Tribal-American Heroes

This 19th Century chapter in our nation’s history provides the story of one of the most egregious violations of the spirit of Constitutional protections and the rule of law. It is ironic that the central figure in this story is Andrew Jackson, an icon of modern progressive/liberal thinking.

More to the point, this history brings to the fore the issue of law and order under the Constitution in a wartime scenario. The issue is straightforward: it is difficult, if not impossible to establish order in the chaos of war. And, as we have seen, warfare was the order of the day west of the Mississippi for most of the 19th Century. In no way however, does that excuse the barbarity practiced by both the United States and the tribes on a continuing basis.

Unfortunately today, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (originally, the United States’ Colonial Office for Indians) is the government’s most race-conscious agency. The bureau keeps records on every tribal member, recording the supposed exact degree of blood in detailed manner undreamed of even by the Spaniards of the Old Southwest. Furthermore, the bureau also decides who is a bona-fide tribal member and who is not and which are eligible for Bureau services.

Although this 18th Century English and 19th Century American history is certainly not a model for the enlightened 21st Century America, it does reflect the character of the times – times filled with tensions between advanced (for the time) Europeans and relatively primitive cultures; between the mature States and the evolving national government; between sections like the original thirteen and the newly developing territories to the west; between Revolutionary families and newly arrived immigrants; between industrializing North and agricultural South; between Abolitionists and slaveholders; between urban dwellers and country folk; between landed gentry and ambitious entrpreneurs.

Like all ethnic groups in America, the Tribal-American people produced their own heroes after adjusting to required societal changes and grieving for family, culture, open-spaces and opportunities lost in the 19th Century. Consider;

Jim Thorpe, a full-blooded Sac&Fox tribal member has been recognized as the greatest athlete of the 20th Century – an Olympic champion and a professional football player with an original NFL team, the Canton Bulldogs, as well as a great international ambassador for America.

Billy Mills is the second tribal member (after Jim Thorpe) to win an Olympic gold medal. He accomplished this feat in the 10,000 meter run (6.2 mi) at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the only person from the western hemisphere to win the Olympic gold in this event. Mills was a virtual unknown. He had finished second in the U.S. Olympic trials. His time in the preliminaries was a full minute slower than the race favorite, the world record holder, New Zealand’s Ron Clark.

On the final turn of the last lap, Mills, moving like a man possessed, seemed to come from out of nowhere (he is not even in the frame of the official Olympic documentary film) and surged past the shocked Clark to win in a stunning “performance for the ages”. His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had run before and set a new Olympic record for the event. No American had ever before won the 10,000 meters – or since. His 1964 victory is considered one of the greatest of all Olympic upsets. A former United States Marine, he is a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe.

“Half Cherokee and quarter Creek, Ernest E. Evans was the Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Johnston (DD 557) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history, in October 1944. Johnston was assigned to Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”), commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, one of only three small escort carrier groups of the U.S. 7th Fleet – under command of the legendary Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.

The escort carriers and destroyer escorts, which had been designed to protect slow convoys from submarine attack, had been repurposed to attack ground targets, and had few torpedoes, as they could normally rely on Admiral Halsey’s 7th fleet to protect them from any threats from armored warships. On this day however, most of Halsey’s fleet was far to the North, now unable to help. “Taffy 3″’s orders were to protect the amphibious landings in progress on the Philippine Island of Luzon – at all costs.

A Japanese surface force of battleships and armored cruisers stumbled upon the northernmost of the three groups, Taffy 3’s few destroyers and slower destroyer escorts. Outweighed 10 to 1, outnumbered and dreadfully outgunned 3 to 1, they possessed neither the firepower nor armor to effectively oppose the Japanese force, but nevertheless desperately attacked with 5 in/38 cal. guns and their few torpedoes to cover the retreat of their slow “jeep” carriers. Aircraft from the carriers strafed, bombed, torpedoed, rocketed, and depth-charged, fired at least one .38 caliber handgun and made numerous “dry” runs at the attacking force when they ran out of ammunition.

Commander Evans in Johnston, began laying down a protective smokescreen and zigzagging and began firing at the closest attackers, then at a range of 18,000 yards (9 nautical miles), and registered several hits on the leading heavy cruisers. The Japanese targeted the Johnston and soon shell splashes were bracketing the ship. In response and without consulting with his commanders, Evans ordered the Johnston to “flank speed, full left rudder”, beginning an action that earned him the Medal of Honor. Concentrating his fire on the leading cruiser squadron’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Kumano, at the 5-inch gun’s maximum range of 10 nm, Johnston fired, scoring several hits on the Kumano’s superstructure, which erupted into flame and smoke.

Johnston pressed her attack, firing more than two hundred shells as she followed an evasive course through moderate swells, making it a difficult target. Johnston closed to within maximum torpedo range, and at 9,000 yards she fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes. Two or three struck, blowing the bow off the Kumano. Minutes later, the battleship Kongo was forced to turn away north to avoid four torpedoes. The effect of the Johnston’s attack was to generate confusion in the minds of the Japanese commanders, who thought they were being engaged by American cruisers. Evans then reversed course and, under cover of his smoke screen, opened the range between his ship and the enemy.

