Michael Bernard Barnes – Sergeant Major, United States Army

‘Professional soldier’ comes home to rest
Veteran from Elmira buried in Arlington after decorated career
By Salle E. Richards
Courtesy of the Star Gazette
January 2, 2009

Mike Barnes was the oldest of 10 children whose family lived on Elmira’s north side when the world was defined by neighborhoods.

His brother, Casey, remembers the kinds of games they played in the Wisner Avenue area using the Chemung River dike as a fort.

Sometimes they had snowball fights, but they also shot at each other with BB guns.

Army Sergeant Major Michael B. Barnes, like many other boys of that era, greatly admired World War II hero Audie Murphy and emulated his exploits.

He joined the Army when he was only 16 years old.

“He lied about his age and went to Vietnam,” recalled his son, Todd Barnes of Cumming, Georgia.

Sergant Major Michael Barnes, in a photo taken after he had served in Vietnam

Now Sergeant Major Barnes is buried within 75 yards of Murphy at Arlington National Cemetery where he was laid to rest December 2, 2008, after a military funeral with full honors.

“He was a hometown boy and had nothing — we were not a rich family — went into the Army and served his country,” Casey Barnes said. “They honored my brother to the utmost.”

Sergeant Major Barnes died June 17 in Sanming, China, where he lived with his second wife, Chen Lian.

His family in Elmira, Illinois, didn’t see Sergeant Major Barnes very often after he made the Army a career. He called often and came home for special occasions.

Todd Barnes also didn’t see a lot of his dad after his parents divorced.

Despite being separated from his father from the age of five, the younger Barnes did maintain contact with him throughout his military career and later retirement to China.

Todd Barnes, a commercial pilot, intended to visit his father in China when his own children were a little older.

Instead, he made an emergency trip to Sanming in June after his father became seriously ill. Another of Sergeant Major Barnes’ brothers, Patrick Barnes of Elmira, also had hoped to make the trip, but decided his nephew could probably make the arrangements faster on his own.

As it turned out, Sergeant Major Barnes never regained consciousness after suffering a brain hemorrhage, his son said, and really couldn’t be moved. Todd Barnes returned to the United States knowing he could do nothing more than wait.

Although not able to talk to his father then, Todd Barnes said he could see why his father had liked China so much.

“The people were very nice,” Todd Barnes said of his short visit while his father was in a coma. “They treated me like gold.”

He had talked to his father often by telephone before his illness and knew he was involved in teaching English and coaching baseball in Sanming. Sanming is in the center of Fujian Province, north of Hong Kong and along the Taiwan Strait.

Sergeant Major Barnes remains somewhat of a mystery to family members who often heard of his adventures after he had recovered from wounds and moved on.

“He was a world traveler,” Pat Barnes said. He added that his brother really didn’t talk much about himself or his exploits.

“He was always very guarded in his conversations,” Pat Barnes said.

Pat Barnes was impressed by the military funeral his brother received at Arlington National Cemetery after his remains were returned to the United States.

“Not an easy task,” Pat Barnes said.

Todd Barnes said his stepmother had a ceremony of her own in China and sent him a videotape of it. Family members here also taped the ceremony at Arlington National, Casey Barnes said.

“We’re very proud of him,” Casey Barnes said.

Sergeant Major Barnes was the recipient of several military honors, including two Silver Stars, four Bronze Medals and four Purple Hearts.

Todd Barnes said his father qualified for the first Silver Star during his second year in Vietnam. He was in a unit assigned to provide security for Navy Seabees during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The unit was overrun by a regiment of North Vietnamese, and they ran out of ammunition, Todd Barnes said.

His father then took a Jeep through enemy fire several times to get ammunition.

“The Jeep was riddled by bullets,” Todd Barnes said.

Casey Barnes said his brother also received the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnamese equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor, from the Vietnamese president at that time. He served four tours of duty in Vietnam.

Sergeant Major Barnes once told his son he actually liked being in a war zone.

“He said it was the best camaraderie he ever experienced,” Todd Barnes said.

He spent 28 years in the military, Todd Barnes said.

During Sergeant Major Barnes’ career, he also earned a doctorate in marine archaeology, Todd Barnes said.

Near the end of his career, he was working on a marine archaeology project in Germany where he met Chen Lian.

They communicated through a mixture of English, German and Chinese, Todd Barnes said.

Todd Barnes said he didn’t get all the details of his father’s career from him, and his father didn’t have the kind of career where he amassed great amounts of money.

“What he left me was a legacy of integrity and honor,” Todd Barnes said. “He also taught me about the importance of dedicated friendship with other people.”

Pat Barnes also sees his brother as someone larger than life.

“I wish someone would tell the real story,” he said.

Casey Barnes agrees his brother was somebody special, and he never realized it as much as during the ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony last month.

“It was very touching. You have to be highly decorated to qualify,” Casey Barnes said. “He was the professional soldier.”

A caisson carrying the casket of Sergeant Major Michael Barnes, formerly of Elmira, makes its way through Arlington National Cemetery on December 2, 2008 where Barnes was buried with full military honors.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 11/12/1946
  • DATE OF DEATH: 06/17/2008

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