I like the phrase, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” and I think it applies to the preservation of our history, too. Here in Fulton we’re lucky to have mainstays like the Friends of Fulton History and The Fulton Public Library that work to preserve our proud past. Along with those organizations we also have individuals who are keeping our history alive. One of them is teacher Bill Cahill.
I got to know Bill when he invited me into his Volney sixth grade classroom to discuss the history of Fulton’s Nestlé plant. While he and I were planning how best to inform his students about our former chocolate factory, Bill told me about a history project that he’s been involved with for years: the story of World War II hero Carlton Barrett.
I’d never heard of Barrett, but after learning his story I understand Bill’s interest in keeping alive this Fultonian’s contributions to our country. Bill explained how he first learned about Mr. Barrett: “My fellow teacher at Fairgrieve, Rick Bush, had heard about Barrett’s actions during WWII battles and that he had earned the Medal of Honor.”
I had to be reminded of the rare circumstances in which someone receives a Medal of Honor. Established in 1861, this highest of tributes is reserved for those who served in our military “in action against an enemy force” and includes a presentation by the President. Among the millions of men and women who served our country in war, only 3,500 have received the Medal of Honor. One of them is Fultonian Carlton Barrett and here is his story:
In 1940, before graduating high school, Barrett enlisted in the Army. Following four years of training and just shy of his twenty-first birthday, Private Barrett found himself in what many consider the longest day of an American war, June 6, 1944. D-Day.
Stationed in France, in the middle of the Normandy Invasion, Barrett was working as a field guide, a soldier who helps coordinate troops and communications. Though his assigned duties sound somewhat removed from the throes of battle, what Barrett experienced on that day was anything but routine. The citation given when Barrett received his Medal of Honor explained:
“On the morning of D-Day, Pvt. Barrett, landing in the face of extremely heavy enemy fire, was forced to wade ashore through neck-deep water. Disregarding the personal danger, he returned to the surf again and again to assist his floundering comrades and save them from drowning. Refusing to remain pinned down by the intense barrage of small-arms and mortar fire poured at the landing points, Pvt. Barrett, working with fierce determination, saved many lives by carrying casualties to an evacuation boat lying offshore.
“In addition to his assigned mission as guide, he carried dispatches the length of the fire-swept beach; he assisted the wounded; he calmed the shocked; he arose as a leader in the stress of the occasion. His coolness and his dauntless daring courage while constantly risking his life during a period of many hours had an inestimable effect on his comrades and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.”
Certainly Barrett’s achievements on that day are worthy of honor, but what the citation did not mention was that he accomplished all this while he was wounded. Though shot or hit with shrapnel in both hips and a left leg, it wasn’t until a fourth bullet hit his foot and shattered bones that he finally agreed to be evacuated off the beach.
Out of over 150,000 soldiers who were involved in the D-Day efforts, Barrett was one of four Medal of Honor recipients. Of the four, he was the lone survivor, though his recovery was delayed by two bouts of malaria and a five-month hospital stay. Anyone would have understood had Barrett then retired from military service, but he continued to serve our country for another 19 years, retiring in 1963.
Like many soldiers who endured the horrors of wartime, Barrett never wanted to talk about his D-Day experiences. He also never thought of himself as any more of a hero than the soldiers he fought alongside. “It was after [D-Day] that I knew what a hero really is,” Barrett once stated. “They are all heroes just for being there—especially those that never came back.”
Barrett’s dedication and Medal of Honor worthiness may have all been forgotten when he died in 1986, but that’s where teachers like Bill Cahill can make a difference. Once he heard Barrett’s story, Cahill pledged to make sure his students would know of their fellow Fultonian’s heroic behavior.
Each spring, since 2016, Bill and Lanigan sixth grade teacher and US Air Force Veteran Holly Rhoads utilize a DVD series from the Medal of Honor Society that includes lesson plans about Medal recipients. Students learn that a Fultonian is among those who earned the medal by reading an essay about Barrett written by Cahill and based on research by Volney school parent Carolyn Zimmerman. They are then asked to write their own essay using this first sentence starter: “As a fellow Fultonian, I am proud of Carlton W. Barrett’s actions on June 6th, 1944, because…”
The students’ essays are collected and reviewed by their teachers, with several selected to represent the opinions of these youngsters. They then ride on a float in our city’s Memorial Day parade to Recreation Park and read their essays to an audience.
When asked why he puts the effort into this project, Bill said, “It’s important for our students to realize their city has a proud history and, as active citizens, they will be agents of change that brings back that pride.”
Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, and here in our village we have teachers like Bill Cahill, Holly Rhoads and Rick Bush to accomplish that. We are fortunate.