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Remembering the Alamo Scouts: Many American Indians Fought in World War II

By now, most of the world knows what the U.S. Navy SEAL unit can do. The recent covert operation that went down in Abbottabad, Pakistan—Team 6 swooping down on a compound in four stealth helicopters in the predawn darkness and killing or capturing more than 20 people, Osama bin Laden among the dead, in about 40 minutes—was a vivid reminder of its abilities. But too few know about a forerunner of the SEALs and the other present-day military special operations units: the Alamo Scouts of World War II, a unit that had many American Indians within its ranks.

The Alamo Scouts unit was created in 1943 by Lt. General Walter Krueger, commander of the Sixth Army, to conduct raid and reconnaissance operations in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. Working in six- or seven-man teams, they carried out operations deep behind enemy lines, mainly in New Guinea and the Philippines, for two years and without ever losing a man to the Japanese Army. Their missions included liberating two prisoner of war camps, gathering information on the strength, location and movement of enemy troops as well as organizing, arming and training Filipino guerilla units.

No one knows the Alamo Scouts better than Lance Zedric, who is a historian for the Alamo Scouts Association (ASA) and author of Silent Warriors of World War II: The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines (and he has a more comprehensive book in the works). Through his research, Zedric has identified 110 Alamo Scout missions. He has several favorites, including the Cabanatuan raid in 1945 conducted by Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts and a Filipino guerrilla force that freed 511 Allied prisoners of war, and a 67-day mission in southern Luzon in 1945. “That was good, pure reconnaissance—calling in targets, counting enemy troops, running roadblocks, organizing a 1,000-man guerilla force, arming, equipping, resupplying guerillas by air drop. I think that was an extraordinary job of early special-forces coordination,” he says.

But the mission that, in Zedric’s opinion, best exemplifies who the Alamo Scouts were happened in July 1945. An order came in from General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters to rescue some civilians on Fuga Island in the Babuyan Islands, then occupied by the Japanese. “The Scouts went in at two a.m. with the help of the Navy PT boats, scooped up 39 of these civilians, got them off the island and right under the Japanese’s noses, with a couple of prisoners to boot,” Zedric says.

The Alamo Scouts were schooled at one of five training centers; the initial one was on Fergusson Island, New Guinea, where the unit was first organized. The six-week training session was intense—soldiers learned land and water navigation; intelligence gathering; communications skills; how to kill with a variety of weapons (including firearms, knives and their bare hands); first-aid and many other skills needed to survive in the dense jungles of the southwest Pacific. And they were taught how to observe quietly and notice the slightest of details. Of the approximately 250 enlisted men and 75 officers who graduated from the training program, just 138 became operational Alamo Scouts. Of those, at least 15 were American Indians. Their names: Raymond Aguilar (Mestizo), Vergil F. Howell (Pawnee), Lucian A. Jamison (Seneca), Joseph A. Johnson (White Mountain Apache), Francis H. LaQuier (Chippewa), Theodore T. Largo (Pima), Zeke McConnell (Cherokee), David M. Milda (possibly Pima), Anthony J. Ortiz (San Juan Pueblo), Elijah Parish (Choctaw), Guy F. Rondell (Lakota Sioux), Joshua Sunn (Maricopa), Byron L. Tsingine (Navajo), Alvin J. Vilcan (Chitimacha) and Guy R. Williamson (Blackfeet).

Zedric believes good visual memory is part of what made the American Indian soldiers exceptional Alamo Scouts. He says they also had a general toughness, were in great physical condition and were quiet by nature. “Not a lot of blowhards, loudmouths and that kind of thing. For silent reconnaissance, you didn’t want those types of people,” he says.

They also had a deep sense of duty. Zedric points out that the percentage of American Indians who enlisted during World War II was far greater than that of any other race or ethnic group. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he says there were about 5,000 American Indians in the U.S. armed forces. Before the war ended, the number had surged to more than 44,500, which, according to some estimates, was more than 12 percent of the total American Indian population, and one-third of that population’s able-bodied men, ages 18 to 50.

Lieutenant Wilbur Littlefield, now 89, led one team of Alamo Scouts, called the Littlefield Team. He says the American Indians were ideal Scouts because they were not “city boys.” They were from the country; they knew how to operate in the woods. “They were all good soldiers,” he says. “They got along with everybody, which was essential to being a Scout.”

Littlefield’s team had one American Indian, Zeke McConnell. Born in Stilwell, Oklahoma, in 1919, McConnell was half Cherokee and half Irish, and he was proud of his heritage, both lines of it. He and his two siblings were declared orphans in 1928, a year after their mother died from tuberculosis, and were sent to the Sequoyah Orphan Training School in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a very strict institution. Here meals were timed; chores had to be done on a daily basis; and speaking an indigenous language was forbidden.

