Indians in World War II
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said,
"This generation has a rendezvous with destiny." When Roosevelt
said that he had no idea of how much World War II would
make his prophecy ring true. More than fifty years later,
Americans are remembering the sacrifices of that generation,
which took up arms in defense of the nation. Part of that
generation was a neglected minority, Native American Indians,
who flocked to the colors in defense of their country. No
group that participated in World War II made a greater per
capita contribution, and no group was changed more by the
war. As part of the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary
of World WarII, it is fitting forthe nation to recall the
contributions of its own "first citizens."
The Vanishing American
At the time of Christopher Columbus ' arrival
in the New World, the Native American population living
in what is now the United States was estimated at about
one million. By 1880, only 250,000 Indians remained and
this gave rise to the "Vanishing American" theory. By 1940,
this population had risen to about 350,000. During World
War II more than 44,000 Native Americans saw military service.
They served on all fronts in the conflict and were honored
by receiving numerous Purple Hearts, Air Medals, Distinguished
Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars, SilverStars, Distinguished
Service Crosses, and three Congressional Medals of Honor.
Indian participation in World War II was so extensive that
it later became part of American folklore and popular culture.
The Warrior Image
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor seemed
to waken an ancestral warrior spirit in many Native Americans.
Thousands of young Indians went into the armed forces or
to work in the war production plants that abruptly emerged
during military and industrial mobilization. A 1942 survey
indicated that 40 percent more Native Americans voluntarily
enlisted than had been drafted. Lt. Emest Childers (Creek),
Lt. Jack Montgomery (Cherokee), and Lt. Van Barfoot (ChoctawW
all of the famed 45th "Thunderbird" Infantry Division-won
Medals of Honor in Europe. Childers had first distinguished
himself in Sicily, where he received a battlefield commission.
Later in Italy, unaided and despite severe wounds, he destroyed
three German machine gun emplacements. During the Anzio
Campaign in Italy, Montgomery attacked a German strongpoint
single-handed, killing eleven of the enemy and taking thirty-three
prisoners. During the breakout from Anzio to Rome, Barfoot
knocked out two machine gun nests and captured seventeen
prisoners. Subsequently, he defeated three German tanks
and carried two wounded men to safety. All of these exploits
reinforced the "warrior" image in the American mind. Maj.
Gen. Clarence Tinker, an Osage and a career pilot, was the
highest ranking Indian in the armed forces at the beginning
of the war. He died leading a flight of bombers in the Pacific
during the Battle of Midway. Joseph J. "Jocko" Clark, the
first Indian (Cherokee) to graduate from Annapolis, participated
in carrier battles in the Pacific and became an admiral.
Brumett Echohawk (Pawnee), a renowned expert in hand-to-hand
combat, trained commandos.
A Tradition as Fighters
The Iroquois Confederacy, having declared
war on Germany in 1917, had never made peace and so automatically
became party to World War II. The Navajo and other tribes
were so eager to go to war that they stood for hours in
bad weather to sign their draft cards, while others carried
their own rifles so they would be ready for battle when
they joined up. Unwilling to wait for their draft numbers,
one-fourth of the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico enlisted.
Nearly all the able-bodied Chippewas at the Grand Portage
Reservation enlisted. In a story that has been attributed
to many other tribes as well, Blackfeet Indians mocked the
need for a conscription bill. "Since when," their members
cried, "has it been necessary for Blackfeet to draw lots
The annual enlistment for Native Americans
jumped from 7,500 in the summer of 1942 to 22,000 at the
beginning of 1945. According to the Selective Service in
1942, at least 99 percent of all eligible Indians, healthy
males aged 21 to 44, had registered for the draft. War Department
of ficials maintained that if the entire population had
enlisted in the same proportion as Indians, the response
would have rendered Selective Service unnecessary. The overwhelming
majority of Indians welcomed the opportunity to serve. On
Pearl Harbor Day, there were 5,000 Indians in the military.
By the end of the war, 24,521 reservation Indians, exclusive
of officers, and another 20,000 off-reservation Indians
had served. The combined figure of 44,500 was more than
ten percent of the Native American population during the
war years. This represented one-third of all able-bodied
Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age. In some tribes, the
percentage of men in the military reached as high as 70
percent. Also, several hundred Indian women served in the
WACS, WAVES, and Army Nurse Corps.
The "Chiefs" Go to War
In spite of years of inefficient and often
corrupt bureaucratic management of Indian affairs, Native
Americans stood ready to fight the "white man's war." American
Indians overcame past disappointment, resentment, and suspicion
to respond to their nation's need in World War II. It was
a grand show of loyalty on the part of Native Americans
and many Indian recruits were affectionately called "chiefs."
