• Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • Air Force Sustainment Center Historian

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Thomas N. Barnes, born Nov. 16, 1930, entered the Air Force in April 1949. In fact, Barnes left Chester, Pa., on an unsegregated train for basic training and arrived to be segregated for basic training. At the time segregation in fact existed in the north, but not by law. It existed in the south as a matter of law. Barnes attended mixed schools, so segregation was introduced to him by the military. However, by the 1950s, the United States Air Force was the most fully integrated institution in American society. For example, CMSAF Gaylor (who followed Barnes as #5) remarked being the captain of the Lackland AFB baseball team. They stopped in Uvalde to eat on the way to a game and were told their three black baseball players could not eat inside. They left and ate in Del Rio. Integration was still a problem in the U.S., but not comparably so in the Air Force.


After completing basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, he went on to both Aircraft and Engine School and Hydraulic Specialist School at Chanute Technical Training Center, Ill. Chief Barnes’ subsequent career in the Air Force clearly illustrates the role of changing technology and the necessity of training, retraining, and adapting to change. Following brief service at McChord AFB, Wash., Chief Barnes transferred to the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron based at Ashiya, Japan, a unit charged with supporting the Korean War. Chief Barnes completed on-the-job training there as a flight engineer and subsequently served as both a flight engineer and a hydraulic specialist.


He returned to the United States in 1952 and went to the 30th Air Transport Squadron, Westover AFB, Mass., where he received transition training as a flight engineer on the C-118. On occasion in the 1950s, both Chiefs Barnes and Harlow remember black and white servicemen entering segregated local businesses and demanding service. This foreshadowed the sit-in practices in the 1960s. Despite this, he volunteered for temporary duty with the 1708th Ferry Group, Kelly AFB, Texas, and served on crews ferrying aircraft between various AF depots and Hawaii, Japan, and the Northeast Air Command. In 1952 he transferred to Andrews AFB, Md. There, he served as crew chief/flight engineer on a number of aircraft including the B-25, T-11, C-45, and the C-47. In 1959, he left Andrews and went to Loring AFB, Maine, where he served as a B-52 Flight Chief and Senior Controller.


In 1966, he trained for service with yet another aircraft, the F-4, and in December of that year, went to Southeast Asia. There, he served as the 8th TFW non-commissioned officer in charge, Reparable Processing Center, as a Senior Controller, and as the NCOIC, Maintenance Control. Upon his return to the U.S., Chief Barnes went to Laughlin AFB, Texas, where his duties included T-38 section Line Chief, NCOIC of Maintenance Control, and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Commander of the 3646th Pilot Training Wing. During this time, he introduced Social Actions programs 1969 and Defense Race Relations Institute 1971. Chief Barnes remembers problems ranging from overt racism to incidents due to lack of cultural understanding – such as the misinterpreting of black slang. For instance, these two sentences mean the same thing:


1: “Hey Baby, let’s get in my deuce and a quarter, get the hammers, and go to the killing floor.”


2: “Hey Paul, let’s take my Buick Electra 225, pick up our girlfriends, and go to the dance hall.”


He left Laughlin AFB in 1971 to serve as the Command Senior Enlisted Advisor, Air Training Command headquarters, Randolph AFB, Texas. Sadly, at the time the Air Training Command was not as highly regarded as Strategic Air Command. ATC was referred to by the latter as the American Toy Company and Allergic to Combat, much like ISAF is jokingly referred to as “I Saw Americans Fight” by our warriors downrange fighting the Global War on Terror.


The AF chose Chief Barnes as its fourth CMSAF and he began his duties on Oct. 1, 1973. He received two extensions of his tenure and, therefore, served longer in that office than anyone else (until the 1990s). His continued efforts on behalf of quality of life issues; medical care, housing and pay parity, are legendary. Although the final results may not have occurred during his tenure as CMSAF, the improvements he proposed and supported resulted in increased recruitment and retention. Chief Barnes was adviser to the Secretaries of the Air Force John L. McLucas and Thomas C. Reed as well as Chief of Staffs of the Air Force Gen. George S. Brown and Gen. David C. Jones on matters concerning welfare, effective utilization and progress of the enlisted members of the Air Force. He retired from the Air Force on July 31, 1977.


Sources include: AF.Mil, Air University archives, DoDlive.Mil, Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education at Maxwell AFB