For recruiting volunteers, the government had a built-in recruitment system for American Indians. Off-reservation boarding schools at Carlisle in Pennsylvania, Haskell in Kansas, Chilocco in Oklahoma, Chemawa in Oregon, Genoa in Nebraska, and about twenty others became recruiting centers as did mission schools such as the Santee Normal Training School in Nebraska and tribal schools such as Armstrong Academy for Choctaws in Oklahoma.
The military structure had been in place in the government schools since they were established. The boys had always been organized in military units and drilled military style, with uniforms and, at times, wooden rifles, the equivalent of the junior ROTC programs we know today. If boys ran away from school, and they often did, they were said to be AWOL.
School officials taunted the male students. They had been the beneficiaries of the education system provided by the U.S. They should be ashamed to be slackers at such a critical time. “Follow the flag,” they said, "—not one fixed on the front of an automobile, but one borne by a proper color bearer leading you to service."
The military structure paid off. The boys who enlisted were used to wearing uniforms. They knew how to march. They were used to taking orders. As a result, many became non-commissioned officers within weeks, sometimes within days, of enlistment. And a number qualified for officers training schools.
The boarding schools kept track of the students who joined the military and proudly updated their school's "service flag" in each publication. Many times, the publications would include letters from students telling of their experiences and giving updates as to their locations.
"As a true full fledged American Indian, I entered the service of Uncle Sam, not to obtain any medals or be decorated for my bravery. I entered the service because I saw that my services were needed, and I felt it my sacred duty to offer up myself to my good Government."
Phillip C. Cato (Tewa Pueblo)
"This world war in which I took part is something that will be in my memory forever. I know I might get killed yet I know that I ought to do something for my country as we Indians are the real Americans."
Owen Hates Him (Cheyenne River Sioux)
The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917
To bring the armed forces to war-time strength, Congress passed the Selective Service Act on May 18, 1917. The law applied to all male citizens and all other males, who were not alien enemies and who had declared their intentions to become citizens, between the ages of 21 and 30, both inclusive. Indians had to register but were exempt from service if they were non-citizens and chose exemption.
While most who registered did not choose exemption, some tribes, such as the Navajos and Nez Perce, whose members were not citizens, resisted registration for the draft as did a few Seminoles, who joined Oklahoma socialists in what was known as the Green Corn Rebellion, which was quickly quelled. When Cato Sells, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, visited Texas training bases in late 1917, he saw about 1,500 Indians in the four camps he visited. Some 85% were volunteers, including non-citizens. Of the 15% who were draftees, some could have been exempt because they also were not citizens. In August, 1918, Congress amended the Selective Service Law to apply to all men 18 to 45 and barred further volunteering.
Naval officers were trained at the Great Lakes Naval Station at Chicago. The numbers of American Indians trained there included George Roach (Cherokee), Eli Bunch (Cherokee), Thomas Herman and Arthur Jones. Roach was sent from there to Harvard University for wireless telegraphy training and then to Columbia University in radio training before being sent to Plymouth, England, as an instructor in radio.
Many of the non-officers trained at the Naval Training Station at Norfolk, Virginia. Training was rigorous, covering everything from signals to torpedoes.
"The Navy is a great place for training boys for the future, not only for the Navy but for the outside life. We have all kinds of drills and exercises. We mostly drill pertaining to the Navy and merchant service. We drill on different signals and drills on abandon ship, fire, collision, and clean ship for actions and torpedo defense. The signals are Ardois, wig-wag, semaphore and the flag code."
Mitchell Johnnyjohn (Seneca), U.S.S. Saratoga
The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, graduated its first American Indian in 1917. Joseph James “Jocko” Clark (Cherokee) entered the service immediately and following the war made the Navy his career. He reached the rank of Admiral; his last assignment was Admiral of the Seventh Fleet during the Korean War.
Flyers were trained at Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas, Camp Doniphan at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Among the American Indians who trained at Kelly Field were Emanuel Ortego (Isleta Pueblo), Hobson Tupper (Choctaw), George Tibbitts (White Earth Chippewa). Those at Camp Doniphan included William Wano (Potawatomi), Burris Curley Chief (Pawnee), Amos Mars (Potawatomi), and Fred Blythe (Eastern Band Cherokee). Pablo Herrera (Isleta Pueblo) volunteered for the flying service and was assigned to balloon man training at Fort Omaha, Nebraska.
"Kelly Field is the largest aviation camp in the world. It covers twenty-five square miles of land. I don’t know how many flying machines there are, but they are as common as birds. I pretty nearly broke my neck watching them the first day, but now I scarcely look at one."
Fred Blythe (Eastern Band Cherokee), Kelly Field
"Our aviation training camp is located here at Camp Kelly. The air is full of aeroplanes all day long and at night, but I do not know whether they are up there all night or not. They are a common thing, just like house flies."
