. He never returned and was listed as missing, and later as killed in action, on May 3, a few days before the proclamation of victory in Europe. Pieri, who had turned 27 the previous month, was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross, which was presented after the war to his widow, Evelyn.
Barker returned to civilian life in Vancouver by launching what would be a long career in the federal civil service with the regional office responsible for unemployment insurance. He remained a member of the RCAF Auxiliary, rising to the rank of group captain. This afforded him a chance to fly jets, including the Sabre and the Vampire, as well as taking part in flyovers in Mustangs above the fairgrounds of the Pacific National Exhibition in his hometown.
Barker died of heart failure in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey on Oct. 9. He leaves a son, Bob, and a daughter, Kelly, as well as seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Marjorie, who died in 1999; by a daughter Rochelle, known as Rocky, who died last year, aged 68; and, by a sister, Margaret, who died in 1998.
One story Barker liked to tell about his wartime exploits involved a surprise he received on reporting to his base after his narrow escape.
“Returning to the squadron,” Barker told Ralph, “I found that all my belongings, socks, underwear, everything, had been parcelled out among the pilots.” He had not been expected to return.