The Ties That Bind Heroes

Some believe 1st Lt. Josiah Alvin Powless’ duties to save many during World War I should be worthy of the Medal of Honor.
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Ninety-two-year-old Roy Huff of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a World War II veteran. I am a 50-something single mom from California who never fought in a war, unless you count a 10-year marriage.

So what on earth could we have in common, besides our Oneida heritage?

Cue the grandfathers.

My German-born grandfather, Frank Henry Overman, was a member of the 77th Division, 308th Infantry—better known by historians as the Lost Battalion. He was one of the lucky few who survived that slaughter in the Argonne Forest by German forces during World War I.

Huff’s grandfather, 1st Lt. Josiah Alvin Powless, was a doctor assigned to the medical detachment of the same regiment as my grandfather. It’s possible they knew each other; maybe even stood side-by-side in the trenches or shared rations. But we will never know for sure.

Thankfully for his progeny, my grandfather returned from the war, albeit injured. He was shot in the ankle and blinded in one eye. That’s how he met my grandmother—an Oneida nurse who helped heal his wounds and then stole his heart. He was awarded a purple heart—his ticket into the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery when he died at the age of 70.

Powless, the first Oneida Tribe Native to graduate from a U.S. medical school, Milwaukee Medical College, who served our tribe for 12 years as director of the Oneida Hospital, died on November 6, 1918, five days before the end of the war after being shot on the battlefield in what historians have decreed an act of valor.

According to Susan Applegate Krouse, an expert on Native Americans who served in World War I, Powless was one of 150 Oneidas from Wisconsin who fought in that epic conflict.

So the story goes that the 46-year-old Oneida doctor risked his life to save another physician from his regiment, Capt. James McKibben, who had been cut down by bullets, by crossing into heavy machine-gun fire. Bullets be damned. He was on a mission to save his friend and colleague. After dressing McKibben’s wounds on the battlefield, he carried him back to safety and almost made it back unharmed, but enemy fire hit him, too, and Powless died days later from his injuries.

General John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to Powless. But many people today, including Powless’ grandson, Huff, believe that Powless should have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded by the President of the United States for “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It would be a terrific honor if it was determined that he was worthy of that. I personally think he is,” says Huff, whose grandson, Josiah, was named after his great-great-grandfather. Huff says that Powless’ military service is very important to his family’s history, and they chose to honor him in that special way.

Powless is buried at Holy Apostles Church Cemetery on the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin, and Huff says the family visits often. “We go over there in the spring, cut grass and pull weeds, and keep things cleaned up for him.”

Recently, I stood at the graveside of my grandparents for the first time. The World War I hero and his Native American wife are buried together at Arlington National Cemetery. I had been attending a conference in Washington D.C., my first visit to the nation’s capital, and jumped at the opportunity to finally pay my respects more than 50 years after my grandfather’s passing.

As I looked around at the waves and waves of white crosses marking the graves of thousands of war heroes, my thoughts turned to Huff’s grandfather. Although it is certainly none of my business where Josiah Powless’ family laid him to rest, as it was a very personal and private decision, I couldn’t help but think that he would have been in good company at Arlington, too. A hero among heroes.

Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.