Today’s post is written by Judy Luis-Watson, volunteer coordinator at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.
During World War I (WWI), more than 12,000 American Indians served in the armed forces of the United States. In the army, their many roles included serving as gunners, snipers, patrol workers, messengers, scouts, medical personnel, radio operators, as well as code talkers.
Unlike African Americans who were placed in two segregated divisions, American Indians were integrated into numerous divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). A few units, however, like Company E of the 36th Division, were all Indian.
Statistics of Indians in WWI were only compiled after the war when Indian veterans as well as relatives and friends of deceased soldiers responded to questionnaires created by three sources for different reasons. Joseph K. Dixon, a photographer, author, and Indian rights advocate developed the first questionnaire; the other two were produced by government agencies—the Office of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Army’s Historical Section. Compiling statistics was also complicated because Indians in the military in WWI were classified as “colored” in the south and as “white” in the north (Warriors in Uniform, p. 100).
WWI Volunteer Project
For the past couple of years, volunteers at the National Archives at College Park, who’ve received training in NARA preservation practices, have been steeped in the records of the AEF. They’ve been conducting holdings maintenance and consolidation of the records of the AEF, Record Group 120. With the completion of 2,500 boxes, they are now more than half-way through the project that is supervised by archivist Patrick Osborn.
After several volunteers brought three interesting types of records–all relating to American Indians in the 36th Division–to my attention, we learned that American Indians from many tribes served in that Division.
Transmitting Messages in Choctaw
The first record, “Transmitting Messages in Choctaw,” a 1919 memo from Colonel A.W. Bloor commanding the 142nd Infantry Regiment informed us that Native American soldiers speaking over 26 tribal languages and dialects included two officers who served in the “Great War”; the memo has a declassification stamp dated 1948. We also learned that the idea to use Native American soldiers to relay messages in their tribal languages had its genesis in 1918 when the AEF were fighting in France.
During the 2004 Senate Hearing on code talkers, Brigadier General John S. Brown, Chief of Military History and Director, Army Center of Military History testified that in addition to the Choctaws, “by the end of World War I, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, and Yankton soldiers were also serving as code talkers. However, since Native Americans served both formally and informally as code talkers, documentation may be sparse.”
In his memo, Colonel Bloor wrote, “…there was every reason to believe every decipherable message or word going over our wires also went to the enemy….There was hardly one chance in a million that Fritz would be able to translate these dialects, and the plan to have these Indians transmit telephone messages was adopted.” Having soldiers who possessed their Native languages and were trained in transmitting messages completely surprised the enemy and gave a real on-the-ground advantage to the American forces.
It is ironic that because Indian schools did not succeed in eradicating native tribal languages, these bilingual skills were used effectively to help the Allies and save lives. As Sociology and Anthropology Professor William C. Meadows from Southwest Missouri State University testified during the Senate hearing on code talkers, “the contribution of the code talkers in World War I and World War II should not be judged on their numbers, but by the unique historical circumstances of their bilingual and bi-cultural background and their willingness to use this in defense of their own people and the United States.”
Personal War Experience Reports
A second type of record was found, when volunteer Ed Post was processing undated, handwritten “Personal War Experience” reports in the 36th Division that were in files dated 1918. He came across “Red Skins” mentioned in two of them. These soldiers served in the 132nd Machine Gun Battalion.
Private Leonard Summers of Co. A reported that “…we had 15 tribes of the American Red Skins which was [were] among the bravest and nerviest soldiers in the 36th Div….” Eugene S. McLain of Co. D reported that “…we advanced over the hill and the Infantry came in contact with some Huns. And believe me those red skins didn’t have any mercy on them. After taking up our positions we stayed there 2 or 3 days….” He ended his report saying, “I am glad I have had the experience & also glad it is finish [finished]. Because honestly it is Hell.”
Insignia of the 36th Division
Lead volunteer Donna Opilla found the third type of record when she recently came across a box of insignias. The attachments helped to explain the symbolism in the original artwork of the 36th Division’s insignia that was adopted in January 1919. It was a ‘circular disc of olive drab cloth, upon which is superimposed on an arrow head of cobalt blue and within the arrow head is an olive drab block letter “T.” The block letter “T” represents Texas and the arrow head, Oklahoma.’ Because the Division was made up of officers and men formerly of the National Guards of Texas and Oklahoma, its official name became “The Lone Star Division.”
These three types of records discovered by NARA volunteers shed a bit of light on the service of Americans Indians in WWI. Resources such as American Indians in World War I and North American Indians in the Great War informed us that approximately 17,000 American Indians enlisted or were drafted. Of the 12,000 who served in the AEF, not all were permitted to vote nor become American citizens.
Equally remarkable is the participation of American Indians on the home front, especially women. In Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism, author Herman Viola reported that on the home front, “more than 10,000 [Indians] joined the Red Cross, and they purchased more than $25 million in Liberty Bonds.”
In 1924, all Native Americans finally won the right to become American citizens though some tribal people mourned this development. In many states, however, the right to citizenship did not mean the right to vote.
Many thanks to volunteers Ed Post and Donna Opilla who uncovered these historical records and to Harry Kidd who scanned them. To the entire team of 31 volunteers who work diligently to preserve the records of the AEF, a great big thank you. The contributions to this post by Lee Ann Potter, Paul Watson, and Carol Buswell are much appreciated.
“Records of Divisions, 1917-1920” (ARC Identifier 301641) from Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I)
Barsh, Russel Lawrence. “American Indians in the Great War,” Ethnohistory, 38.3 (Summer 1991). American Society for Ethnohistory: Duke University Press, NC.
Britten, Thomas A. American Indians in World War I: At Home and at War. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque. 1997.
Krouse, Susan Applegate. North Americans Indians in the Great War. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln & London. 2007.
Shenk, Gerald, E. “Work or Fight!” Race, Gender, and the Draft in World War One. Palgrave MacMillan: New York, NY. 2005.
Viola, Herman J. Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism. National Geographic: Washington, DC. 2008