Mystery has always surrounded the military service of a rural Bayfield farmer who fought in World War II. And the plot thickened even further on Father's Day, when a woman in France contacted Ronald J. Barningham's daughter Pam Barningham to say she had found his dog tags in Normandy.
"We didn't even know he was in Normandy," Pam Barningham said.
The family knew Barningham was a marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps during the worldwide conflict, but he shared few
details of his service and they have no clue as to how he could possibly have lost his dog tags in Normandy, where the Allies invaded France in their long march toward Berlin and Adolf Hitler's headquarters.
Further confusing matters: The Marines never fought on mainland Europe. They spent World War II hopping their way across islands in the Pacific — though a handful of Marines did operate as members of the CIA's precursor, conducting covert operations behind enemy lines.
To add to the enigma, the dog tag was found crimped in the middle as if it had been placed between a dead soldier's jaws to keep it in place for later identification of the body.
Ronald Barningham decidedly didn't die in France, and his family still is trying to unravel the mystery of how the man they knew as a Marine came to be in Normandy, maybe on D-Day.
Army vs. Marines
Ronald Barningham was born on Christmas Eve, 1912, in Bayfield. Lying about his age, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 17, Pam Barningham said.
Little is known about his duties; he withheld details about his service in his weekly messages home, comprising three or four mostly illegible sentences to his mother. But according to family lore, he never failed to mail money to her — except once. She promptly wrote a letter to the president of the United States, demanding to know what was wrong.
Word reached Barningham about the oversight, and he quickly mailed the money, said his 68-year-old daughter, Peggy Boyd.
After that, Barningham's history gets even foggier. His family believes he was in the service continually after enlisting. How he ended up in going from the Army to the Marine Corps is anyone's guess.
In fact, his obituary said he was first in the Marines and then the Army, but family lore says otherwise.
According to surviving military separation documents, he was inducted into the Marines on May 8, 1942, which would have made him 29 years old, as a private first class. He left the service on Nov. 9, 1945, returned home, and — according to Pam and Peggy's aunts — retired to a rocking chair upstairs in the family farmhouse and didn't speak for the next two years.
But Barningham did finally emerge from his stupor to marry, have four children and take up farming vegetables, fruits and berries at Valley View Orchard, the farm he bought from his father, in the hills above Bayfield.
Gradually, Barningham started to reveal some of the more pleasant aspects of his service, said 59-year-old Pam, who is the baby of the family. He had been especially proud to play the bugle in the service.
"That was one of the things he did talk a lot about — playing Taps," she said. "That was a happy thing for him"
Pam also recalled her father's love of animals. He refused to kill any animals at all, not even to spare his crops from the ravages of deer, and regretted having to abandon a horse he had gotten from a German soldier during his service.
Although Barningham had begun to open up, his years in the military continued to take their toll in the days before post-traumatic stress disorder was recognized as a diagnosable condition.
Pam remembers well the fear she and her siblings felt when they heard her father cry out in night terrors.
"Sometimes he'd wake up bloody from hitting the end table or something," she said. "That's when you knew he was in battle."
But where exactly did he fight the battles of World War II? All he said was he had traveled the world, Pam said.
Link to France
Isabelle Busnel's discovery of Barningham's dog tag in 2014 shed some light on his travels, even if it stirred up more questions about his service.
Busnel, who lives in Carneville next to Cherbourg in Normandy, discovered the tag with a metal detector in Maupertus-sur-Mer.
In the midst of a job change, the 42-year-old didn't have time to track down information about Barningham right away, but she identified him from his service number on the dog tag and finally found Pam on Facebook. After sending Pam a message, Busnel said she waited for weeks to hear word back.
Pam said she typically never responds to messages from strangers on Facebook, but for some reason she opened Busnel's on Father's Day.
"Out came this picture of my dad's dog tag," she said.
Busnel learned to her delight that the soldier had survived the war and had created a "beautiful and happy family." Within two weeks she got Barningham's dog tags in his family's hands.
Barningham, who died of Alzheimer's in 1999 when he was 86, can no longer provide answers to the mystery, but with his dog tags in hand, Pam and Peggy are busy filing paper work to get the decorations he earned, including a Good Conduct Medal.
However nothing compares to the delight the family felt after receiving their patriarch's dog tags.
"We were blessed," Pam said. "We felt very blessed. Dad came home."