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Thomas N. Barnes: First African-American CMSAF

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)

CMSAF Thomas Barnes, first African-American to hold top Air Force enlisted position

CMSAF Thomas Barnes, first African-American to hold top Air Force enlisted position

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- Chief Master Sgt. Thomas N. Barnes, appointed to the position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in 1973, was the first and, to-date, 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 and two chiefs of staff of the Air Force during his tenure.

One particular health-related issue he was instrumental in bring to the attention of senior military leaders was Pseudo folliculitis Barbae, a skin condition caused by shaving that highly affected African-American males.

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

Chief Barnes received assignments to various locations to include Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii, Japan, and the Northeast Air Command, before arriving to George AFB, Calif., in October 1966.

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

In December 1967, he returned from Southeast Asia to Laughlin AFB, Texas. He was promoted to the grade of chief master sergeant Dec. 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.

He was appointed CMSAF Oct. 1, 1973. 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 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.

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 succumbed to cancer in Sherman, Texas, on March 17, 2003, where he was receiving treatment. He was 72.

(Neil Nichols contributed to this story)

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