Then, three 14-inch shells from the battleship Kongo, at a range of 7 nautical miles, passed through the deck of the Johnston and exploded in her portside engine room, cutting the destroyer’s speed in half to 17 knots and disrupting electric power to her aft gun turrets. Moments later three 6-in. shells — possibly from the battleship Yamato — struck Johnston’s bridge, causing numerous casualties and severing the fingers of Commander Evans’s left hand. The ship was mangled badly, with dead and dying sailors strewn across her bloody decks—but the Johnston did not sink. Her stores of fuel were seriously depleted before the battle, saving her from a catastrophic explosion.

The ship found sanctuary in rain squalls where the crew had time to repair damage, restoring power to two of the three aft turrets. The Johnston’s search radar was destroyed, toppled to the deck in a tangled mess. The fire control radar was damaged, but was quickly returned to service. Only a few minutes were required to bring the Johnston’s main battery and radar online, and from its hidden position in the rain, Johnston fired several dozen rounds at a destroyer leader at 10,000 yards.

Fire was then shifted to the cruisers approaching from the east. Several dozen more rounds were fired at the closest target at 11,000 yards. A torpedo attack was then ordered via voice radio. The Johnston and the destroyer Heermann acknowledged. Attacking the Tone, the leading heavy cruiser to the east of the formation, the Johnston closed to 6,000 yards, now firing with reduced efficiency due to her lost radar, yet still registering many hits.

During the battle, Evans engaged in several duels with much larger Japanese opponents. After emerging through smoke and rain squalls, the Johnston was confronted by the Kongo, a 36,600-ton battleship. The Johnston fired at least 40 rounds, and more than 15 hits on the battleship’s superstructure were observed. The Johnston reversed course and disappeared in the smoke, avoiding the Kongo’s 14-inch return fire. Then Johnston bore down on a huge cruiser firing at the helpless carrier Gambier Bay, then closed to 6,000 yards and fired for ten minutes at a heavier and better-armed opponent, possibly the Haguro, scoring numerous hits.

A short time later, a much more pressing target appeared astern. A formation of seven Japanese destroyers in two columns was closing in to attack the carriers. Reversing course to intercept, Evans maneuvered the Johnston in an attempt to pass in front of the formation, crossing the “T”, a classical naval maneuver which put the force being “crossed” at a great disadvantage. Evans ordered the Johnston’s guns to fire on this new threat.

The Japanese destroyers returned fire, striking the Johnston several times. Perhaps seeing his disadvantage, the commander of the lead destroyer turned away to the west. From as close as 7,000 yards, Johnston fired and scored a dozen hits on the destroyer leader before it completed its turn. He shifted fire to the next destroyer in line, scoring five hits before it too turned away. Amazingly, the entire squadron turned away west to avoid the Johnston’s fire.

Finally, these destroyers managed to fire their torpedoes from extreme range, 10,500 yds. Several torpedoes were detonated by strafing aircraft or defensive fire from the carriers, and the rest failed to strike a target. Now the Japanese and American ships were intertwined in a confused jumble. The crippled Johnston was an easy target. Fighting with all she had, she exchanged fire with a swarm of enemy ships, four cruisers and numerous destroyers.

The Johnston continued to take hits from the Japanese, which knocked out the Number One gun turret, killing many men. Forced from the bridge by exploding ammunition, Evans was now commanding the ship from the stern by shouting orders down to men manually operating the rudder below decks. Shell fire knocked out the remaining engine, leaving the Johnston dead in the water. As her attackers gathered around the vulnerable ship, they concentrated fire on her rather than the fleeing carriers. The Johnston was hit so many times that one survivor recalled “they couldn’t patch holes fast enough to keep her afloat.”

At 0945, Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship. The Johnston sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans abandoned ship with his crew, but was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. However, it was the Japanese themselves who first recognized the Johnston’s and Evans’ incredible actions that day: As a destroyer from the opposing fleet cruised slowly by, Robert Billie and several other crewmen watched as the Japanese captain saluted the sinking Johnston.

Finally, there are the Navajo Code Talkers – approximately 400–500 tribal members in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of secret tactical messages in battle. Code talkers transmitted these messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. Their service improved the speed of encryption of communications at both ends in front-line operations during World War II. The name code talker is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. Code talking, however, was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw soldiers during World War I. Other code talkers were deployed by the United States Army during World War II, including Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers.

The Navajo Code Talkers were extremely difficult to comprehend and understand except by those who were raised speaking this language. There have been no books available in Navajo. Its tonal qualities and syntax made this unintelligible to anybody with no extensive training and exposure. There have been additional alphabet layers that were included to this code in order to get rid of forced code interpretation by the native speakers who were captured.