Native Americans responded to America's call for soldiers
because they understood the need to defend one's own land,
and they understood fundamental concepts of fighting for
life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Even the clannish Pueblo tribe, whose members
exhibited a historical suspicion of the white world, contributed
213 men, 10 percent of their population of 2,205, to the
armed forces. Wisconsin Chippewas at the Lac Oreilles Reservation
contributed 100 men from a population of 1,700. Nearly all
the able-bodied Chippewas at the Grand Portage Reservation
enlisted. Blackfeet Indians enlisted in droves. Navajo Indians
responded by sending 3,600 into military service; 300 lost
their lives. Many volunteered from the Fort Peck Sioux-Assinibois
Reservation in Montana, the descendants of the Indians that
defeated Custer. The Iroquois took it as an insult to be
called up under compulsion. They passed their own draft
act and sent their young braves into National Guard units.
There were many disappointments as well-intentioned
Indians were rejected for the draft. Years of poverty, illiteracy,
ill- health, and general bureaucratic neglect had taken
its toll. A Chippewa Indian was furious when rejected because
he had no teeth. "I don't want to bite 'em," he said, "I
just want to shoot 'em!" Another Indian, rejected for being
too fat to run, said that he had not come to run, but to
The Swastika Shadow Over Native
Campbell honors members
of the Navajo Code Talkers in Washington on July 26,
2001. The Code Talkers used the Navajo language as
an unbreakeable code during WW II.
World War II signalled a major break from
the past and offered unparalleled opportunities for Indians
to compete in the white man's world. Because the Choctaw
language had befuddled German code-breakers in World War
I, the Gemman government feared the likelihood of Indian
communications specialists as World War II loomed. During
the 1930s, Nazi agents posing as anthropologists and writers
on reservations tried to subvert some Indian tribes and
learn their language. Pan-Nazi agitators from the German-American
Bund tried to persuade Indians not to register for the draft.
Third Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels predicted
Indians would revolt rather than fight Gemmany because the
Swastika was similarto an Indian mystical bird symbol depicting
Goebbels went so far as to declare the Sioux
to be "Aryans," but the Indians knew that as a Mongoloid
race, they would be enslaved by the Nazis. Fascist attempts
to convert Indians to their cause not only met with failure,
but it may have encouraged Indians to register for the draft
in the large numbers they did. About 20 percent of the Indian
population, 80,000 men and women, marched off to fight in
the armed forces and at the home front against Adolph Hitler,
a man they called, "he who smells his moustache." Benito
Mussolini fared little better, as the Indians called him
Indians saw the Axis Powers as a threat to
their liberty, and the Indian tribes responded patriotically.
The Chippewa and Sioux joined the Iroquois in declaring
war on the Axis. Indians took extreme measures to get into
the war. Illiterate Papago Indians memorized a few English
phrases and learned to write their names when called to
the induction centers. The Navajo, also rejected in large
numbers for not speaking English, were extremely determined
to serve. They organized remedial English training on their
reservations to qualify for service in the armed forces.
The draft created a structure within which
Indians and whites had to operate together for the defense
of their country. The draft set Indians on a new course
where they would be integrated into military life with their
white counterparts . Their lives and their land-based society
would never be the same. The Indians' success in weakening
racial barriers in the armed forces during World war II
presaged the rise of the Civil Rights movement later.
The Home Front
Well-known American humorist Will Rogers,
a Cherokee from Oklahoma, said, "The United States never
broke a treaty with a foreign government and never kept
one with the Indians." Nevertheless, the government of the
United States found no more loyal citizens than their own
"first Americans." When President Roosevelt mobilized the
country and declared war on the Axis Powers, it seemed as
if he spoke to each citizen individually. Therefore, according
to the Indians' way of perceiving, all must be allowed to
participate. About 40,000 Indian men and women, aged 18
to 50, left reservations for the first time to find jobs
in defense industries. This migration led to new vocational
skills and increased cultural sophistication and awareness
in dealings with non-Indians.
The purchase of Treasury Stamps and Bonds
by Indian tribes and individuals was considerable. By 1944,
war bond sales to Indians had reached $50 million. Indians
also made generous donations to the Red Cross and other
organizations, giving what they had. All of this from a
minority group at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
Some 2,500 Navajos helped construct the Fort
Wingate Ordnance Depot in New Mexico, and Pueblo Indians
helped build the Naval Supply Depot in Utah. Because of
their hunting, survival, and navigational skills in the
harsh regions of the north, Alaskan Indians were involved
in territorial defense. The entire football team at the
Santa Fe Indian School volunteered for the armed forces
after the 1942 homecoming game.
