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Book Review: American Indians in the U.S. Armed Forces, 1866-1945 (John P. Langellier) : WW

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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American Indians in the U.S. Armed Forces, 1866-1945, by John P. Langellier, Greenhill Books, London, distributed by Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., $13.95.

It is still a somewhat presumptuous habit among U.S. servicemen to get into discussions over what constitutes a "real American." And every now and then someone turns up to render the whole argument moot, when he turns out to be the ultimate genuine article–a native American soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

Ever since the American Revolution, which saw some Indians fighting for the British and some for the rebelling Colonists, native Americans have served in the armed forces of the United States. They fought for both sides during the Civil War, and in their most controversial role, they became scouts and soldiers and helped the U.S. Army fight other Indians in the West. American Indians went on to serve with distinction in every war the United States fought in the 20th century, the best-known example perhaps being the Marine "code-talkers," who used the Navajo language to confuse the Japanese in WWII.

In this special installment of an ongoing series, "G.I.: The Illustrated History of the American Soldier, His Uniform and His Equipment," John P. Langellier focuses on the native American, with the greater part of American Indians in the U.S. Armed Forces, 1866-1945 devoted to those who served in the West. Uniforms and equipment varied from Indian soldiers wearing regulation uniforms and sabers to Apache scouts dressed virtually the same as the hostile Chiricauhuas they tried to track.

The comprehensive collection of photographs (they take up most of the book's 72 pages) include such Westerners as Bloody Knife, a Crow scout killed at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876; the Cheyenne scout White Moon; the Apache scouts' German-born commander, Al Sieber; and Mickey Free, who Sieber once described as "half Mexican, half Irish and whole son of a bitch." The Seminole-Negro scouts are part of the picture, as are more formal later units such as the 45th Infantry Division ("Thunderbirds"), a National Guard unit that in WWII was one-fifth American Indian.

Later Indians seldom altered their uniforms except for publicity photos, which, in retrospect, may impress the viewer as somewhat embarrassing. It is significant to note, however, that the line of distinguished warriors does not end with the 19th century–Marine Pfc Ira Hayes, the Arizona Pima who participated in the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima, is included, as is 1st Lt. Ernest Childers, a Creek who received the Medal of Honor in Italy after destroying two German machine-gun nests. One glaring omission, however, is the U.S. Navy's half-Creek Admiral Joseph J. Clark, the WWII task group leader who, it may be argued, became the greatest war chief in native American history during the Korean War–as commander of the Seventh Fleet. That aside, American Indians in the U.S. Armed Forces fills an important niche in U.S. military history, and it may cause some Western history buffs to look at Indian warriors in a different light.

Jon Guttman

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