The entrance to Berkshire Natural Resources Council's Barrett Reserve West in Great Barrington is an unmarked driveway off Locust Hill Road. I parked at a small grassy space and walked the dirt roadway through the white pine forest. There were occasional stands of deciduous trees after I went by the hunting camp and small pond. The road turned into a tractor track then into a deer path. I almost turned back at the grove of blackberry bushes, but found where others (deer, anyway) had gone around. When I finally turned back, I lost the trail. But logic said to follow the water, and the stream brought me back to a culvert and the road.
I'd had a little adventure, though it was nothing compared to the adventures of the Barrett I knew best, William F. Jr.
Bill's father, William Felton Barrett (1886-1955), who lived in New York and at Sky Farm, as the Locust Hill Road property was called (the house is not part of the preserve), was chairman of the board of Carbide & Carbon Chemicals and Prest-o-Lite; president of Linde Air Products; and a director of Dominion Mines & Quarries, Bakelite, National Carbon, Michigan Northern Power and United Chromium.
Early supporters of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, Barrett and his wife, Margery (Barker), had three sons. Bill Jr. (1916-2004), a graduate of The Hotchkiss School and Yale, joined the Navy and was skipper of a motor torpedo (PT) boat and engineer officer of his squadron during World War II.
John F. Kennedy commanded PT 109 in the squadron. Barrett was on PT107 in action against enemy destroyers, barges and dive-bomber and fighter-planes in the South Pacific. "He suffered a broken eardrum from gunfire concussion and spent a month in Munda and Guadalcanal hospitals," The Berkshire Courier said in January 1944.
In 1960, Gen. Douglas MacArthur took a potshot at presidential nominee Kennedy, saying Kennedy should have been court-martialed for lingering at the scene of action and jeopardizing his PT boat, which was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy, though injured, rescued all but two of his crewmen. Barrett came to Kennedy's defense in a story in The Courier in July 1960. Barrett said Kennedy's boat had not yet fired all its torpedoes when struck by enemy fire, and he was justified in his actions.
"I happened to be commanding officer aboard PT107," Barrett said, "on the night of August 1 and 2, the dates concerned herein, and my boat was one of 15 PTs that were ordered out to try to halt the Japanese troop movement, by sea, at Kolombangara in the New Georgia group of the Solomon Islands. Jack commanded PT109, and his boat, too, had already seen considerable combat action in the area against enemy aircraft, landing barges, shore installations and surface craft.
"During the action, we were stationed across Blackett Strait and the approaches to Kolombangara and Munda, arriving soon after nightfall. It was obvious that the enemy knew we were there. Soon after arriving on station, their planes began to drop flares to guide their surface craft, and we were subjected to steady strafing and bombing by their so-called ‘daisy-cutters,' an ingenious device which would explode several feet above the water and lay out an almost horizontal barrage of bomb fragments."
Inspired by Barrett's defense of JFK, Chandler Whipple of Egremont (and later Great Barrington) wrote a book about Kennedy and the PTs. "Lt. John F. Kennedy -- Expendable" came out in March 1962. Whipple credited Barrett with providing material for the book.
Bill left the military for civilian life in Great Barrington. He founded Berkshire Engineering Corp. and Green River Lumber. But the pull of adventure remained, and he showed up in another book, "Weird & Tragic Shores" by Chauncey C. Loomis of Lenox, the story of Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall. Hall, who had been a member of the Sir John Franklin expedition, died in 1871 while on the Polaris expedition to the Arctic.
Barrett belonged to the Explorers Club. He was a member (along with Dr. Franklin Paddock of Pittsfield and Loomis) of an expedition in 1968 to locate and autopsy Hall's body in Greenland to determine if he had died of natural causes or had, perhaps, been murdered. Paddock identified quantities of arsenic in his body -- perhaps he was poisoned, perhaps he was self-medicating with the wrong stuff.
Bill Barrett and his wife, Catherine, lived at Sky Farm, and raised a family of one daughter and four sons. A Great Barrington selectman and member of the Great Barrington Planning Board for 33 years, he knew of my interest in history and gave me a paperback copy of Whipple's book. He wrote a note on cardboard that is tucked inside. To go with it, I found an inscribed copy of the Loomis book at a Lenox Library book sale. That's my Barrett library.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.