Women took over traditional men' s duties
on the reservation, manning fire lookout stations, and becoming
mechanics, lumberjacks, farmers, and delivery personnel.
Indian women, although reluctant to leave the reservation,
worked as welders in aircraft plants. Many Indian women
gave their time as volunteers for American Womens' Volunteer
Service, Red Cross, and Civil Defense. They also tended
livestock, grew victory gardens, canned food, and sewed
uniforms. A wealthy Kiowa woman in Oklahoma sent a $1,000
check to the Navy Relief signed with her thumbprint. Alaskan
women trapped animals to earn war bond money. By 1943, the
YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) estimated that
12,000 young Indian women had left the reservation to work
in defense industries. By 1945, an estimated 150,000 Native
Americans had directly participated in industrial, agricultural,
and military aspects of the American war effort.
The Indian Service sent 1,119 of its 7,000
employees into military service. Of these, 22 died, while
7 won Silver or Bronze Stars. In 1942, the Japanese captured
45 Aleuts on Attu. Only 24 returned from captivity in Japan,
where they had worked in clay pits.
The federal government designated some Indian
lands and even tribes themselves as essential natural resources,
appropriating tribal minerals, lumber, and lands for the
war effort. After the war, Native Americans discovered thattheirservice
forthe warefforthad depleted their resources without reward.
Indian lands provided essential war materials such as oil,
gas, lead, zinc, copper, vanadium, asbestos, gypsum, and
coal. The Manhattan Project used Navajo helium in New Mexico
to make the atomic bomb. The war effort depleted the Blackfeet's
tribal resources of oil.
Tell it to the Marines
German soldiers during World War I had been
befuddled by Indians who transmitted messages over field
phones in the Choctaw language. The 32d Infantry Division,
Third Ammy, used Indians from Michigan and Wisconsin to
work with microphones and to transmit messages in the Louisiana
Maneuvers of 1940. During World War II, the U.S. Marine
Corps recruited Navajo Indians for the same purpose. Navajo
marines used their language as a battlefield code that the
Japanese never broke. The Navajo Code Talkers became the
most celebrated and publicized of the radio units.
Marines were "elite" fighters and welcomed
Indians because of their warrior reputation. The Navajo
marines ended their ceremonial chants by singing the Marine
Corps Hymn in Navajo. Their eloquence came naturally to
Indians because theirs is an oral culture. Navajos formed
special all-Navajo Marine Corps signal units that encoded
messages in their native tongue. Taking advantage of the
flexibility and range of the Navajo language, they worked
out translations of military and naval terms so that orders
and instructions could be transmitted by voice over the
radio in a code the Japanese were never able to break. They
were used first in late 1942 on Guadalcanal. Special Code
Talker units were eventually assigned to each of the Marine
Corps' six Pacific divisions. By war's end, over 400 Navajo
had served as Code Talkers. Untold numbers of Marines owe
their lives to the Navajo Code Talkers.
Indians also excelled at basic training. Maj.
Lee Gilstrop of Oklahoma, who trained 2 ,000 Native Americans
at his post, said, "The Indian is the best damn soldier
in the Army." Their talents included bayonet fighting, marksmanship,
scouting, and patrolling. Native Americans took to commando
training; after all, their ancestors invented it. One Sioux
soldier, Kenneth Scisson of South Dakota, became an American
commando unit's leading Gemman-killer. On a single patrol,
Scisson added ten notches to his Garand rifle. Native Americans
endured thirst and lack of food better than the average
soldier. They had an acute sense of perception and excellent
endurance, along with superior physical coordination.
Indians first saw action in the Pacific theater.
Over 300 Indians, including a descendant of the famed Apache
chief Geronimo, took part in the defense of Bataan and Corregidor.
Over 2,000 Indian farmers, workers, and businessmen in Oklahoma
and New Mexico trained and fought as part of the 45th Infantry
Division for 511 days of combat in Italy and Central Europe.
The "Thunderbirds" had the highest propor tion of Indian
soldiers of any division, but Indians served conspicuously
in the 4th and 88th Divisions, the l9thand 180thInfantryRegiments,
and the 147thField Artillery Regiment, and in sundry Oklahoma
National Guard units.
For Native Americans, World War II signalled
a majorbreak from the past. Many Indians inthe military
made a decent living for the first time in their lives.
