By KEVIN BOWDEN Staff Reporter It was near the end of World War II. Allied forces were battling against Axis forces across Europe. The year was 1944 and Pfc. John Matt Barnes of Union City was serving with the 1st battalion of the 339th “Polar Bear” regiment in Italy. That’s when Barnes and his U.S. Army regiment made their remarkable discovery of more than 25 tons of gold in a cave beneath an ancient fortress in what was known as the 5th Army sector. Turning back the pages of time nearly seven decades, there remains only a brief, yellowed news clipping that documents the discovery of the gold cache by Barnes’ unit. “Taken from the Bank of Italy, in Rome, the gold had been placed in its deep underground resting place by the Germans last October,” the news clipping states. “It required a heavily-armed convoy of 12 trucks to transport the loot back to the Bank of Italy.” The 25 tons of gold (in today’s market) would be worth more than $1 billion. Barnes died in February 2012 at the age of 88. He was the son of the late Fred Nichols and Alader (Easterwood) Barnes and was married to the late Minner Jane Muse. He attended Dixie High School. In addition to his militaryservice, Barnes worked at the former Lear-Siegler Co. in Union City and also worked in the maintenance department for the Obion County School System.
An ordained deacon at Second Baptist Church, Barnes was also a lifetime member of the Troy Masonic Lodge.
Yolanda “Lonnie” Morgan of Union City is one of Barnes’ three children. She said her father didn’t like to talk about his military service, but she did provide The Messenger with the paperwork of his Purple Heart application.
Barnes was serving with the 85th infantry division, 1st Battalion, Co. B in the Appenine Mountains in Italy on Oct. 13, 1944, when he lost his footing on a mountainside and severely injured his leg and knee. He was forced to leave the front line and was treated at a field hospital and was ultimately dispatched to a hospital in Florence, Italy. Barnes described the weather conditions as “frigid cold and snowing.”
Barnes’ Purple Heart was denied due to the required documentation being destroyed during the war, but the gold discovery remains an irrefutable element of his military service.
Barnes is also survived by two sons, Nicky Barnes of Union City and Genie Barnes of South Fulton, and a large family that includes grandchildren, great-grandchildren, a sister and a brother.
“He never talked much about it,” Nicky Barnes said. “He talked to my kids about it a little.”
“He would tell me humorous things and some of his shenanigans from the war. He talked about this incident, but very little,” he said.
Likewise, Genie Barnes said he doesn’t remember his father discussing his wartime service.
“I don’t remember him talking about it much,” Genie Barnes told The Messenger Friday. “We found the (news) clipping after he passed away.”
He said his father served in Italy and Africa during the war, and was in The Alps when Germany surrendered.
Published in The Messenger 5.27.13