Military and Defense

Medal of Honor Monday: Army Col. Van T. Barfoot

Army Col. Van Thomas Barfoot is one of 33 men of Native American heritage to earn the Medal of Honor. During World War II’s hard-fought Battle of Anzio in Italy, Barfoot was credited with killing eight enemy soldiers and capturing twice as many during a small-town skirmish. Later, he would go on to help build up the Army’s aviation branch.  

Barfoot was born on June 15, 1919, in rural Edinburg, Mississippi, to Sim and Martha Barfoot. He had eight siblings — two older brothers and three older sisters, as well as three younger sisters. Since his maternal grandmother was a member of the Choctaw Nation, he had Native American lineage. 

Barfoot grew up on his family’s farm, which produced cotton and corn. He spent a lot of time working the land and didn’t finish high school. Instead, he said he went to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps, which also offered educational camps. Through those programs, he earned his high school diploma.  

Barfoot joined the Army in March 1940. He said after listening to war stories while in the CCC and paying close attention to the news, he determined the U.S. would likely get involved in World War II. He said he wanted to choose what job he got in the military, so he opted to enlist instead of being drafted.  

Barfoot moved around the country for training and was a sergeant serving at Quantico, Virginia, when the attacks at Pearl Harbor happened. He was eventually placed with the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division, and sent to Europe in 1943.  

Barfoot said he saw his first action in combat during the first few days of the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Later, his division landed in Salerno on Italy’s mainland, where they faced a tough fight to move north toward central Italy through rugged mountains.  

In a 2002 Library of Congress Veterans History Project interview, Barfoot said he gained a lot of experience during those first few months of fighting, leading patrols that made him a seasoned soldier. Now a platoon sergeant, he said he received the Silver Star for leading a patrol into enemy territory and winning the day. 

By January 1944, Allied units were struggling to move through central Italy, so plans were drawn up to circumvent the area by landing more troops at Anzio Beach, just south of Rome. That battle began in late January, and Barfoot’s unit took part in the landings.  

The 45th Infantry Division eventually pushed its way inland. By May, Barfoot’s unit had reached the small town of Carano, where he was able to do numerous patrols that familiarized him with the terrain and taught him where the minefields were near the German positions.  

On May 23, 1944, then-Tech. Sgt. Barfoot’s platoon became heavily engaged with well-entrenched German forces. Knowing the terrain from his patrols, Barfoot said he asked permission to move alone toward the enemy’s left flank, where he crawled close enough to a machine gun nest to throw a hand grenade in it, killing two and wounding three enemy soldiers.  

After that, he continued along the German defensive line to another machine gun nest, taking out another two soldiers and capturing three more using his submachine gun. Soldiers at a third enemy machine gun nest saw what happened and abandoned their position, giving themselves up to Barfoot.  

“I, of course, had them stand up on the outside of the trench and signaled my squad that had left me back at the first machine gun position to take them,” Barfoot remembered in his LOC interview. 

From there, Barfoot continued to take out enemy positions in the immediate area, capturing more prisoners.  

During a lull in the day, Barfoot reorganized his men and consolidated their newly captured ground. Eventually, the enemy launched a fierce armored counterattack aimed directly at his platoon’s positions.  

“We heard tanks moving across under a railroad track,” Barfoot remembered. “I knew we weren’t any match against any one of the three tanks we saw coming, so I ordered the people with me [to get] back in the ditch.” 

Barfoot grabbed a bazooka and moved directly into the line of sight of the three enemy Mark VI tanks. From about 75 yards away, he fired, destroying the track of the lead tank and disabling it. As the tank’s enemy soldiers tried to escape, Barfoot used his submachine gun to take out three of them. 

Meanwhile, the other two tanks immediately changed direction. Barfoot said he thought one was hit by artillery and the other was hit by U.S. tanks.  

Barfoot wasn’t done yet, though. He continued moving into enemy terrain and destroyed a newly abandoned German fieldpiece by placing a demolition charge in the breech.  

Greatly fatigued by this point, Barfoot headed back to his platoon’s position, but not before helping two seriously wounded comrades get about 1,700 yards to an aid station.  

By the end of the battle, Barfoot was credited with killing eight and capturing 17 enemy soldiers. His determination and heroism inspired the men around him, and it earned him a battlefield commission to second lieutenant.  

Barfoot’s division had moved on to southern France before he learned he’d be getting the Medal of Honor. He said that news came as a big surprise.  

“I didn’t think I’d done anything extraordinary. I felt this is what a soldier’s supposed to do,” he said in 2002. “As a leader, I felt I had to protect the people that were with me when I knew what was there and they didn’t know what was there. I knew I could handle the situation.” 

Shortly after the announcement, he said he was pulled out of combat. A few days later, on Sept. 28, 1944, Barfoot was awarded the high honor during a ceremony in Epinal, France. 

Before 1944 ended, Barfoot returned to the U.S. and married his fiancée, Norma Davis. They went on to have three sons and a daughter. 

Barfoot continued to serve in the Army for three more decades. In 1960, he completed flight training as a major at the age of 40 to become a helicopter pilot. 

During Vietnam, Barfoot served a stint as the Army’s deputy aviation officer. The Army was in need of close-air support to help cover ground troops, so its aviation branch was created, with Barfoot’s help. During his own deployment to Vietnam, Barfoot flew 177 combat hours. According to his obituary in Virginia’s Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper, he earned 11 Air Medals in the span of two years. His influence and support in the creation of the service’s aviation branch helped him earn a spot in the Army Aviation Hall of Fame at Fort Novosel (formerly Fort Rucker), Alabama.  

Barfoot also served two stints as an advisor to the Virginia National Guard. In the 1950s, he played that role for the 116th Infantry Regiment. Later, he was the senior Army advisor to the entire Virginia National Guard until his retirement as a colonel in 1974.  

Barfoot and his family settled in the Richmond, Virginia, area, first on a farm in Amelia County before moving to Henrico County to be closer to his daughter.  

In 2009, Barfoot received national attention for a more civil battle between him and his homeowners’ association. Barfoot had placed a 21-foot flagpole in his yard to display the U.S. flag, but the homeowners’ association wanted him to take it down, threatening legal action when he refused. The association eventually backed down when Barfoot received support from senators, a former Virginia governor and other leaders and veterans, his obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch said. 

Barfoot was very active in his church and in the veteran community until his death on March 2, 2012. His daughter told newspapers that he fell outside of his front door and hit his head on bricks, which fractured his skull and caused a brain bleed. Barfoot is buried in Smithers Cemetery in Mathews, Virginia.  

Barfoot’s legacy is being remembered in many ways. A portion of a highway near his place of birth in Mississippi is dedicated in his honor. There is also a Sitter & Barfoot Veterans Care Center in Richmond. 

But perhaps there may be no bigger honor than the one dedicated to him in March 2023, when the Virginia National Guard’s Fort Pickett was officially redesignated Fort Barfoot. 

“May all soldiers who train and serve here at Fort Barfoot, both now and for generations to come, do so in the same spirit of leadership, loyalty and selfless service to their fellow soldiers and their nation,” Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen said during the renaming ceremony. “May we all be able to think and execute quickly under that kind of pressure — and find the personal courage when the moment calls us to do so — as Van Barfoot did without hesitation.” 

This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Source: Department of Defense

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Katie Lange

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Katie Lange

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