By 1944, the average Indian's annual income was $2,500,
up two and one-half times since 1940. Military life provided
a steady job, money, status, and a taste of the white man's
world. Indians leamed assertiveness they could use in their
fight for equal rights after the war.
The Warriors and War Workers Return
Campbell and Steve
Brady, Executive Director of the Sand Creek Massacre
descendants group, take part in opening ceremonies at
the November 10, 2001 Pow-Wow held by the Northern Cheyenne
Tribe in Lame Deer Montana celebrating the enactment
into law of Campbell's Sand Creek Massacre National
Historic Site legislation.
The war, therefore, provided new opportunities
for American Indians, and these opportunities disrupted
old patterns. The wartime economy and military service took
thousands of Indians away from the reservations. Many of
these Indians settled into the mainstream, adapting pemmanently
to the cities and to a non-Indian way of life. Moreover,
thousands retumed to the reservation even after they had
proved themselves capable of making the adjustment to white
America. Those who left traditional cultures did not necessarily
reject their heritage. Instead, they forged a new Pan-Indian
identity to cope with the differences they perceived between
themselves and whites.
World War II became a turning point for both
Indians and Caucasians because its impact on each was so
great and different. Whites believed that World War II had
completed the process of Indian integration into mainstream
American society. Large numbers of Indians, on the other
hand, saw for the first time the non-Indian world at close
range. It both attracted and repelled them. The positive
aspects included a higher standard of living, with education,
health care, and job opportunities. The negatives were the
lessening of tribal influence and the threat of forfeiting
the security of the reservation. Indians did not want equality
with whites at the price of losing group identification.
In sum, the war caused the greatest change in Indian life
since the beginning of the reservation era and taught Native
Americans they could aspire to walk successfully in two
A good deal of credit must go to the Native
Americans for their outstanding part in America's victory
in World War II. They sacrificed more than most-both individually
and as a group. They left the land they knew to travel to
strange places, where people did not always understand their
ways. They had to forego the dances and rituals that were
an important part of their life. They had to leam to work
under non-Indian supervisors in situations that were wholly
new to them. It was a tremendously difficult adjustment;
more than for white America, which had known modem war and
mobilization before. But in the process, Native Americans
became Indian-Americans, not just American Indians.
- 1918 - Iroquois Indians declare war on Germany. Since
they were not included in the 1919 Peace Treaty, they
simply renewed their Declaration of War in 1941 and
included Italy and Japan.
- 1919 - Indian soldiers and sailors receive citizenship.
- 1924 -The Snyder Act grants full citizenship to all
- 1938 -Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) estimates number
of potential registrants for a draft in case of war.
- 1939 - BIA updates male Indian age groups.
- Jun 1940-The Navajo tribe announces that any un-American
activity among its people will be dealt with severely.
- Aug 1940- BIA Commissioner John Collier meets with
Selective Service representatives to determine how to
- Sep 1940- Congress passes Selective Service Act.
- Oct 1940 - Congress passes Nationalities Act granting
citizenship to all Native Americans without impairing
- - For the first time, American Indians register
for the draft.
- Jan 1941- The Fourth Signal Company recruits thirty
Oklahoma Comanche Indians to be part of a special Signal
- Oct 1940- The armed forces have inducted 1,785 Native
- Dec 1941- There are 5,000 Native Americans in the
armed forces when Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor.
- Jan 1942 - Accordingto Selective Service of ficials,
99 percent of all eligible Native Americans had registered
for the draft. This ration set the national standard
for the nation.
- Jan 1942 - The Navajo Tribal Council calls a special
convention to dramatize their support for the war effort;
- Jul 1 942 - The Six Nations (Mohawks, Oneida, Seneca,
Cayuga, Onondaga, 1942 and Iroquois) declare waron the
- 1942-1943- The Ammy Air Corps runs a literacy program
in Atlantic City, N.J., for native Americans who could
not meet military literacy standards.
- Apr 1943- Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes announces
that Indians have bought $12.6 million in war bonds.
- 1944 - Over 46,000 Indian men and women have left
their reservations for defense-related jobs.
- Nov 1944- Fifty tribes establish the National Congress
of American Indians (NCAI) in Denver, Colorado.
- Jan 1945- John Collier resigns as Indian Commissioner
after years of political controversy.
- 1946- TheTrumanCommissiononCivilRightsurges more humanitarian
consideration for Native Amencans.
- -Indian Claims Commission Act created by Congress
to adjudicate Indian land claims in the aftermath
- 1947 - Army Indian Scouts discontinued as a separate
element of the U.S. armed forces.
- They had last been used on border patrol duties.
- 1957 - Utah becomes the last state to permit Indians