After Sequoyah, McConnell attended Bacone Junior College, earning his diploma in 1941. A year later, he was drafted into the Army. He first went to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training, but spent the last two weeks of his basic training in Hawaii. From there, he was deployed to the Philippines, where he drove a Jeep for a colonel. That colonel encouraged McConnell to try out for the Alamo Scouts. Kathi Henderson, 63, one of McConnell’s five children, says growing up an orphan at Sequoyah made her father the right kind of person for the Alamo Scouts. “There was a lot of discipline there—a huge amount of discipline there—but he had a good life,” she says of her father, who passed away in February 2007.

Henderson had no knowledge of her father’s participation in the Alamo Scouts until she was 34 years old because the exploits of the unit remained classified until the early 1980s. When she found out, she was proud and awestruck.

Her brother, Les McConnell, 62, says he heard more war stories from his father than his older sister did because there was a lot of guy talk between them. He recalls that one of his father’s favorite possessions was an Australian oil compass. “It was one of the ones that was issued to the Scouts. I used to be intrigued by the compass and would ask questions,” he says, noting with sadness that it was later stolen.

One of Les’s favorite war stories told by his father involved a night-time raid on a Japanese platoon. “He was real good with all firearms. Whatever happened, he did all the firing from the hip. He had this little carbine, a tiny weapon. No one had time to get ready. They just had it out right there. When it was all clear, all the Scouts were still standing,” he says, adding that his father took as a souvenir from that raid—a Japanese flag, the names of Japanese soldiers written on it. Les still has the flag and wants to return it to its homeland.

“Their effect on the war was huge,” he says. “I don’t think you could measure their effect.”

The impact of the Alamo Scouts was felt far beyond the battlefields of World War II. When the war ended, the U.S. Department of Defense did comprehensive interviews with Scouts members, and what it learned in those debriefings was turned into lessons on amphibious warfare, scouting, patrolling, intelligence gathering, raiding and guerilla operations for future special ops personnel. There is a direct line running from the Alamo Scouts to today’s Navy SEALs.

Vilcan, a graduate of the Alamo Scouts’ first training class, was born on the Chitimacha Reservation in Louisiana in 1918. While attending an Indian trade school in Phoenix, he enlisted in the National Guard. After the war broke out, he became part of the 158th Infantry, known as the Bushmasters, from which several of the Indian Alamo Scouts were recruited. Wayne Vilcan, 61, one of his father’s three sons, had no idea of his father’s participation in the Alamo Scouts until the late 2000s, when he was contacted by Byron Tsingine Jr., the son of another American Indian in the unit, about the Alamo Scouts being featured in an episode of the History Channel’s Warriors series. Wayne says his father never spoke of the Scouts to him. He adds that his father died in 2002, obeying till the end his orders to remain silent about the unit and its activities. “He would tell stories about fighting in the South Pacific,” Wayne says. “He used to talk about waking up to nightmares and cold sweats going back to when he was in a foxhole one time. There was a Japanese soldier who had jumped on top of him, and his gun jammed. He was trying to shoot the Japanese soldier [but couldn’t]. One of the other guys in his company shot him. He said that the Japanese soldier fell there on him in the foxhole.”

While McConnell’s children understand that the Alamo Scouts were a top-secret unit, disbanded in 1945 without any fanfare, they are disappointed by the fact that, nearly 30 years after its missions were declassified, the men who served in it—and their accomplishments—are still relatively unknown.

There has been some recognition. At the close of the war, the Alamo Scouts earned 44 Silver Stars, 33 Bronze Stars and four Soldier’s Medals and numerous other medals, decorations and honors. In 2008, a plaque honoring the unit was mounted at the National Museum of the Pacific War (Admiral Nimitz Museum) in Fredericksburg, Texas.

McConnell’s kids would like to see more done for the unit, perhaps a dedicated spot in the hall of a national museum, one that comes with room to display and store all the materials that have been collected over the years. Until then, the dozen or so surviving members of the unit, the family members of those still living and those who have passed on, and the many people with a passion for the Alamo Scouts will do the remembering at the annual Alamo Scouts Reunion. The 2011 reunion, to be held in Charleston, South Carolina, from June 8 to 12, will feature a banquet, an excursion and a few speakers, a Navy SEAL expert among them.

Zedric, who expects about 70 attendees this year, including six or seven Alamo Scouts, says, “It’s just a way for people to get together and just reconnect every year and remember these gentlemen.”

Though the men who served in the Alamo Scouts quietly went back to their homes or their original Army units when the war ended, the bond that had formed amongst them endured. “Fellow Scouts would become lifelong friends, sometimes with the added personal recognition of having saved one another’s lives,” says Les McConnell in a memorial he wrote to his father.