On 100th anniversary, remembering most decorated American soldier of WWI

By Steve Chapman

Charles Barger at Medal of Honor presentation: PFC
Charles Barger after being awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor in Trier Germany. Also
in the photo are Medal of Honor winners Second Lt.
Donald M. Call (top center) and First Sergeant Sydney
Gumpertz. (Submitted photo)

Charles Barger

This year, Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. As such, it is fitting to take time to remember a Lawrence County native who holds the distinction of being the most decorated American soldier to serve during that conflict: Charles Denver Barger, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Charles Barger was born on June 3, 1892, to George and Cora Staffelbach in Mt. Vernon, and he would not have an easy life. George, along with his brother Ed, was sentenced to death for the murder of Frank Gallbraith, (their sentences were later commuted to life in prison) when Charles was about six. Cora put Charles up for adoption, and he was taken in by Sidney and Phoebe Barger, of Stotts City, who gave him their surname.
Barger grew up working as a farmhand in Stotts City. He enlisted in the United States Army on April 1, 1918, and underwent his basic training at Camp Funston, Kan. He was assigned to Company L, 354th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division, which landed in France on June of 1918; Barger was promoted to Private, First Class two months later.
Barger was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Meuse-Argon Offensive on Oct. 31, 1918. Patrols had been sent out into “No-Man’s Land” (the territory between the German and the American military’s positions) and men from two of the patrols were trapped under German machine gun fire. One of the
 men from the patrol who managed to crawl to safety reported that two officers were trapped. Barger and another soldier, Corporal Jesse Funk, volunteered to rescue them. They ran 500 feet through heavy machine gun fire with a stretcher three times; the first two times were to rescue the officers, and the third time was to rescue an enlisted man they discovered on the second run. Both men were presented with the Medal of Honor by General John J. Pershing in February of 1919 in Trier, Germany.
Aside from the Medal of Honor, Barger received a number of other commendations during his military service. He was awarded the Purple Heart with the silver cluster and five bronze clusters, indicating he was wounded in battle 10 times. He also received the World War I Victory medal with three bronze stars (indicating his service in the St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector battle clasps) and the Army Occupation of Germany medal. Barger also received commendations from foreign nations as well. England awarded him the Victory Cross, France awarded him the Médaille Militaire (Military Medal) and the Croix de guerre 1914-18 (War Cross) for his gallantry in battle, and Belgium awarded him the Order of Leopold, degree of knight and the Croix de guerre with bronze palm. Italy awarded Barger with the Croce al Merito di Guerra (War Merit Cross) and Montenegro awarded him the Medal for Military Bravery.
Other awards Barger received included the Overseas Service Medal, the Medical Corps Stretcher Bearer Medal, the Life Savers Award, Red Cross, the Life Savers Medal, American Red Cross, the Life Savers Medal, French Red Cross, the Life Savers Medal, British Red Cross, and the Award of Valor from the Red Lion Society.
Barger survived the war and returned to the United States, but he had experienced shell shock and been exposed to mustard gas while in the trenches. Because of this, he had a hard time adjusting to civilian life. He found employment as a construction worker in Waco, Mo., but struggled to hold a job. He rejoined the Army in January of 1921, but was permanently discharged in July of the same year.
In March of 1921, Barger married Audrey Hurst in Hardy, Ark., and they had one son, Charles Denver Barger, Jr. The marriage didn’t last however, and Barger went on to marry Ruth Irene Bailey; they had two children: Joseph Elmer and Mabel Louise.
Barger found work as a Kansas City police officer in January of 1922. It was the Prohibition Era, and Barger and another officer, Howard Pollard were dispatched to round up two men suspected of bootlegging alcohol; one of them was also suspected of murder.
The men decided to shoot it out with Barger and Pollard. Both Pollard and Barger were wounded; Barger a total of five times, including once in the head. However, Barger returned fire and wounded both suspects. One of the men managed to flee, but the other was taken into custody; he later died of his injuries.
Physically, Barger recovered from most of his wounds, but the head wound took its toll, and so did his trauma from the war. His mind and body both deteriorated, and he was let go from the police department in 1934.
In the spring of 1936, he moved to a farm about four miles outside of Oak Grove and found work in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Blue Springs.
Barger’s turbulent life came to an end about six months later. On Nov. 23, police were called to his farm, where he was found wielding a large knife and setting fire to his house. He’d also attempted to cut his own throat, as evidenced by three self-inflicted wounds.
As police tried to arrest Barger, he leapt at him with his knife; an officer shot him, wounding him in the thigh. The wound was not life threatening, however, Barger died two days later at the Kansas City General Hospital from third-degree burns he suffered while trying to set his house on fire. He was buried at Blue Springs Cemetery.
After Barger’s death, a reporter friend of his wrote that Barger’s life might have turned out differently if the government had been willing to help him. The article appeared in the Kansas City Star on Nov. 28, 1936.
“That the breakdown was due to his war experience, no comrade of Charles Barger would deny,” the reporter wrote. “Yet, through the years, every effort made by the veterans’ organizations to persuade the government that sent him to war to admit responsibility for his mental condition ended in failure. There was no ‘proof,’ in cold language, that his suffering was connected with his service. Charles Barger remained a name and a case number.”
Not long after the war, Funk would recount his memories of Barger to a reporter for the Denver Post. His words accurately described Barger’s character.
“He came from down at Stotts City, Missouri, and he’d never had much of a chance in life,” Funk told the reporter. “He was an automatic Chauchat gunner; I was his carrier, and I used to write his letters for him, and I got to know him pretty well. He was scared, too—just as badly scared as any of us, but he had the grit to put it all behind him, and what was more, he’d force it down so far that he could cheer up the other fellows. Believe me, he sure had grit, and I’m proud to have been the running mate of a man that had as much fight in him as he had.”


Lawrence County Record

312 S. Hickory St.
Mt. Vernon, MO, 65712


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