Eastman Meashintuby (Choctaw), Kelly Field
Two Osages, John Joseph Mathews and Clarence Tinker were flight instructors. Mathews taught night flying during the war. Following the war, he became a historian of his tribe and a fiction writer. Tinker made the Army a career and reached the rank of general. He was killed at the battle at Midway in World War II.
"The aviators are training very hard the last two weeks. The sky is full of airplanes every day. This sure is a pretty thing to see."
Jacob Russell (Winnebago), Camp Doniphan
"Recruits at Camp Polk at Raleigh, North Carolina received tank training. There are two sizes of tanks, large and small. My company is assigned to the large ones. . . . They have a 250-horsepower, 6-cylinder motor and take a crew of 11 men. The smaller ones are known as the Fords. They are operated by two men and propelled by two Ford motors, arranged like an 8-cylinder motor or V-shaped. Believe me riding in a tank is a trifle rougher than riding in a tin Lizzie touring car. All of the hill slopes and trees around here are broken down from the tankers’ practice on them and, by the way, a tank and mountain goat are about the only things that can get around over North Carolina hills."
Henry Breuninger (Menominee), Camp Polk
Training camps for infantrymen and artillery were spread throughout the United States and proliferated after war was declared. They were placed strategically to serve recruits from specific regions. Texas had the most camps, the main ones being Bowie, Travis, McArthur, Stanley. These camps trained most of the recruits from Oklahoma, the state that sent more Indians to the war than any other state. At these camps, the recruits went through rigorous physical and military training.
"We started our drilling yesterday, drilled from eight o’clock in the morning till ten-thirty o’clock and after dinner we drilled from one-thirty o’clock till four o’clock. I use to think fifteen or twenty minutes was awful, but it is somewhat different here. The only thing that might get me is drilling with guns. But I’ll soon learn that."
Edward Small (Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma), Fort Logan
"I have been in the army almost two months, drilling eight hours a day five days a week. Saturday and Sunday we have as holidays. Saturday morning we stand rifle inspection. So far I have passed this test. Some of the boys fail to pass and get extra duty."
Joe Green (Choctaw), Camp Pike [pictured above]
Although some recruits like Edward Small may have had difficulty in drill with military-style rifles, others like Joe Green and Pierre Flombue did not. Flombue set records on the practice range that challenged the best marksmen in military service.
"We have been very busy since we came down here, especially during the past week. We drilled the same as usual Monday morning and Monday afternoon. Tuesday morning we took about a 12-mile hike, with full packs and rifles. We had to wear our overcoats, too. Then we drilled after dinner until 4 o’clock. They let us off then and told us to clean our guns, so we could go on guard at 4:30. We stayed on until 4:30 Wednesday afternoon. We would be on two hours and off the next four hours. We are not allowed to take our clothes or side arms (bayonets) off when we go to bed, when on guard. We took another hike Thursday morning and drilled in the afternoon. Then we had a battalion parade after supper. Friday they had us in line at 5 o’clock in the morning, made us get our rifles and our overcoats, gave us a hurried breakfast (a light one, too), then marched us between 8 and 9 miles out into the hills. We no more than get out before they set us to work digging trenches. We have 50 minutes for another meal (dinner) and it was light one too. Sure enough light. We worked till 3 o’clock, then got our equipment together and stared back about 3:20. We reached camp about 6 o’clock, just in time for regimental parade. Then we had supper, cleaned our rifles, and went to bed. Believe me, we were tired! Saturday morning we had field inspection. We had to pitch our ‘pup tents’ on the drill ground and stand inspection there."
Byron Hammer (Brothertown)
"We have to go on guard at the docks tonight and I have been pretty busy, cleaning my rifle because I got three days’ fatigue work for having a dirty rifle the last time we went on guard and I don’t care to have it repeated. We have been very busy, as we drill all morning with full packs and we get signal and bayonet exercises, also hand grenade throwing. We have just got through a course in gas mask drill, and say they sure are funny looking things. I got pretty uncomfortable after wearing my mask a while; then they sent us in a tent filled with different kinds of deadly gasses, but we couldn’t feel the gas any time until as we were at the door we were told to take off our masks and I got a breath full; that was enough, as it choked me up and it sure hurt my eyes and nose. I could smell gas on my clothes for three or four hours. So we had a bit of what is waiting for us over there; but this is no time for shirking and I certainly will do my best."
Benjamin A. DeWitt, Galveston
"I have been in the army almost four months and I like it very well, although a soldier’s life is no easy thing. I attended the Bayonet School of Arms during the month of October. There were ten classes of twenty members each. The days were good and hot and everything was done in double-quick time, from 7:45 to 11:30. Some of the things we had to do were: Jump four hurdles about four feet high, jump barbed wire entanglements that were about a foot high and four feet wide, scale a wall which stood eight feet high. There were also a great many other things that we did, but the last thing we had to do was run at least two miles. Believe me when we got around there wasn’t many men in the race."
