Speakers at a 1920 dedication said the Medford airfield south of the city would “permanently and perpetually honor” Medford pilot Newell Barber, who was killed when his plane was shot down in World War I. Barely 10 years later, the airport moved; today it’s a commercial development site. - Bill Miller

Treading on heroic soil

From 5,000 feet, the atmosphere was hazy as Newell Barber and his French observer scanned the countryside.

The bombing run on enemy trenches near the Belgium border in 1918 had been successful and, although they still were behind German lines, soon they would land on the Allied airfield in Noyon, France.

Barber and the Frenchman once again had volunteered for another daylight bombing raid. The Frenchman already had flown the 100 hours that gave him the right to stop combat flying, but at the morning call for volunteers, his hand had been one of the first to go up.

Now, five miles from safety, they were being harassed by German planes, and below, flashes of light and the unmistakable muffled sound of anti-aircraft guns. A bullet, a shell or a fragment, ripped through a wing. The plane lurched and then rolled over and began to fall.

Two weeks before Woodrow Wilson asked Congress on April 2, 1917, for a declaration of war, Barber, age 17, had closed his books at Medford High School and enlisted in the Army's Aviation Corps.

As he and 13 others boarded the evening train at the Medford depot in March 1917, Barber kissed his mother and told her not to worry.

"If I should go," he said, "I want you to know that I go as a true American. I am not a slacker. I am not afraid."

After his training in San Diego, and not long after his 18th birthday, Barber was sent to Europe to fly with the French in the 108th Aero Squadron. On Aug. 11, 1918, he and his French observer were shot down.

For nearly a month his parents, Dr. Martin and Theresa Barber, waited for official word. The doctor consoled his wife and said he believed Newell was just a German prisoner and under the rules of war they soon would find out he had survived.

But a letter suggesting otherwise from Newell's commander arrived in early September 1918.

"It was impossible for us to follow him down," it said. "We were having combat with a superior number of planes. ... I have waited before writing, hoping that some word would reach us, but up to this time I have heard nothing."

While standing in the Medford post office, the doctor burst into tears. Crushing the letter between his quivering hands, he slowly fell to his knees.

Two years later, on Sept. 6, 1920, the first airfield built in Oregon was dedicated as Newell Barber Field in Medford, adjacent to the county fairgrounds.

Dr. and Mrs. Barber heard the day's featured speaker eulogize their son.

"We honor this spot with a name made forever glorious by the life and death of a hero," he said.

"It is well that our children and their children yet unborn, should have constantly before them a reminder that they tread on heroic soil, that here, under these skies, in the shadow of these mountains, there lived and grew to young manhood, a hero."

For his service, Newell Barber posthumously received the French Croix de Guerre, but his body was never recovered.

As for the airfield they said would "permanently and perpetually honor his name," in little more than a decade, it was gone. The airport, which could not be expanded at Newell Barber Field, was moved to its current location off Biddle Road. The former airfield is now a shopping center and commercial development site.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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