Remembering Lt. Jim Barnhill and his love for flyingOct 25, 2021 02:13PM ● By Michael Melneck
An AT-16 Texan mid-flight, one of several planes Jim Barnhill flew
From an early age, Lieutenant James L. Barnhill had his eyes set on the sky.
Born in 1924 in Defiance, Ohio, as a young boy Barnhill helped his father deliver glass quart bottles of milk using a horse-drawn wagon. After graduating from high school in 1942, he went straight into the U.S. Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947). He applied and was immediately accepted into flight school.
“I never looked at another branch of service,” Barnhill, 96, said. “It was airplanes all the way.”
Flying the skies
Some of Barnhill’s pilot training was in the P-40 Warhawk, but he mostly trained in the Stearman, a slow plane with a big engine and tandem open cockpits. The instructor sat in the front cockpit with the student in the back.
“One day when we were up a few thousand feet, the instructor turned the Stearman upside-down and I was hanging by my seatbelt with my arms and feet out of the plane…When we landed, the instructor just climbed out and walked away without talking to me,” Barnhill recalled.
After 10 hours of flight training and aptitude tests, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S Army Air Corps and was assigned to pilot a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.
However, the war in Europe was winding down and Barnhill’s squadron wasn’t sent overseas. Instead, his unit was sent to Ephrata, Washington, where the bomber squadron could support America’s efforts in the Pacific theater. In 1939, Ephrata became home to one of Washington’s longest runways—ostensibly, to support the heavy bombers.
But again, no such orders ever came as the tide of World War II turned in America’s favor. Shortly after Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, World War II was finally over.
One of the highlights of Barnhill’s career as a military pilot was flying in formation with 23 other B-24s over President Roosevelt’s funeral procession. The President’s coffin was carried on a caisson from Union Station—where it had arrived by train—to the White House on April 14, 1945.
“There were our 24 B-24s and some squadrons of smaller planes,” Barnhill said. “We made four passes over the procession. I was especially proud to serve my country that day.”
If Barnhill was disappointed about not flying a combat role, he didn’t say. However, when he was offered to stay in the service and move to Panama City or leave the military and go home, he chose home.
One thing that drew Barnhill back to Ohio was the girl he told his parents was “special” in many letters home. He got that first date when he came home on leave.
“The opportunity for this date, I credit solely to the uniform,” he said.
Barnhill married Marilouise Weaner in 1947, and they remained together for nearly 67 years until he lost her in 2013.
“I had a wonderful marriage. We raised four children and have three grandchildren,” he said.
In 1950, Barnhill earned a degree in Agriculture from Ohio State.
“I didn’t think very much about a pilot’s job with a commercial airline—I had about 700 hours of flying time, and the country was getting filled with former military pilots who had 1,700 or more hours,” he said.
However, his flight career wasn’t quite over. Barnhill was an Air Cadet at Ohio State, which gave him weekend access to an AT-6 Texan, a plane normally used to train pilots.
“We used it for gunny box practice,” he said. “Great fun to keep learning. I never came close to crashing.”
With his degree, Barnhill’s next career began at Fairmont Foods. He later moved to Littleton, and worked for Leprino Cheese for many years, until he eventually ended up at Ecolab, which required a lot of travel. After too much time away from home, Barnhill “retired” at 68, but stayed active as an independent contractor for many years.
“Life became a little more normal,” Barnhill said. “But I enjoyed the military.”
Over two years ago, Barnhill moved to the Grand Valley to be closer to two of his children. In 2019, he was honored in the Grand Junction Veterans Day parade while riding in a red Chevrolet Corvette as part of “Vettes for Vets.”
The sky ultimately called Jim Barnhill home on September 7, 2021. He was laid to rest on October 6—his 97th birthday—next to Marilouise at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver. Thank you for your service, Lt. Barnhill. Fly high.