Alexander Adams (Pawnee), Camp Logan
As with aviation, some of the training of recruits in infantry and artillery was done by American Indians who were non-commissioned and commissioned officers such as Sergeant Thomas Rogers (Mandan) at Camp Lewis, Washington, and Captain Ben Davis Locke (Choctaw) at Camp Travis in Texas. Locke was captain of Company L of the First Oklahoma Infantry when it was mobilized in the summer of 1917. The unit was sent to the newly established Camp Bowie near Fort Worth, where Oklahoma and Texas units were combined into a reorganized, more battle-ready structure. Company L was combined with a Texas company to form Company E of the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division. Locke lost his command to Walter Veach, another Choctaw, and was reassigned to a cavalry unit at Camp Stanley and then to an artillery unit at Camp Travis. Company L had been made up primarily of Indian members of the national guard, a number of whom, as members of Company E, distinguished themselves in heroes in battle and as code talkers on the front lines.
To relieve the recruits of the stress and monotony of drill, the Army provided opportunities for relaxation and rest. One diversion popular with American Indian recruits was sports. Camps often organized football and baseball teams. Unit teams played not only teams in other units in the camp but played teams from other bases. Teams were organized in all branches of the service.
"We have decided to put out a regimental football team and have begun practicing. We practiced last week in a sand storm. Each regiment is to have a team. We are somewhat handicapped now, because we practice only on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, which are set aside for athletic sports."
Eastman Meashintuby (Choctaw), Kelly Field
"We sure had a fine time here Thanksgiving Day; plenty of turkey and pumpkin pies were served for dinner. After dinner we all boarded a train which carried us to Camp Travis, fifteen miles from here, where the Kelly team met the Travis team. Shortly after the Kelly team arrived on the field, aeroplanes from her circled low over the field and tossed the balls to the Kelly team."
Amos Mars (Potawatomi), Kelly Field
Most teams, of course, were on the Army bases, whose organizers relied on former players at boarding schools to produce winning teams. At Camp Travis, Physical Director Alfred M. Venne (Chippewa) organized an impressive team made up of men such as George Taylor (Pawnee), Louis Rulo (Otoe), George Sheyahshe (Caddo), Herbert Tomakero (Comanche) and others, former players at Haskell Institute, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, or Chilocco Indian Agricultural School.
The Navy as well as the Army fielded football teams, and teams from different branches of the service often played each other.
"I am playing football with the team here and we have a very good team.We are going to play the soldiers from Camp Jackson in Columbia next Saturday, and I want all those pretty girls at Carlisle to cheer for us. The weather down here is fine, but it is a little too warm for football."
David Bird (Eastern Band Cherokee), U.S.S. Astoria
"I am taking this opportunity of relating an incident it was my honor to witness this past week, namely, a football game staged here at Pensacola between the Marine Corps and eleven from the Navy. Benjamin Murdock played halfback for the Navy and was easily the star of the game. Although the contest was most bitter I overheard many comments on the clean, brilliant playing of Murdock, which his sterling qualities are deserving of. Stars from many universities and colleges were in the line-up, but Murdock stood out a notable contrast amongst them, and he was certainly given the lion’s share of applause. It filled me with pride to see how thoroughly he had learned Haskell’s rigid role of clean playing. It is undoubtedly the greatest honor Haskell can boast of to know her students are living up to her traditions. The game ended with a score of 9 to 0 in favor of Navy."
John J. Jollie (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), Navy Aero Service, Pensacola
The football games continued in France, and General Pershing at one point compared the enthusiasm with which they played the game to their fighting during major battles at the front.
"I thought it might be of interest to you to let you know that the 36th and 89th Divisions played the A.E.F. championship at Paris last Saturday, March 29. The 89th Division won by the score of 14 to 6. I was rooting for the 36th, and am wondering whom you would have rooted for. Why, I thought it might be of interest to you was the fact that H.I. was represented. Carl Mahseet, an old Haskell boy, was one of the best players in the 36th Division’s team. He outplayed easily any man the 89th had, notably in punting against Lindsey, the best they had.
The 89th are the boys from Kansas and Missouri you know. You ought to have heard the men and officers commenting on “that Indian” all through the game and afterwards. Everybody said it was the greatest football game they ever saw. There were about 3,600 men from our division that witnessed it and about the same number from the 89th. Of course there were some men from other divisions and a few civilians."
Charles D. Scott, Jr. (Cherokee), France
American Indians in WWI Centennial Commission
Contact: Erin Fehr firstname.lastname@example.org
American Indians in World War I was created by the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Contributors: Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr. and Erin Fehr