A physicist and scientist who worked at Corning Glass for 40 years, Willis Barney hadn’t thought much lately about World War II—until November 6, 2015, when he received the Chevalier, France’s Legion of Honor medal, at a ceremony in New York City. The experience of receiving this distinction at 93, along with 20 other WWII veterans, has brought back a flood of memories.
A native of Syracuse, New York, Barney enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and served as a radio operator on a B-17 Flying Fortress. He flew 35 missions, some over France, but mostly over Germany as the Allies pushed back against the Nazis in fights including the Battle of the Bulge.
Flying these missions was a grueling experience involving “eight or nine hours in the air at 25,000 to 30,000 feet, in a heated suit with oxygen,” he says. “It was tough to move around. It was cold, and people were shooting at you.”
“We flew in formation, but if we lost an engine, we would be all by ourselves. The radio equipment allowed us to communicate with [our Allies in] Europe,” he recalls. “If you were separated, the Germans would pounce on you. It happened several times.”
“After the mission it was disturbing to know you had to turn around and go through the whole thing again,” he adds. His body and mind did acclimate after a while, though, and he did not sustain any injuries during the war, a remarkable feat since his plane always came back with bullet holes.
While Barney was stationed overseas, his fiancée, Elsa, was finishing a degree in geology at Syracuse University. She wanted to pursue graduate work at MIT, so she sent an undergraduate application to Barney, who had interrupted his studies at Clarkson University to serve overseas. He and Elsa moved to Cambridge in 1945 to start classes. The development of the atomic bomb had intrigued him and drew him to the field of physics.
After they earned their degrees—Elsa received a master’s in earth and planetary science in 1947—Barney began his scientific career at Corning Glass in Corning, New York. Together, the couple raised four children.
At Corning, Barney’s research focused on electrical properties of glass and glass ceramics; he retired in 1998 as one of the company’s top scientists. In retirement, he coached high school tennis for 15 years, and he continues to play tennis and coach veterans at the VA Center in Bath, New York.
Although Elsa died in 2000, all four children were present when Barney received his Chevalier medal (rank of Knight) on Veterans Day last year. The three-hour ceremony was very personal, he says: “The French are grateful.” Each citation is read by a French high school student, who later, after pinning on the medal, kisses the recipient on both cheeks. “I’m very proud and glad that I participated,” he says.