Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Barfoot's Burden

Eva Russo/AP
"Even as a nonagenarian, Col. Barfoot awoke every morning to hoist the American flag. At dusk, he lowered and folded the flag, hugging the triangular bundle to his chest as he walked back inside."
T. Rees Shapiro, The Washington Post, March 5, 2012

One of the Colonel's pantheon of personal heroes passed to his eternal reward last week.  To the last he demonstrated the gritty determination, exemplary leadership, and principled patriotism that carried him from the cotton fields of Mississippi through three wars and a career in the Army of the United States that spanned the better part of four decades.

Van T. Barfoot was born on June 15, 1919, in Edinburg, Mississippi, a still-unincorporated community in the geographical heart of the state.  He voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army more than a year before Pearl Harbor.

In January of 1944, then-Technical Sergeant Barfoot landed with the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division at Anzio, Italy.  He was already a seasoned combat veteran of landings and subsequent operations in Sicily and at Salerno, neither of which were pleasant.

Anzio was particularly unpleasant.

A general's failure to capitalize on the Anzio landing's operational surprise -- the main German defensive lines had been flanked and the road to Rome lay wide open -- allowed the enemy time to reorient and surround the beachhead.   Bitter stalemated fighting ensued for the next four months as the Americans endured constant enemy shelling from the surrounding heights while dug in on the pestilence-ridden lowlands of the coast.

On the 22nd of May, 1944, the Allied force, preceded by a massed artillery barrage and heavy close air support, broke through the surrounding Axis lines and advanced on Rome.  Technical Sergeant Barfoot's unit advanced on the town of Carano, and, at the end of the day, went into temporary defensive positions.  Barfoot led a patrol that night to scout the German defenses at Carano.

At the vanguard of his company's attack on those defenses the next day, Barfoot led a squad into the attack of the key German positions.  The ferocity of the fight that ensued can only be imagined, as the dry military prose of official accounts of the battle fall way short of describing the horrific nature of close infantry combat attendant with the certain knowledge of one's mortality.

Barfoot fought like a tiger.

His Congressional Medal of Honor citation follows:

 "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 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."

Barfoot recieved a battlefield commission to second lieutenant in the days following his heroics at Carano. 

Told he was to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions, Barfoot asked that the award, normally attendant with great fanfare and ceremony (often presented by the President), be presented in the field at the front, instead.  Barfoot, ever the consummate leader, wished to share the honor with his men.  

Colonel Barfoot finished his outstanding career of military service to his nation in 1974, adding the wars in Korea and Vietnam to a record of great sacrifice and devotion that needed no addition. 

For the next four decades, Colonel Barfoot lived in well-deserved peace and quiet in rural Virginia.  

Then, he moved into the suburbs of Richmond.

Barfoot erected a flagpole in his front yard and faithfully attended to the daily duty of flying the colors of his beloved country correctly and reverently. 

This Colonel never met that Colonel.

But, this Colonel knew, and was led by, many like him.  They, like Barfoot, were never flippant about flying the flag of the United States.  If the flag couldn't be flown correctly, with the honor due the sacrifices made under it for the great nation for which it stands, it was not flown at all. 

When the idiot so-called leader of the homeowner association in  Barfoot's suburb demanded that the flagpole be removed, Barfoot quietly refused.  

The story got national attention, not by Colonel Barfoot's initiative, but by the actions and words of others who knew Barfoot and understood the heart of an issue for which the idiot so-called leader of the homeowner association had no earthly clue. 

Barfoot continued to fly his flag correctly and reverently until his death.


Our nation was made greater by Colonel Barfoot's sacrificial devotion and service to it, and will be less without him only if we forget his legacy.          
     
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