Ralph Waldo Barnes was born on June 14, 1899 in Salem, Oregon to Edward Talbot Barnes and Mabel Nancy Baker Barnes. Barnes attended local public schools and graduated from Salem High School in 1917. The summer after graduation Barnes took military training at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin. He returned to Salem in the fall of 1918 to begin studies at Willamette University, but his studies were interrupted when his military reserve unit was called for training at Fort McArthur in Waco, Texas. He returned to Willamette and graduated in 1922 with a degree in history. After receiving a Master’s degree in Economics from Harvard University, Barnes returned to Salem to marry his longtime sweetheart, Esther Parounagian, who had graduated from Willamette in 1923.
In 1924, Barnes and Esther moved to New York City where he found a job working for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A brief stretch with the Evening World allowed Barnes to leverage himself into a position with the New York Herald Tribune, which he held from 1924 until his death in 1940.
His first assignment as a foreign correspondent took him to Paris, France in 1926. In 1930 Barnes was given a promotion and transferred to Rome, Italy where he reported under the rule of Benito Mussolini. In May of 1930, Esther gave birth to a daughter named Joan in Italy. Almost a year later, Barnes was transferred to Russia during the height of Joseph Stalin’s government. He was assigned to the Moscow bureau where he reported from 1931 to 1935. Barnes was an avid reader and heavily supplemented his news reporting with background research. During his first month in Moscow, he wrote to his father “My Britannica is not here yet; hope to have it within a couple of weeks; for, without it, I feel like a nearsighted man who has lost his spectacles.” In the fall of 1931, a second daughter, Suzanne, was born while Esther and Joan were in Paris.
Barnes was conscious of his unique position in Russia, “Here I’m one of a few observers of what is undoubtedly the most important experiment of this century; and perhaps for several centuries; either for good or bad.” He carried this perspective to each of his subsequent posts throughout Europe.
Barnes left Moscow to take over the Berlin, Germany bureau in 1935 and spent four years under the rule of Adolph Hitler. In March of 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, he was offered a position as head of the London bureau in England. In 1940, Barnes returned to Berlin to report on the war. On June 21, 1940 he was expelled from Berlin for a story that government censors found abrasive. Due to escalating tensions in Europe, a few weeks earlier on June 2, Esther, Joan, and Suzanne returned to New York from Dublin, Ireland, via the ship the U.S.S. Roosevelt.
Disheartened by his expulsion, Barnes questioned his ability to continue reporting. However, he did not give up his career, traveling from Berlin to Budapest, Hungary and then on to Bucharest, Romania and eventually Egypt. In Egypt, Barnes became an official war correspondent and was stationed with the British Army. When Italy invaded Greece, Barnes and the other correspondents accompanied the British forces to Greece on a warship. On November 17, 1940 Barnes was given permission to accompany the Royal Air Force (RAF) on a night raid. Weather conditions drove the plane off course, causing it to crash into a mountain range in Yugoslavia, killing all on board. Barnes was the first war correspondent to be killed in WWII. He was buried with military honors in Yugoslavia. Leland Stowe, a longtime friend and colleague of Barnes, wrote an obituary in which he quoted a war correspondent also assigned to the RAF, “Ralph always wanted to know everything about everything. He had to see for himself. He always asked more questions than the rest of us put together. Out in the desert he got interested in the stars, so he bought several books on astronomy as soon as he got back to Cairo. Of course, he was a veteran and we were lots of us younger than he, but he could never get over his enthusiasm.” Three years after his death, a Liberty ship was christened the S.S. Ralph Barnes in his honor.
Esther raised her two daughters in Salem and married Chester Downs in 1946. Esther died in 1985 and is buried in Salem, Oregon.