Van Thomas Barfoot (born Van Thurman Barfoot; 15 June 1919 to 02 March 2012) was a United States Army officer and a recipient of the United States military’s highest decoration – the Medal of Honour – for his actions in World War II.
Barfoot was born on 15 June 1919, in Edinburg, Mississippi. His grandmother was Choctaw, but Barfoot himself was not an official member of the Choctaw Nation; although he was eligible, his parents never enrolled him.
After enlisting in the Army from Carthage, Mississippi, in 1940 and completing his training, Barfoot served with the 1st Infantry Division in Louisiana and Puerto Rico. In December 1941, he was promoted to sergeant and reassigned to the Headquarters Amphibious Force Atlantic Fleet in Quantico, Virginia, where he served until the unit was deactivated in 1943. He next joined the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, and was shipped to Europe.
World War II
During the Italian Campaign Barfoot participated in a series of amphibious landings: the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno in September 1943, and finally the landings at Anzio in late January 1944. His unit pushed inland from Anzio, and by May 1944 had reached the small town of Carano in southern Italy, in the province of Latina. They set up defensive positions and Barfoot conducted patrols to scout the German lines. When his company was ordered to attack on the morning of 23 May 1944, Barfoot, now a technical sergeant, asked for permission to lead a squad. Because of the patrols he had made, he knew the terrain and the minefield which lay in front of the German position. He advanced alone through the minefield, following ditches and depressions, until he came within a few yards of a machine gun nest on the German flank. After taking out the gun and its crew with a hand grenade, he entered the German trench and advanced on a second machine gun, killing two soldiers and capturing three others. When he reached a third machine gun, the entire crew surrendered to him. Others also surrendered, and Barfoot captured a total of seventeen German soldiers and killed eight.
When the Germans launched an armoured counterattack with three Tiger tanks directly against his positions later that day, Barfoot disabled the lead tank with a bazooka, killed part of its crew with his Thompson submachine gun, and turned the German attack. He then advanced into enemy-held territory and destroyed an abandoned German artillery piece. He returned to his own lines and helped two wounded soldiers from his squad to the rear.
Barfoot was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant. His division moved into France, and by September 1944 was serving in the Rhone valley. Lieutenant Barfoot learned he would be awarded the Medal of Honour and chose to have the presentation ceremony in the field, so that his soldiers could attend. He was formally presented with the medal on 28 September 1944, in Épinal, France, by Lieutenant General Alexander Patch.
Medal of Honour Citation
Second Lieutenant Barfoot’s official Medal of Honour citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty on 23 May 1944, near Carano, Italy. With his platoon heavily engaged during an assault against forces well entrenched on commanding ground, 2d Lt. Barfoot (then Tech. Sgt.) moved off alone upon the enemy left flank. He crawled to the proximity of 1 machinegun nest and made a direct hit on it with a hand grenade, killing 2 and wounding 3 Germans. He continued along the German defense line to another machinegun emplacement, and with his tommygun killed 2 and captured 3 soldiers. Members of another enemy machinegun crew then abandoned their position and gave themselves up to Sgt. Barfoot. Leaving the prisoners for his support squad to pick up, he proceeded to mop up positions in the immediate area, capturing more prisoners and bringing his total count to 17. Later that day, after he had reorganized his men and consolidated the newly captured ground, the enemy launched a fierce armored counterattack directly at his platoon positions. Securing a bazooka, Sgt. Barfoot took up an exposed position directly in front of 3 advancing Mark VI tanks. From a distance of 75 yards his first shot destroyed the track of the leading tank, effectively disabling it, while the other 2 changed direction toward the flank. As the crew of the disabled tank dismounted, Sgt. Barfoot killed 3 of them with his tommygun. He continued onward into enemy terrain and destroyed a recently abandoned German fieldpiece with a demolition charge placed in the breech. While returning to his platoon position, Sgt. Barfoot, though greatly fatigued by his Herculean efforts, assisted 2 of his seriously wounded men 1,700 yards to a position of safety. Sgt. Barfoot’s extraordinary heroism, demonstration of magnificent valor, and aggressive determination in the face of pointblank fire are a perpetual inspiration to his fellow soldiers.
Post-World War II
Having grown up in the strictly segregated, Democrat-controlled south, Barfoot was noted for a comment he made in 1945 regarding African-Americans. Democratic senator from Mississippi and Ku Klux Klan member Theodore G. Bilbo asked Barfoot if he had much trouble with the African-American soldiers he had served with during the war. To Bilbo’s embarrassment, Barfoot responded, “I found out after I did some fighting in this war that the colored boys fight just as good as the white boys…I’ve changed my idea a lot about colored people since I got into this war and so have a lot of other boys from the south”.
In retirement, he lived on a farm in Amelia County, Virginia and later moved to, Henrico County, Virginia, near his daughter.
In December 2009, the homeowners’ association (HOA) of the Sussex Square, where Barfoot lived in Henrico County, Virginia, ordered him to remove the 21-foot (6.4 m) flagpole he had erected without their approval and from which he began flying the US flag regularly on Veterans Day. The HOA retained the Coates & Davenport law firm to threaten legal action to enforce their order. This news story first became public when Barfoot’s son-in-law reported the story on local talk radio show, Elliot in the Morning. Then Fox News and several other news networks picked up the story nationally. The association’s bylaws do not forbid flagpoles, but the HOA ruled Barfoot, then aged 90, would not be allowed to use it “for aesthetic reasons.” Barfoot contested their order, and received support from the public (48,000 people on a Facebook page), from the American Legion, from military groups, and from many politicians, including Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Because of the backlash and outrage it received, the association dropped its request on 08 December 2009, ending the controversy within one week.
Barfoot suffered a skull fracture and bleeding in the brain from a fall in front of his home, and died two days later on 02 March 2012 at the age of 92.
On 09 October 2009, the portion of Mississippi Highway 16 which runs from Carthage through his hometown of Edinburg to the border between Leake and Neshoba counties was named the “Van T. Barfoot Medal of Honour Highway”. A building at McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, also carries his name.