In jungle combat in the Pacific, the Navajos’ innate strength, ingenuity, scouting and tracking ability, habitual Spartan lifestyle, and utter disregard for hardships stood them in remarkably good stead. At first utilized usually only at the company-battalion level, the Navajos became virtually indispensable as their capability and reliability were recognized.

Almost a quarter of a century elapsed before the Fourth Marine Division honored its Navajo code talkers at its June 1969 annual reunion in Chicago. The Navajo code talkers received no recognition until the declassification of the operation by the U.S. Navy in 1968. An attractive medallion, struck by the Franklin Mint in commemoration of their services, was presented to each of the group of twenty veteran code talkers who had flown to Chicago for the occasion.

To show its appreciation, the division entertained the men in sumptuous style, and the Navajos, many dressed in their best tribal regalia, marched with the Fourth Marines down Michigan Avenue.

In December 1971, President Richard M. Nixon presented the Navajo code talkers with a certificate of appreciation from the nation, thanking them for their ‘patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage.’ Those brave veterans had given the Marine Corps its only unbreakable means of battlefield communication, saving thousands of American lives in the process.

A Japanese general admitted after World War II that the most highly skilled Japanese cryptographers had not been able to decipher the Marines’ messages. After being informed that it was a code based on a tribal language, he said: ‘Thank you. That is a puzzle I thought would never be solved.’

In 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also named August 14, 1982 as “Navajo Code Talkers Day”.

On December 21, 2000 the U.S. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, Public Law 106-554, 114 Statute 2763, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original twenty-nine World War II Navajo code talkers, and Silver Medals to each person who qualified as a Navajo code talker (approximately 300).

In July 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush personally presented the Medal to four surviving original code talkers (the fifth living original code talker was not able to attend) at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Gold medals were presented to the families of the deceased 24 original code talkers.

On September 17, 2007, 18 Choctaw code talkers were posthumously awarded the Texas Medal of Valor from the Adjutant General of the State of Texas for their World War II service.

On November 15, 2008, The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-420), was signed into law by President George W. Bush, which recognizes every tribal code talker who served in the United States military during WWI or WWII (with the exception of the already-awarded Navajo) with a Congressional Gold Medal, designed as distinct for each tribe.”

These 20th Century American citizens are certainly heroes and models of inspiration and dedication to American ideals of which all of us can be proud. How far did we come in just 50 short years from Wounded Knee to Leyte Gulf? Young American tribal members should know about these modern heroes and be inspired to achieve as they did. Not surprisingly, they aren’t given the opportunity.

It is perhaps here that we can find the best (or worst) example of the perversity of the progressive/liberal thought – condemnation of the depiction of the “American Indian” as representing the most admirable qualities to which American schools or sports teams aspire.

Make no mistake, the real reason for the criticism is not concern for the “American Indian”, it is the exercise of raw political power at the expense of the “American Indian”. It is the imposition of an arbitrary concept on institutions and their constituents who happen to be out of favor with the progressives/liberals, without any consideration for the concerns of the “allegedly aggrieved”.

In this case – one among a growing list under the rubric of “political correctness” – the perverted idea that recalling and celebrating the heroic qualities of the “American Indians”, who have majestically persevered through unimaginable circumstances as warriors – is somehow disrespectful and a desecration of the memory of an entire people.

Like most history, the progressives/liberals would like to erase those ideas that they don’t favor because they are favored by the rest of America – good or bad is irrelevant – it is the power to do so that matters and damn the historical ignorance it will breed.

In this case, the PLDC enthusiastically perpetuates the mythology documented above, of the monolithic “American Indian” as one great group of noble, environmentally sensitive “natives”, who came to this land as a “people” and have lived here in peace and harmony from time immemorial. The historical record, of course, tells the bigger story that tribes never “owned” land. It was not a social concept that they accepted. They “controlled” land through military, diplomatic and economic means and sought to protect their territory from predatory tribes by military means.

What changed when the European “tribes” arrived was that these new “tribes” were more militarily advanced and had a new concept – private property. When the aboriginal tribes couldn’t hold the land from these new tribes, they were forced off the land, as their forefathers had been or as their forefathers had forced others off of the same land. Then, of course, the European tribes instituted private ownership of the land and backed that up with government rules and regulations.

Of course, the goal of the PLDC “big lie” is to curry favor with the tribes so that they can count on them to vote for PLDC candidates even though, in championing their “cause”, they still have accomplished little to help alleviate the abject poverty of most of the tribes – gambling casinos on some reservations, that only benefit a few tribes, notwithstanding.

This mythology continues to hold Tribal-Americans in the clutches of poverty and marginalization. They are, in reality, the progeny of a remarkable (though mostly anonymous) people who have contributed greatly to the American story and can still bring the proud and deserving heritage of their ancestors to bear on America’s future. They just need an opportunity. They need to learn the truth.

Next time: A repeat of the introduction to remind us all why we are here.




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