45th Infantry Division Museum honors Native American heroes

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - At almost every celebration by Native Americans around the United States, veterans are honored.

Statistically Native Americans can be considered the most patriotic group in America with the highest percentage of any population who served and fought in wars in this country.

The 45th Infantry Division Museum here proudly displays and tells the story of those Native American veterans who consistently put aside all political feelings and served courageously in war after war.

The unit has the distinction of breaking the color barrier. The division is considered the first fully integrated unit in the United States Army. It boasted Native Americans as officers while other units were still segregating troops. Three Medal of Honor recipients from the 45th Division were Native Americans and are honored within the museum.

The museum also has a memorial to Native American veterans from the Chilocco Indian School, filled with names of those who fought and died defending the United States. Photographs of the Chilocco soldiers line the walls of a room dedicated to Native American soldiers who served in the 45th Division.

No other military unit in America had a higher percentage of Native American troops than the 45th; due in part to the large number of Native Americans who lived in the area. In his book, "The Rock of Anzio," Flint Whitlock reports non-Indian soldiers in the 45th held the Native Americans in high regard and even used a Thunderbird as the unit logo. More than 50 tribes were represented within the ranks of the 45th, most from tribes in Oklahoma.

During World War II, 2nd Lt. Ernest Childers was the first Native American in history to receive the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States. Nicknamed "Red Eagle," Childer was a Creek from Broken Arrow, who graduated from Chilocco.

Outnumbered, Childers and his men not only took out several German machine gun nests, but managed to capture Germans after running out of ammunition. Childers' bravery was rewarded by the Medal of Honor and he was sent home to go on tour to sell War Bonds.

"Funny, one day I was a soldier and the next day I was a celebrity," he told Whitlock, adding that "hero" was just a term.

Second Lt. Jack Montgomery, a Cherokee, also received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt while serving with the 45th. After single-handedly killing eight German soldiers and capturing four, Montgomery crossed no man's land by himself and killed three more, knocked out three more machine gun nests and captured seven more of the enemy.

Described by others in his unit as "a man who was possessed," Montgomery went on to capture 21 more Germans as he shot and threw hand grenades toward the German strongholds. Before being wounded, he had killed 11 Germans, captured 32 and left an unknown number of wounded enemy soldiers on the battlefield.

The museum collections range from the days of the Buffalo Soldiers to those in the Gulf War. World War II items include a tea set, captured in Hitler's apartment, as the 45th rolled across Europe during the final days of the war in Europe.

General George C. Patton Jr. once told the unit, "Born at sea, baptized in blood, your fame shall never die. The 45th is one of the best if not actually the best division in the history of American arms." For the Native American soldiers who fought and died, the museum has made Patton's statement a reality.

A small gift shop in the museum sells books and other assorted items associated with the unit. Workers at the museum are all veterans and more than happy to give tours and explain the history and the importance of Native American veterans to the unit.

The museum is off I-35 in Oklahoma City. It is one block off of NE 36th St. The 45th also has a web site, http://www.45thdivisionmuseum.com or those interested in visiting can call (405) 424-3748.