Native American efforts not forgotten

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Eric Brewington
  • 23rd Contracting Squadron and Lumbee Tribe member
During World War II, Native American zeal to serve this country was so great that according to U.S. Army officials, the draft would not have been necessary if the country's entire population had enlisted in the same proportion as did American Indians.

American Indians began enlisting in the late 1930s when the Armed Forces began to mobilize. They were ready to fight for our country, people and families.

These great men were mere boys at the time of their calling. Many never left their reservation or ventured far from their Indian communities before, yet they were proud and eager to serve. There was some peer pressure to join, as many Indians would come home on leave sporting their new uniforms, catching the eyes of the ladies and having a little money in their pocket. These new recruits would share their adventures of meeting people from all over the country.

The end result was 99 percent of all eligible American Indians registered for the draft, setting a national standard. In fact, many Native Americans who were not even old enough to serve misled their recruiter or found a way into military service.

There were choices for American Indians outside of military service.

"If you were a farmer, you didn't have to go into service," said James Locklear, who is part of the Lumbee Tribe and served in the Navy from 1943-46. "But many of us Indian boys felt obligated to join our buddies and fight. That's why I begged and had a little help to get in."

Mr. Locklear served on the battleship USS New Mexico and first saw combat at the age of 17.

On Dec. 7, 1941, there were 5,000 Indians in the service and by the end of the war, more than 44,500 Indians served in uniform - 24,521 Indians from reservations and 20,000 from non-reservation Indian communities. The combined total was more than 10 percent of the American Indian population, and one-third of the able-bodied men from 18-50 years old. Some Indian men were so eager to fight, they stood in line for hours - during all types of weather - just to sign their draft cards.

"I spent my own money to ride a bus for two hours one-way just to see a recruiter, because no one really knew the differences between the Navy, Marines and Army," said James Maynor, who is a World War II veteran and native of the Lumbee Tribe.

One-fourth of the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico and nearly all able-bodied Chippewas at the Grand Portage Reservation enlisted because they were unwilling to wait for their draft numbers.

In early 1942, the Navajo Tribal council called a special convention attended by 50,000 Indians to dramatize their support for the war effort. Tuscaroras, Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Chippewas and the Sioux Nations united and declared war on the Axis powers. More than 300 Indians first saw action in the Pacific, including a descendant of famed Apache Chief Geronimo, who took part in the defense of Bataan and Corregidor.

The Marine Corps welcomed Native Americans into their ranks primarily because of the warrior reputation and spirit. The Army's famed 45th "Thunderbird" Infantry Division had the highest proportion of Indian soldiers of any division, with more than 2,000 Indian men. Beginning in 1943, this unit endured 511 days of combat fighting through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Ardennes Forest, and finally into Germany.

Cherokee men like 1st Lt. Ernest Childers, Commander Ernest E. Evans and 2nd Lt. Van Barefoot, from the Choctaw tribe, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor during combat in Europe. Maj. Gen. Clarence Tinker, from the Osage tribe, was the first U.S. general lost in action during WWII while leading a group of LB-30 aircraft on a mission against Japanese forces near Wake Island June 7, 1942.

Native American contributions to the war effort were significant to say the least. Nearly 46,000 Indian men and women left their communities to work in the defense industry. Ultimately, approximately 150,000 Native Americans directly participated in the industrial, agricultural and military effort.

Nearly 12,000 American Indian women served on production lines and performed community services. These great women worked as welders in aircraft assembly plants, served in the American Women's Volunteer Service and Red Cross and Civil Defense, manned fire lookout stations, became everything from mechanics to lumberjacks, tended livestock, grew Victory gardens, canned food and sewed uniforms.

Nearly 800 Indian women served in the Women's Army Corps, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, Women Marine Corps Reserve and Army Nurse Corps.

Native Americans also purchased $50 Million in Treasury Stamps and War Bonds.
World War II was a major turning point for all Americans and especially for Native Americans.

Large numbers of Indians experienced the non-Indian world for the first time. As a result, some returning veterans went through purification ceremonies in order to return to their normal lives.

While the war provided many new opportunities, it also disrupted the traditional way of life. The attraction to live away from the Indian community was offset by the lessening of Tribal ties and the loss of Tribal security.

Many American Indians make the transition, and through assimilation, learn to live successfully in both worlds. Others continue to live on reservations and Indian communities in order to preserve the traditional way of life. Many of us have found that it is the military that provided a successful balance between both worlds.