4th FW historian reflects on CMSAF Barnes career

  • Published
  • By Neil Nichols
  • 4th Fighter Wing historian
Chief Master Sgt. Thomas N. Barnes was appointed to the position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in 1973, the first and only African-American to serve in the highest enlisted position within the U.S. Air Force. 

While serving in this position, Chief Barnes provided advice on matters concerning welfare, effective utilization and progress of the enlisted members of the Air Force to two Secretaries of the Air Force, John L. McLucas and Thomas C. Reed, and two Chiefs of Staff\ of the Air Force, Gen George S. Brown and Gen David C. Jones, during his tenure.
One particular health-related issue he was instrumental in bring to the attention of senior military leaders was Pseudofolliculitis Barbae, a skin condition that highly affected African-American males. 

Chief Barnes attended elementary and secondary schools in Chester, Pa., where he was born in 1930. During the spring 1949, Chief Barnes entered the U.S. Air Force, and received his technical training from the Aircraft and Engine School and Hydraulic Specialist School at Chanute Technical Training Center, Illinois, after completing basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. 

Chief Barnes served his country during a period in which the United States military was involved in two major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Chief Barnes was assigned to the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 62nd Troop Carrier Group at McChord AFB, Washington, when the squadron transferred to Ashiya, Japan, in support of the Korean War in November 1950. After arriving in Japan, he completed on-the-job training for flight engineer duties. Personnel shortages required him to performed both flight engineer and hydraulic specialist duties. 

Chief Barnes received assignment to various locations after returning back to the United States in 1952, to include assignments to Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii, Japan, and the Northeast Air Command, before arriving to George AFB, California, in October 1966. 

In December of that same year he was went to Southeast Asia. There he served in various positions with the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing to include, noncommissioned officer in charge, reparable processing center; senior controller; and noncommissioned officer in charge, maintenance control. 

In December 1967, he returned from Southeast Asia to Laughlin AFB, Texas, where his duties included: T-38 section line chief; noncommissioned officer-in-charge, maintenance control; and senior enlisted advisor to the commander of the 3646th Pilot Training Wing. He was promoted to the grade of chief master sergeant on December 1, 1969, receiving an assignment to Headquarters Air Training Command in October 1971 to assume the duties of command senior enlisted adviser. Chief Barnes also held the distinct honor of being a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Senior NCO Academy pilot class in March 1973. 

On Oct. 1, 1973, he was appointed CMSAF. At the expiration of the initial two-year tenure, he was extended for an additional year by the chief of staff. In February 1976, he was again selected by the chief of staff to serve an unprecedented second year extension. At the end of the second extension, Chief Barnes retired on July 31, 1977. 

During his tenure as CMSAF, the chief worked for equal opportunities for minorities, including blacks and women, and also worked to solidify the enlisted professional military education system. The major award and decorations he received included during his time of service included: Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, and Outstanding Airman of the Year. 

After retirement, Chief Barnes remained active in Air Force life and was a sought-after guest speaker at varied military functions. Following his retirement, Chief Barnes worked at the First National Bank of Fort Worth as an Employee Relations Officer for seven years, before being hired by the Associates Corporation of North America to become the Vice President/Director of Employee Relations at the corporate headquarters in Las Colinas near Irving, Texas. 

After retiring from Associates Corporation of North America, Chief Barnes relocated to Fannin County, Texas. There, he and his wife, Marie, raised Longhorn cattle on a sprawling ranch in Bonham, Texas. 

Chief Barnes had a fond interest in the sport of rodeo. He competed on a rodeo sport roping team, wining team penning titles at the Kueckelhan Rodeo two years in a row. 

During an interview, Chief Barnes was once asked how he would like to be remembered. 

"I'd like to be remembered as a role model for people who believe they can't get there," he said. "It was an honor to have been chosen (as the CMSAF) on the basis of my qualifications, as opposed to my race or my gender." 

Chief Thomas N. Barnes died due cancer in Sherman, Texas, on March 17, 2003, where he was receiving treatment. He was 72.