Retired Army Col. Van T. Barfoot, who received the Medal of Honor during World War II and decades later drew national attention when he fought successfully against his homeowners association to keep a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes in his front yard, died March 2 at a hospital in Richmond. He was 92.
He had complications from a fall, said his daughter Margaret Nicholls.
Col. Barfoot grew up on a Mississippi cotton plantation before enlisting in the Army infantry in 1940. By the end of his career in 1974, he had served in three wars and received the military’s highest award for valor — the Medal of Honor — for leading an assault on German troops during World War II.
In retirement, he lived a quiet life in rural central Virginia — tending to his vegetable garden, filling his bird feeders and catching catfish in his private pond — before moving to the Richmond suburbs in the summer of 2009.
Col. Barfoot erected a 21-foot flagpole in his front yard not long after taking up residence in the Sussex Square development in Henrico County.
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.
The community, governed by a homeowners association, had denied Col. Barfoot’s initial request to put the flagpole in his yard, citing rules to maintain curb appeal.
The homeowners association sent him a letter ordering him to remove the flagpole and threatened to take Col. Barfoot to court to enforce the neighborhood’s rules.
Col. Barfoot refused, and the resulting news brought support from Democrats and Republicans in the state and beyond.
From the White House, Obama administration spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters: “The president believes — I think all of us believe — that the very least we can do is show our gratitude and thanks to somebody that served our country so admirably.”
Pressured by critics, the homeowners association relented in December 2009 and allowed Col. Barfoot to keep his flagpole.
Van Thurman Barfoot was born June 15, 1919, in Edinburg, Miss. He later changed his name to Van Thomas Barfoot.
In the Army, Col. Barfoot worked his way up the enlisted ranks before receiving a field commission during World War II.
Early in the war, he participated in the Army’s invasion of Italy. As his unit moved inland, the soldiers took up defensive positions near Carano.
On May 23, 1944, Col. Barfoot was ordered to lead an assault on German positions. He went out alone and crawled to within feet of a German bunker.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, he tossed a grenade inside, killing two Germans and wounding three others. He then moved to another bunker nearby and killed two more German soldiers with his submachine gun while taking three others prisoner. A third machine gun crew, watching Col. Barfoot’s methodical assault, surrendered to him. In all, 17 Germans gave themselves up to Col. Barfoot.
In retaliation, the Germans organized a counterattack on Col. Barfoot’s position, sending three tanks toward him.
Col. Barfoot grabbed a bazooka grenade launcher and stood 75 yards in front of the leading tank. His first shot stopped it in its tracks. He then killed three of the German tank crew members who had attempted to escape.
The other two tanks, witnessing the destruction, abruptly changed directions, moving away from Col. Barfoot. Returning to his platoon, he helped carry two wounded U.S. soldiers almost a mile to safety.
Commending his “Herculean efforts,” Col. Barfoot’s citation praised his “magnificent valor and aggressive determination in the face of pointblank fire.”
Col. Barfoot served in the Korean War and later in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. His other military decorations included the Silver Star; two awards of the Legion of Merit; the Bronze Star; three awards of the Purple Heart; and 11 awards of the Air Medal.
His wife of 48 years, the former Norma Louise Davis, died in 1992. Survivors include four children, Margaret Nicholls of Richmond, Van T. Barfoot Jr. of Bremerton, Wash., James D. Barfoot of Lake Tapps, Wash., and C. Odell Barfoot of Huntsville, Tex.; a sister; 12 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
In 2010, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed legislation inspired by Col. Barfoot that prohibited homeowners associations from barring the proper display of the U.S. flag.
“All my life, from childhood to now, I have been able to fly the flag,” Col. Barfoot said in 2009. “In the time I have left, I plan to continue to fly the American flag without interference.”