The WWI hero from Missouri you don't know — but 'No Hard Feelings'
It’s likely you’ve never heard of John Lewis Barkley.
The Missouri native fought in World War I, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor and later writing a book about his experience. Yet his book, “No Hard Feelings!” and his name remain in relative obscurity, even as the nation marks the 100th anniversary of World War I’s end.
That surprises Steven Trout, who helped get the book reprinted under the title “Scarlet Fields” in 2014.
“I’m astonished, in fact, and I don’t really know the reason,” he told St. Louis Public Radio.
Trout is an English professor at the University of South Alabama who specializes in war literature.
He first learned of Barkley during visits to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The museum’s director asked Trout whether he’d read Barkley’s book.
“I frankly had never heard about it and he said, ‘You need to get a copy of this and you need to read this.’” Trout recalled. “I picked it up and could not put it down; I was absolutely riveted by his experiences.”
Barkley was born in 1895 and grew up on a farm near Holden in west central Missouri. He prided himself on being a woodsman and claimed to be a descendant of Daniel Boone.
While he knew how to handle a gun, Barkley had a bad stammer that made it difficult to pass the Army’s medical examination, even after the U.S. entered the war. Once he was accepted to the military, his officers soon recognized his skills.
“He could hunt. He could trap. He was an excellent shot. So when he was sent to Camp Funston in 1917 the Army realized here was someone that could do this kind of intelligence work,” Trout said.
Barkley would do dangerous reconnaissance work in wartime France; scouting ahead of American troops, observing the enemy and reporting back, as well as serving as a sniper. He excelled in the role.
His actions on Oct. 7, 1918 made him one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I.
That afternoon, he was sent ahead of the American lines near Cunel, France, to try to learn where the German force was located. Shortly after, his telephone wire back to camp was cut and Barkley saw German soldiers advancing. He quickly spotted a German machine gun nest and an abandoned French tank.
He grabbed a light machine gun, as much ammunition as he could carry and took cover in the tank.
“Probably to the tune of an hour and a half to two hours, he fended off a German force of several hundred enemy soldiers and did this single-handedly from this tank,” Trout said.
Barkley would win the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with five medals for bravery from other Allied nations.
Back at home
After the war Barkley returned to the farm in Missouri.
But the bottom fell out of the agriculture economy and Barkley soon was looking for a way to support his widowed mother and himself.
He decided to capitalize on the wave of books about what was then known as the Great War. Barkley would send notes to a military friend, Mike Mulcahy, who wrote the manuscript. After being turned down by several publishers the Cosmopolitan Book House in New York took on the project and had five editors fine tune the book.
“No Hard Feelings” came out in 1930, just after the Great Depression set in and Americans had less money to spend. The tone of the book was also very different from many of the anti-war books of the time, such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Goodbye to All That.”
“Barkley’s book was not this anti-heroic, grim treatment of impersonal slaughter, which is what we usually associate with World War I literature,” Trout said. “His book was about individual initiative.”
Barkley was unapologetic about his wartime exploits and his recollections of the Great War were at odds with the time.
The book would barely sell.
Reviving a wartime memoir
Barkley had wanted to name it “Scarlet Fields,” but the editors used an anecdote in the book to name it "No Hard Feelings," instead.
“I personally think ‘Scarlet Fields’ is a much stronger title.” Trout said, "I have no idea what possessed the Cosmopolitan Book House to change it. I certainly suspect it didn’t help with book sales for this book that came out at an inauspicious time.”
With the blessing of Barkley’s daughter, Joan Barkley Wells, Trout approached the University Press of Kansas about reprinting the book. It came out in 2014 under the title Barkley preferred: “Scarlet Fields: The Combat Memoir of a World War I Medal of Honor Hero.”
Today, a century after the war’s end, Trout said Barkley’s memoir provides a unique view of a World War I American intelligence platoon. Despite the fact that Barkley had a lot of help in telling his story, the story is truly his.
“One of the amazing things about this book is that Barkley’s voice is absolutely authentic,” Trout said. “I mean, he sounds like this Missouri woodsman out on the front porch of his home in west central Missouri just telling you what happened to him in a laconic, matter-of-fact voice.”
What became of Barkley?
Trout said for a while, Barkley worked for a detective agency in Kansas City, but it didn’t last. Eventually, he met and married Marguerite Mullen, who had grown up on a large dairy farm in Johnson County, Kansas, southwest of Kansas City.
The Mullen family owned quite a bit of land in an area that would become a city suburb.
“Long story short, he sort of went from rags to riches,” Trout said. “He went from being a person who was struggling to hang on to the family farm to a person of means, partly through marriage.”
Barkley worked as a park supervisor in Johnson County.
“He had a real passion for public parks and believed very strongly that people needed to experience the great outdoors and get out and have the kinds of experiences he had as a boy in Missouri,” Trout said.
A park building and roadway in the Johnson County park system are named after Barkley.
He died in 1966 at the age of 70.
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