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Around the Campfire: Indians in the Military

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Indians have fought in every war the United States has had since the American Revolution. They have enlisted in higher numbers than the general population, and have served valiantly. But they are seldom honored for their service. The Navajo Code Talkers, for instance, were forbidden to tell people what they had done in the Marines in World War II. They had to remain silent for more than 30 years, until their mission was declassified. They were old men before anyone knew what they had done.

More than 12,000 Indians out of a total population of 300,000 served in World War I. A total of over 45,000 Indians out of a population of 340,000 enlisted in the military in World War II. This was one-third of the able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45.

A total of 28 Indians have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Seven Indians won the Medal of Honor in World War II. They were Lt. Jack Montgomery (Cherokee), Lt. Van Barfoot (Choctaw), Lt. Ernest Childers (Creek), Cmdr. Ernest Edwin Evans (Pawnee), Maj. Gregory (Pappy) Boyington (Coeur d’Alene), Pvt. Roy W. Harmon (Cherokee), and Pvt. John R. Reese Jr. (Creek).

Montgomery had gone to Bacone College, finishing his AA degree in 1938. He then went on to Redlands University in California, a sister college to Bacone, and finished there in 1940. He was a running back on the Bacone football team and a star baseball player. He planned to become a coach, but WWII got in the way. Instead of becoming a coach, he became a hero in battle. In February 1944, at Padiglione, Italy, Montgomery took out three echelons of enemy by himself, and took 32 prisoners. He killed 11 Germans by himself. His troops called him a one-man army.

He was not wounded that morning, but was seriously wounded that night in another battle, and had to spend the next six months in the hospital. He suffered minor pain the rest of his life from his wounds.

After the war, Montgomery only wanted to work with military veterans. He got a job at the VA Hospital in Muskogee almost as soon as he got home. After pulling another stretch of two and a half years in the Army in Korea, he went back to work for the VA Hospital, where he worked for almost 40 years. He was a proud alumnus of Bacone, and we became friends during the time I was president of Bacone. He was one of the most self-effacing people I ever met. I knew him for over a year before one of the other veteran alumni members told me he had gotten the Medal of Honor.

Montgomery was a very quiet guy. His friend Bill Pearson once said, “If you waited for Jack to tell you he got a Medal of Honor, you’d never find out.” When his future wife Joyce first saw the medal hanging on his wall, he just said, “Oh, it’s just something that happened in the war.” Someone else had to tell her what it was.

Col. Barfoot also got the Medal for actions in Italy. He took out three enemy machine gun positions by himself, captured 17 German prisoners, and took out a tank with a bazooka. He took out the first one with a hand grenade. He took out the second one with a Tommy gun. The third one gave up and let themselves be taken prisoner.

Barfoot stayed in the Army, retiring as a full Colonel. He fought in Korea and Vietnam. A few years ago, his neighbors in northern Virginia objected to him flying the flag over his house. Barfoot took them to court and won. He is still flying the flag at 90 years of age.

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Col. Childers got the Medal for actions in Italy, too. He was a graduated of Chilocco Indian School, finishing there in 1937. He had entered the Army from the Oklahoma National Guard. By the time they got to Italy, he had been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.

His unit was fighting in Oliveto, Italy when he wiped out two enemy snipers, took out two German machine gun nests, and captured a German artillery observer. When he ran out of grenades, he took out the second machine gun nest with his rifle. He stayed in the Army and retired. Then he moved back home to Oklahoma. He died at the age of 87 and is buried in his hometown of Broken Arrow.

Cmdr. Evans was a career Navy man who was killed fighting in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He had finished at the Naval Academy in 1931 and was a career Navy man. He was commander of the USS Johnson, a destroyer. The Japanese fleet outgunned him, and sunk his ship. He was wounded in the battle and his body was never recovered.

“Pappy” was without doubt the most colorful aviator in the Marines in WWII. He already had a college degree in aeronautical engineering five years before the war. He was one of only handful of Indians with a college degree when the war started. He was the leader of the famous “Black Sheep” squadron and personally shot down an incredible 26 Japanese aircraft. His book “Baa, Baa Black Sheep” was a best seller that got turned into a TV series in the 1970s. He stayed in the Marines and retired as a full Colonel.

Harmon was a squad leader in the Army. His unit was fighting in Casaglia, Italy in 1945. He destroyed three enemy positions by himself, but was severely wounded three times in the battle, and died from his wounds. President Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Reese was a private in the Army stationed in the Philippines. His unit attacked the Paco Railroad Station in 1945, and took it from 300 Japanese who were well dug in. He led the attack, which routed the enemy and won the battle.

Numbers of the World War II generation later distinguished themselves in civilian life. The late Dr. Sam Billison, a Navajo Code talker, became the first Navajo Indian to earn a doctorate degree, which he got from the University of Arizona in 1954. He was a teacher, principal, school superintendent, and tribal council member. He also was the founder of the National Indian Education Association, which he, Dr. Will Antell, and Dr. Rosemary Christensen formed in 1969.

Wilfred Billey was another Navajo hero of World War II. He was herding sheep one day when his grandfather rode up on his horse. “I am taking you to school,” his grandfather said. They rode 20 miles on the horse, and Wilfred entered the Navajo Methodist Mission that day. When he came home nine months later, he could speak English.

He volunteered for the Marines when a recruiter came around. The Marines sent him straight overseas out of boot camp and the Navajo Code Talkers School. He was overseas for 30 straight months. He came home to become an educator, finishing college on the GI Bill. Then he worked work more than 40 years in the schools at Shiprock, as teacher, Indian Education director, and principal. “With much pride and satisfaction, in the prime of my life, I served my country in the United States Marine Corps,” he said in a speech in 2003.

This column is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on Indian people, “American Indians and Popular Culture” from Praeger Publishers. Dean Chavers works at Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque. Contact him at