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Native warrior heroes didn't end with the Indian wars

Jack Montgomery died last month. Who was Jack Montgomery? Just one of the greatest Native American warrior heroes of the twentieth century. Of course, Montgomery wouldn't see it that way. Like all great warriors, Second Lieutenant Montgomery would say he was just doing his job.

Most of us would see it differently. On Feb. 22, 1944, near Padiglione, Italy, the combat platoon led by Lieutenant Montgomery found itself confronted by three echelons of German infantry. Montgomery and his men were part of the Allied invasion force that hit the beach at Anzio in an effort to flank the stubborn German defenders in Italy. Montgomery overcame a position of four machine guns and a mortar, killing eight German soldiers and capturing four others. After returning to his lines with the prisoners, he took off again. This time he knocked out two machine gun nests, captured seven enemy soldiers, and probably killed three more.

One more German position still threatened his platoon. As it was being bombarded by American artillery, Montgomery attacked. The German troops fled their positions, but Montgomery cut them off and captured twenty-one prisoners. Montgomery was seriously wounded that night by mortar fragments.

In January 1945, Jack Montgomery, an American and Cherokee warrior, was summoned to the White House, where he received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. The citation, with inevitable understatement, noted his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity," stating that his "selflessness and courage ... inspired his men to a degree beyond estimation."

Lieutenant Montgomery was a member of I Company of the 45th Infantry Division. Most of the 45th Division men who went to Italy were from Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. It was a reserve division activated for the war, and mistakenly thought by the German command to be easy pickings. Although the United States Army isolated African-Americans into segregated combat units, tens of thousands of American Indians served with regular army units like the 45th. Indeed, the 45th itself had fifty different tribes represented in its ranks, and all agree that these Native soldiers fulfilled the warrior tradition of their forebears.

Suzan Shown Harjo wrote me recently of her visit to the 45th Infantry Division's museum in Oklahoma City. American Indian soldiers are featured prominently in the museum's displays. Suzan referred to these Native soldiers simply and eloquently as "Big men."

Growing up in Oklahoma, I used to see everywhere signs and window decals declaring "We're with the 45th." The unit's distinctive patch bore a gold thunderbird on a red background, acknowledging the American Indian presence in its ranks. My grandfather, Phil Gover, fought with the 45th at the terrible ground of Monte Cassino. He lost his arm on a combat patrol during one of several Allied assaults on the German stronghold.

I grew up hearing hero stories about the Pawnee warriors of World War II. There were so many. Echohawks, Horsechiefs, Govers and others were honored frequently, songs were composed and given to them, and their American flags were flown at important tribal events. To this day, flags of Pawnee veterans of World War II are used to honor and solemnize tribal events.

I went to see the movie "Windtalkers" with some trepidation. I feared that the movie would stereotype the Native warriors of World War II and leave the impression that the Navajo code talkers represented the only major contribution of American Indians to the war effort. Indian country, of course, knows that the code talkers came from many tribes and represented only a small fraction of the American Indians who served in World War II.

Still, the Navajo code talkers took unique advantage of their tribal culture. And from what I've read about them, they accord themselves no special status as heroes. Ask them about their service and they'll tell you they were "just doing their job." The historical irony of the United States using Native languages for military advantage was thick. No doubt many of these code-talking soldiers had gone to BIA boarding schools, where speaking tribal languages was forbidden throughout the early twentieth century. This compelling history and the size of the Navajo code-talking contingent makes them an appropriate starting place for those wishing to understand the role of American Indians in World War II.

But "Windtalkers" Director John Woo could have picked from any of dozens, even hundreds of compelling stories of American Indians in World War II. As examples, two other Native warriors received the Medal of Honor for their service with the 45th Infantry Division in World War II. Ernest Childers, a Creek Indian from Broken Arrow, Okla., was with the 45th when it hit the beach at Salerno in September 1943. A couple of weeks later, Second Lieutenant Childers was at Oliveto, Italy, advancing with his eight men toward enemy machine gun emplacements.

With supporting fire from his men, Childers advanced on the German position. He was fired upon by two nearby snipers and killed them both. He attacked one machine gun nest and dispatched its occupants. He moved on to a second nest, threw rocks at it, and shot one of the Germans who raised up after the rocks flew in. He finished his charge on the enemy by capturing an enemy mortar observer. He did all of this immediately after having broken his foot.

Childers is still with us, and just as brave as ever. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he published a statement condemning vigilante attacks on Arab-Americans, saying "Even though I have darker skin than some Americans, that doesn't mean I'm any less patriotic than any other American. I am appalled that people who call themselves 'Americans' are attacking and killing other Americans simply because of their hair and skin color." Ernest Childers, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, is still a hero.

So is Sergeant Van Barfoot, a Mississippi Choctaw. During the Allied breakout from the Anzio beachhead in Spring 1944, Barfoot's platoon attacked entrenched German units. Confronting heavy fire, he crawled around the flank and grenaded an enemy machine-gun position. He jumped into the trench system the Germans had dug and moved on. He attacked a second machine gun position with his Thompson sub-machine gun. Clearing the trenches, he captured a total of seventeen German soldiers.

Later that day, he disabled a tank with a bazooka and dispatched the crew with his Tommy gun. Then he destroyed an enemy artillery piece with grenades. To finish his day, he helped two wounded comrades over a mile of ground to safety.

All told, five Native warriors won the Medal of Honor in World War II. In addition to the three from the 45th, Navy Commander Ernest Evans and Pfc. John Reese, Jr. were honored for their actions in the Philippines in 1944 and 1945, respectively. Both were killed in action. A few years later during the Korean War, three more Native warriors were so honored: Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., Captain Raymond Harvey and Pfc. Charles George. Pfc. George was a North Carolina Cherokee in the 45th Infantry Division. He and Corporal Red Cloud both died heroically.

These men, and many others whose heroics escaped attention for one reason or another, are the great Native warriors of the twentieth century. American Indians served heroically in all five American wars of the American Century, from World War I to the Gulf War, and no doubt there are Native warriors fighting the war on terrorism even as I write. Indian country can never repay them, save by honoring them in the traditional way, with songs and stories that will inspire new generations of American Indian hero warriors.

The next time somebody tries to tell you that cartoonish mascots for sports teams are meant to honor the Native American warrior tradition, tell him about the code talkers, and about the Medal of Honor recipients from the 45th Infantry Division, and about the American hero warriors from your own tribe. Then tell him that these heroes are not Redskins, nor Chiefs, nor Braves. Tell him that they are men. Big men.

Kevin Gover, a columnist for Indian Country Today, is a partner is the Washington, D.C. office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Mr. Gover's practice focuses on federal law relating to Indians and on Indian tribal law. He is the former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.