Best Defense

A soldier in winter: Van Barfoot’s valor

By Ron Capps Best Defense Veterans Day columnist Van Barfoot puts the orange Pyrex coffee cup into the microwave, pushes 1, 2 and start. Twelve seconds later the water isn’t warm. He grumbles a bit, then closes the microwave door and pushes 1, 2, 0 and start. The microwave beeps and the water’s too hot. ...

By Ron Capps
Best Defense Veterans Day columnist

Van Barfoot puts the orange Pyrex coffee cup into the microwave, pushes 1, 2 and start. Twelve seconds later the water isn’t warm. He grumbles a bit, then closes the microwave door and pushes 1, 2, 0 and start. The microwave beeps and the water’s too hot. So he puts a couple ice cubes in the cup.

At 91, he still has most of his hair; it’s brushed straight back off of his forehead the same way it was sixty-six years ago at Anzio. He wears his black and white buffalo plaid shirt buttoned up to the throat. To see him shuffling around in his kitchen, slightly stooped, hearing aids in both ears, his pants pulled up a little too high, it’s hard to imagine him as a cocky, whip-thin, soldier, a 6’4" tall, 25-year-old infantry platoon sergeant fighting against Hitler’s Nazi army.

He drops a tea bag in the cup. As he moves out of the kitchen towards his office he accidentally drags his left foot under the edge of a small Oriental carpet, flipping it up. "Get your feet off of there," he scolds when I try to straighten it out. "I do things around here myself."

Barfoot’s home is in a tidy little sub-division in suburban Richmond. The clapboard duplexes are tightly clustered among mature trees. The reserved parking spaces are filled with full-sized sedans from another era: Mercurys, Lincolns and Cadillacs. Inside, the bookshelves in his office are full. World War II histories sit alongside tracts by Billy Graham, Oliver North and Ronald Reagan, and a vintage Boy Scout Handbook.

Like many career soldiers, Barfoot has a shadow box on a wall containing his awards and other memorabilia. His contains the silver eagles he wore as a colonel, an infantry officer’s brass crossed rifles and silver aviator’s wings pinned neatly above the World War II campaign medals, and those from Korea and Vietnam. There are three Legion of Merit awards and three Purple Hearts, one for each time he was wounded in combat.

In the center of Barfoot’s shadow box is an inverted star under an eagle perched atop a bar reading ‘VALOR,’ all suspended from a shield with 13 stars arranged in three rows like chevrons. The silk neck ribbon is blue, a shade the Army’s Institute of Heraldry calls Bluebird 67117. Inscribed on the back of the Medal is "The Congress to: Van T. Barfoot." The Medal of Honor.

It is the United States’ highest award for valor in combat. Only 3,448 Americans have been awarded the medal since its creation in 1861. As of November 2010, there are only 86 living recipients.

This is how he came to receive it:

In the spring of 1944, Barfoot was a sergeant in the 157th Infantry, part of the 45th Division. He and his platoon were among 150,000 Americans on the Anzio beachhead. For four months they had been bombed and shelled by German aircraft and artillery while they tried to move forward.

Their world was confined. Just in front were a wheat field and a cemetery. Just behind was the Padiglione Woods, and beyond that was the Mediterranean. There was only one way to go forward: through the Germans.

During the day, Barfoot studied what the German troops did in no-man’s land in front of his platoon’s position. He watched where the Germans came out of their lines, where they worked and how they went back in. At night he took small patrols through the irrigation ditches, getting as close as he could to the German positions.

The order to move came on May 22nd. A naval bombardment started at 5:45. A light rain was falling at 6:30 when Barfoot moved his platoon towards the German lines. In an hour they were 300 yards beyond the cemetery, but the rain and the artillery shelling had stopped. They were exposed and under direct fire from the German machine guns.

The platoon’s radio was damaged by machine gun fire, so Barfoot couldn’t call to coordinate his movements or ask for artillery support. He tried to send a runner to contact the company commander but the runner was wounded before he could leave their position. They had lost contact with the unit on their flank. Amid hundreds of thousands of German, British and U.S. troops fighting and dying on that spring morning in Italy, Barfoot and his unit were isolated, alone.

He left a squad where they could see the Germans and continued alone up the ditch until he was about 20 feet from the three German soldiers and the machine gun. As he describes it, he "took care of that situation" with a hand grenade.

He continued down the German trenches until he came up behind a second machine gun. He killed the three men at that position with his sub-machine gun. "I couldn’t communicate with my men, so I just kept on going," he said. When he reached the third position, the Germans simply stood up and surrendered to him.

A few of his men arrived and together they reached the main German position not long after. The Germans there knew that the others had surrendered, and they did, too. It was about 9:30. It had taken three hours to get there. Along the way Barfoot had silenced three machine guns and captured 17 German soldiers.

Barfoot decided that the Germans were likely to counter-attack from the railroad junction about 500 yards away. He led his platoon in that direction. Along the way, he found an abandoned German artillery piece and destroyed it with explosives.

"I got up pretty close to the trestle and saw there wasn’t anything there," he said. But at about 2:15, three Germans tanks arrived. The platoon leader ordered the men to withdraw to a hill just behind the trestle. Barfoot stayed behind with a small team. He took a rocket launcher and, face to face with a German tank 50 yards away, he fired the bazooka and missed. He and his men were now exposed.

He reloaded. The second shot hit the tank’s treads, sending it out of control and into a ditch. The other tanks turned away.

The unit on his right was still caught up in the minefield, and the battalion commander needed to consolidate the line — to close any gaps the Germans could exploit. Barfoot was ordered to withdraw from the railroad trestle. He helped two wounded men back to the battalion rear area, a distance of about a mile. Then he returned to his platoon to organize the men for their next day’s fight. 

The breakout was successful. The allies cracked the German positions and continued up the boot of Italy. In the initial breakout 12,000 soldiers died on both sides, and over 66,000 were wounded.

Barfoot and his platoon stayed in the fight. Just outside of Rome he was given a field commission to second lieutenant. As an officer, Barfoot led a platoon through the north of Italy and into France. Near the town of Épinal he was summoned to regimental headquarters. When he arrived, he found three general officers sitting at a table inside. One of them stood up and extended his hand and said, "Congratulations."

"I can still hear myself saying ‘what for?’" Barfoot said. "I thought I had been selected for a patrol."

"We’ve just received information that you have been awarded the Medal of Honor," the general told him.

The next morning, Sept. 28, 1944, in field not far from the front, and in front of the soldiers he had led from North Africa through Sicily, Italy and into France, Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch, Barfoot’s corps commander, presented him with the Medal of Honor. In a picture of the ceremony, Barfoot has a crooked grin on his face.

Barfoot says, "People say I did something miraculous. I don’t think so. I don’t think I did any more than any good American would do." Yet his Medal of Honor citation begins, of course, with the words "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty." A couple hundred words later, it closes with these: "Sergeant 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."

The men in his platoon apparently agreed. It was the soldiers he led that day, not his captains or colonels, who nominated him for the medal.

Ron Capps is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He served 25 years in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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