Van T. Barfoot
United States Army
Recipient of the Medal of Honor
BiographyBarfoot was born on June 15, 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 had 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 re-assigned 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.
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, and finally the landings at Anzio in late January 1944. His unit pushed inland from Anzio, and by May 1944 had reached the town of Carano. 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 May 23, 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 on the German flank. After taking out the gun 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 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 armored counterattack later in the day, Barfoot disabled one tank with a bazooka, 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 was serving in the Rhone valley. Barfoot learned he would be awarded the Medal of Honor and chose to have the presentation ceremony in the field, so that his soldiers could attend. He was formally presented with the medal on September 28, 1944, in Йpinal, France, by Lieutenant General Alexander Patch.
Having grown up in the strictly segregated south, Barfoot was noted for a comment he made in 1945 regarding African-Americans. Mississippi senator 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".
Barfoot later served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and earned a Purple Heart. He reached the rank of colonel before retiring from the Army. In retirement he lived in Amelia County, Virginia and later, Henrico County, Virginia, near his daughter. On October 9, 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 Honor Highway".
Medal of Honor citationSecond Lieutenant Barfoot's official Medal of Honor 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 Thompson Submachine gun 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 V1 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.