CEDAR — In his 1951 speech before Congress, Gen. Douglas MacArthur quoted an old army ballad, saying, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." Col. John Barton "Bart" Collings faded away Nov. 24, 2012 after an amazing life full of history spanning 98 years.
Col. Collings spent the majority of his last 40 years in Leelanau County raising rainbow trout in Solon Township. He ran the Alpine Trout Ponds until 2002 when he retired at 89. Many hundreds of people came to fish the ponds over the years. Most were avid trout lovers; but many also came in the hopes of hearing the stories "The Col" would tell of an extraordinary life. At times people would ask themselves, "Can all this be true? Can one person have experienced this much history in his life?"
A few were invited to see the evidence as much of it had been chronicled in a large scrapbook that the Col's father had assembled.
John Barton Collings was born in Detroit on May 18, 1914 to John Henry Beckett Collings and Helen Spiece Collings. He attended Howe Military Academy through sixth grade and transferred to Cranbrook School for Boys in Bloomfield Hills in the seventh grade as one of its charter students.
He graduated from Cranbrook in 1933. During the 1920's and 1930's, he spent his boyhood summers in Leelanau at his family's cottage on Glen Lake. He attended Michigan State University where he was on the college wrestling team. While at Michigan State, he was known as a rabble rouser and was a ring leader in one of the first student riots in the United States. The UAW was trying to shut down East Lansing businesses and restaurants. Bart led several thousand students in a revolt against the union, blocking the union leaders from entering East Lansing. The group threw the Union bosses into the Red Cedar River and kept East Lansing open. While attending college, Collings took ROTC training and joined the Horse Cavalry, which later became the Armored Division.
Tall, intelligent and tough talking, with a square jaw and a military bearing, Bart caught the eye of visiting Gen. Willis D. Crittenberger, a close friend of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. After Bart graduated, Gen. Crittenberger arranged to have him assigned as his aide at Fort Benning, Ga. During his time there, he was loaned as an aide to a senior general by the name of George Patton. Bart served Gen. Patton for six months. Col. Collings would often reflect that Gen. Patton was a "tough SOB" who had a high pitched voice and would command then Capt. Collings to "be wherever I am going to be, before I even know I have to be there."
Bart Collings trained as a parachutist and entered World War II by parachuting into North Africa with Gen. Mark Clark's 5th Army. He then participated in the invasion of Italy landing in Anzio and driving the German Army out of the Italian peninsula. During the Italian campaign, Bart was awarded the Bronze Star for Heroism and was promoted to major.
Maj. Collings transferred to Gen. Patton's unit and pushed through to Germany where he was involved in liberating the concentration camp at Buchenwald. As the war was ending, he became the acting military governor of Erfurt, Germany with responsibility for relocating the survivors of Buchenwald, many of whom were Russians.
During this time, he met his first wife, Nathalie Sergueiew, who was assigned as his interpreter. Lily had been born in Russia prior to the Bolshevik revolution and in 1917 had fled with her family from St. Petersburg to Paris to escape assassination. During the war Lily had worked as a double agent, starting first with the German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr. She was sent to England where she immediately offered her services to the British. She became part of Operation Fortitude which was set up to deceive the Germans into believing the Allied D-Day Invasion would land at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. The Germans fell for the deception and kept their main forces at Calais while the Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy.
Her story has recently been published in a new book entitled, Double Cross, by Ben MacIntyre. Bart and Lily were married in Paris in 1946.
Maj. Collings was also assigned to the Historical Division to write the history of World War II from the German officers' perspective. Collings interviewed many of the commanding German generals on their orders and missions during the war. After his tour he returned with his wife to Leelanau Country for the next four years. Lily died in 1951 of kidney failure.
Collings later married June Alice Lake from Grand Rapids. He went back on active duty as a Lt. Col. and in 1952 was assigned as a military advisor to Gen. Chiang kai-shek in Formosa (Taiwan) where he spent two years helping to train the Chinese Nationalist Army. Chiang had fled communist forces in mainland China in 1950 and established Nationalist China in Formosa. The United States immediately recognized Formosa and sent military equipment and advisors there. His wife and children joined him in 1953.
In 1956, Lt. Col. Collings was transferred to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. to work on the Redstone Missile guidance system under Dr. Wernher von Braun, the developer of the German V-2 rockets.
Collings was trained in the development of missile systems and spent the next several years in the only space program then active in the U. S.
The Army Ballistic Military Agency (ABMA) would have put up the first satellite in 1956 with the Jupiter C rocket if the U.S. Government had allowed it. As it was, the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957 to the great embarrassment of the United States. In January 1958, the ABMA launched the first US satellite, the Exporer I on a Jupiter C. Shortly thereafter, the government cancelled the ABMA and created NASA to manage the U.S. space program.
Following a promotion to a full colonel, Collings' next assignment was to serve as a military advisor to the Shah of Iran in Teheran, Iran. He and his family lived in Teheran for two years. As an artillery officer, Col. Collings' role was to train the Iranians in the use of heavy weapons. Of all his military assignments, this was his least favorite. He found the Iranian's military undisciplined and difficult.
The Colonel ended his military career as Post Commander of Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio in 1962. He turned down a promotion to Brig. Gen. with another tour. Instead he moved his family back to his home in Leelanau County.
The Colonel then built and operated the Alpine Trout Ponds in Solon Township. He sold rainbow trout around northern Michigan as well as opening his ponds for public fishing. He also personally built all of the chalet type buildings on the property. He often stated that his time in Leelanau were the most peaceful years of his life.
The Colonel was also an advocate of holding the government accountable for fair and reasonable taxation. In the 1970's with property taxes increasing dramatically, he helped organize Leelanau County and other northern counties to protest against the State Tax Tribunal for their assessment practices. He was a proponent of the Headlee Amendment that limited property tax increases to the inflation rate. It is still in force.
Col. Collings is survived by his three children, J. B. Collings, Jr. of Traverse City, Michele Jimeson of Grand Rapids and Toubo Collings of Oakland, Calif.; two grandchildren, Nicolette Sakata of Seattle, Wash. and James Behne of Cedar as well as one great grandchild, Kasey Sakata.
A service to honor and celebrate Col. Collings life will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home where friends may being calling at 1 p.m. Burial will be in Solon Township Cemetery with military rites.
The family would request that Col. Collings be remembered through memorial donations to Cherryland Humane Society, 1750 Ahlberg Road, Traverse City, 49686. Please share memories, thoughts and condolences with the family by way of the Colonel's on line guest book at www.reynolds-jonkhoff.com
The family is being served by Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home and Cremation Services.