No One Ever Asked Me: The World War II Memoirs of an Omaha Indian Soldier
by Hollis D. Stabler, edited by Victoria Smith, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2006, $24.95
Hollis D. Stabler splashed ashore with the 2nd Armored Division at Safi, Morocco, in the first major western operation of the war. Two years later, as he lay wounded in a Naples hospital and learned that Americans had taken Omaha Beach, he thought, “Well, I’m an Omaha Indian.” But during his entire war experience, he recalled, “No one ever asked me what tribe I was from.”
He eventually stood on the Seine River and shook hands with the men who invaded Normandy, and he returned home with 14 medals. Historian Victoria Smith has woven Stabler’s account of his life and wartime experiences in Africa, Italy and France into a compelling narrative augmented with extensive editorial notes to provide historical context for his personal story.
Stabler grew up embracing both Omaha and white cultures. His father once played baseball with the great Jim Thorpe at Carlisle Indian School, and his mother worked for Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s vice president and a Kaw Indian. He attended Bacone Indian School and worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Army in 1939. Stabler explains that Indian men volunteered in large numbers, and of the nearly 60,000 between the ages of 21 and 42 in 1940, more than 25,000 fought in the war. Stabler, like many Indians, joined the cavalry. His first job was caring for the regimental horses, until 1942 when the mounted cavalry was reborn into the armored cavalry.
Stabler gives harrowing accounts of navigating a flooded Kasserine Pass and surviving German attacks on the Appian Way, but his is also a very personal account of broader wartime experiences. He describes tirelessly searching a Casablanca hospital for his wounded brother, enjoying dinners in Italian homes and even dancing with a Moroccan girl as her chaperone brother looked on, scowling. Smith notes that Europeans found American Indians fascinating, and that Stabler was outgoing and gregarious. He seldom criticizes fellow soldiers even when they repeatedly call him “Chief.”
It was mostly at home that Stabler encountered racism. U.S. law forbade Indians—even war veterans—from drinking alcohol. Overseas, sharing liquor symbolized racial equality; at home, Indians were arrested if they drank.
Smith asks readers to decide whether this is the story of an Indian who was a soldier or a soldier who was Indian. It is a difficult question. The native perspective at times fades into the background, and Stabler appears the ultimate American soldier. In other instances, the reader is acutely aware that Stabler is continually navigating Indian and non-Indian worlds even as he struggles against German artillery. The centuries-old Omaha warrior tradition makes Stabler’s accomplishments both Omaha and American.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.