Indians Fight America's Wars Because 'This is Our Country, Too,' Choctaw Says
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
CHOCTAW, Miss., Nov. 21, 2002 He didn't call it patriotism, but that's exactly what it was when Frank Henry joined the Army at age 17 in November 1944. Though his people were among the first to inhabit this country, he wasn't a citizen then and didn't have a draft card or any of the other things citizens have.
But he still wanted to do something to help "his" country during World War II. He asked his mother to sign paperwork so he could join the Army and she agreed. Being a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians meant Henry had none of the privileges of citizenship, but, "The war was going on and I wanted to do something to help out," he said.
"Indians were not supposed to go in the military back then," said the 74-year- old war veteran. "The military was mainly for whites. My category was white instead of Indian. I don't know why they did that. Even though Indians weren't citizens of this country, couldn't register to vote, didn't have a draft card or anything, they took us anyway.
"Here (Mississippi) it didn't matter because our boys were dying on the front line and they needed some more," Henry noted. "Right here in this county, a lot of good young men didn't go because they knew the politicians. I didn't have to go, but I wanted to."
After basic training at Camp Blanding, Fla., Henry became an infantryman and was assigned as a machine gunner and ammunition carrier in a heavy equipment company in the 78th Division. He went to Europe in January 1945.
"It took us a couple of weeks to get to Le Havre, France, on a troop ship," Henry noted. "After a two-week orientation, we took a troop train headed east and went to Nuremberg, Germany.
"I was in the tail end of the war, but I was in the war zone in a machine gunner company. The only action I saw was guarding the rear echelon," Henry said from his bed in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian Hospital. It was his third week in the hospital after having his left leg amputated because of diabetes complications.
"After the war, we followed the troops all the way to Berlin and we were stationed there as an occupation force," he noted. "After being in the infantry for awhile, I transferred to a medical unit and became an assistant ambulance driver. I got away from that machine gun."
"P-F-C," Henry said with a chuckle when asked the highest rank he made in the Army.
Noting that his cousin was killed in action, he said, "Indian people fought for this country and we had a good reason -- because this is our country. But I wasn't granted citizenship until after the war and I was attending Bacone Junior College in (Muskogee) Oklahoma. They were not granting citizenship to Indians in Mississippi at that time. I was all backward. They should have given me a citizenship before I went in the Army.
After getting an associate's degree in general education at Bacone, Henry received a scholarship to attend the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education. His first job after college was as a community health educator at the old Indian hospital in Philadelphia, Miss. About a year later, he was promoted to acting administrator. He became the hospital director after finishing his business administration studies.
"I worked at the hospital until the tribe took over the operation," he said. "I then taught elementary school for 12 years. I was 65 and decided to retire because my legs started bothering me and I couldn't stand up to teach."
Henry said the discipline and leadership skills he learned in the Army helped him in later life. "Discipline is so important, and when the Army teaches it to you, you don't forget it," he said. "I used it when I was running the hospital. I knew how to supervise, be a leader and discipline my subordinates. Those are some of the things I learned from the service and it helped me a lot in civilian life."
There was no such thing as American Indian Heritage Month when Henry was in the Army, but in his view, having a month set aside to recognize the heritage and culture of Indians is important for young people.
"They don't know our heritage and our history. They need to know these things. They can always point a finger and say, that person was in the service. Maybe I want to go into the service," he said.
"The history of our Choctaw nation is taught in schools on the reservation but we need to expand that," he continued. "A lot of people, Choctaw and non- Indians, don't know much about Indians serving in the military. We need to be recognized, and people need to know that we have served our country.
"If war broke out today, we're going to have to go to serve our country," Henry said.