Medal of Freedom could be latest honor for Medicine Crow

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WASHINGTON - Joseph Medicine Crow went off to fight World War II as a Ph.D. student, and he returned a war chief.

Crow elders heard his accounts of battle and conferred one of the tribe's highest titles, deciding he had fulfilled the required four war deeds.

More than 60 years later, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and a host of other admirers hope President George W. Bush will hear of Medicine Crow's deeds and bestow the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The decision is entirely the president's, and it could come at any time - although the Fourth of July is a favored occasion, according to Tester's staff.

Since the war, Medicine Crow has become the first Crow citizen to earn a master's degree, and he has received three honorary doctoral degrees in place of the one lost to war. As a scholar, teacher, anthropologist and historian, he has written authoritative accounts of Crow history and culture, and taken an instrumental role in establishing the Plains Indian Museum at Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. He recently appeared in the Ken Burns film ''The War'' on public television.

Among his book titles are several that have become touchstones of Crow history, culture and treaty law.

Accompanying Tester's nominating letter to the president were letters of support from former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming (a friend of 40 years and a leading confederate on the Plains Indian Museum project, years in the making); Sen. Max Baucus of Montana; Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer; Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member; and filmmaker Burns, a fixture of American culture since his ''Civil War'' documentary.

In remarks conveyed over the Internet at the time of his nomination for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Medicine Crow clearly enjoyed his rousing accounts of the four war deeds - touching a live enemy, in his case in hand-to-hand combat; disarming an enemy (part of the same struggle); stealing an enemy horse, in his case a small herd of Nazi mounts; and leading a war party with success.

Here he is on the pony exploit. ''I was on scout duty, I was ahead of my company. I caught up with some German soldiers on horseback, going down along the road. I followed them. They went up a hill to a ranch. So I sat on the point of a ridge, watching them, you know. Then I heard footsteps, and here they come, right around the corner of that road. Germans! And they saw me sitting there, you know. So they halt, they stop and put their rifles down and look at me you know. They probably thought I was a decoy, you know - going to be wiped out. There I was all by myself, lonely old Crow Indian out there in Germany, sitting there. So they looked at me. I told them, gave them the sign to go on. By God, they went on.

''Anyhow, when my company showed up it was getting late, almost dark. So we went down there and surrounded that place where the Germans had dismounted their horses and got into the building. So we got down there and surrounded the place there, and towards morning I said to the company commander, 'Give me five minutes more, and I'll stampede their horses. They might get away.' 'Good idea,' he said.

''So, early in the morning I sneaked into the fence there, and taking the chance that there might be some guards down there in the shed. But nothing happened so I went in, got on a horse and chased the others out and took off, you know. Then the fireworks started back there, but I was sitting way out there in the hills, riding a horse, you know. Being an old farm boy, I sure enjoyed riding that horse ... I even sang a song.''

Many veterans find that the lighter moments of war stand out from the rest, necessarily so, no doubt. But Medicine Crow doesn't flinch from the darkest experiences of the conflict, either: ''One time, we came to a little tunnel, and we chased the Germans out of there. And one of the civilians said, 'There's a concentration camp out here.' So the CO [commanding officer] and I jumped in a pickup, a jeep, went over there kind of cautiously. And the door opened, a man came out ... So we went over there. He said, 'The guard just took off when they saw you comin'! It's all right!'

''So we got in there and looked. It's a huge concentration camp - Jews, full of Jews. We went in and boy, there was a horrible plague. There were some long dormitories there, and you had to step down onto the ground there, dirt floor you know. And here are these poor Jews, some in bed, some dead in bed. Then we went out to some sheds ... about four or five long sheds, and there they were. Bodies, stacked up all over the - hundreds of them, frozen you know. Boy that was a terrible sight. But I think I liberated a concentration camp.''

In nominating Medicine Crow, Tester said, ''It's hard to think of a more qualified candidate for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it's truly an honor to nominate him. ... Joe is a teacher and a scholar. He's a writer and a historian. But above all, he's an American. And he deserves this honor.''

Medicine Crow, 94, resides in Lodge Grass, Mont., his birthplace.