Questionnaires of American Indians Overseas in the AEF
By Constance Potter
"I feel it an honor to the red man that he takes part in this great event, because it shows that the thousands of Indians who fought in the great war are appreciated by the white man.”
-- Chief Plenty Coups of the Crows, spoken while placing his war bonnet and coup stick atop the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, 1921
During World War I, approximately 12,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military, including both enlisted men and draftees. About two-thirds served in the infantry. Most of these men were not United States citizens. (On November 6, 1919, Congress granted Indian veterans the right to petition for citizenship.)
In February 1919, Brigadier General Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr., chief of the Historical Section of the General Staff of the Army, sent a questionnaire to the Chiefs of Staff of the AEF Divisions relating to “activities of American Indians who served overseas in the AEF.”
The records are arranged by division and then by company. Within the company, the questionnaires are in random order, not in alphabetical order by the soldier’s last name. Not all of the forms are filled out completely, nor are there questionnaires for all the divisions. There are files for the following AEF divisions: 2nd through 7th, 26th, 28th, 30th, 32nd, 35th and 36th, 41st and 42nd, 77th through 79th, 82nd, 85th through 91st.,
The forms describe the service of 1,204 men. The men answered such questions as their home town, education, tribal affiliation, and war experience. Their officers, however, completed the longer remarks sections.
In some divisions, there is a list at the front of the file that lists the rank, last name, service number, first name, and company and infantry of the soldier (e.g., Private Henry (76617) Philip, Co. F, 102d Infantry).
The questionnaires asked:
- Name (surname first)
- Address (home). This generally includes just the name of the town or city and the state or the reservation.
- Place & Date of Birth. Sometimes the form lists only the year of birth.
- Tribe or Nationality of the father and the mother.
- Education (schools and colleges, and years attended). Many men has little formal education and many went to Indian schools. Josiah A. Powless, however, was a physician in the Medical Corps (see below).
- Athletics (in order of preference). The most favorite athletics were football, baseball, and basketball. Three men played on the 36th Division football team, “which won the football championship of the Army.”
- Enlistment (place and date).
- Ranks (give dates of appointment or commission).
- Date of arrival in France.
- Service at Front (give dates, places, and units). Many of the men fought under fire at the Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel-Toul, and the Meuse Argonne offensives.
- Duty Preferred (infantry, artillery, scouting, etc.).
- Personal Remarks. In both this section and the Remarks of Company Commander section the amount of information varies, but as shown below the comments can provide a moving account of the soldier’s service.
- Remarks of Company Commander and others.
According to Susan Applegate Krause in North American Indians in the Great War, “The U.S. Army’s project to document Indian military service sought to verify the belief that Indians were especially suited to scouting.” The Historical Section asked for “points of inquiry concerning the American Indian as a soldier and more specifically as a scout,” however, this section was not always completed. The form asked some general questions first.
- Does he stand the nervous strain? (Medical Corps statistics and observation of commanding officer.)
- Does he prove a natural leader in the ranks?
- Does he associate readily with white men?
- Is he regarded by the whites as an unusually “good” man?
- Has he demonstrated fitness for any special arm [weapon]?
- What capacity has he shown under following headings:
- Courage: endurance; good humor
- Keenness of senses; dexterity
- Judgment and initiative
- Ability to utilize mechanical methods; maps; buzzers, etc. [Buzzers were a communications device through which Morse code could be conducted.]
- As night worker, runner, observer and verbal reporter.
Henry George, Scout
George, a Nez Perce, from Oro Fino, Idaho, voluntarily enlisted. In civilian life he raised stock and busted broncos. In the Army he scouted for his company. Under personal remarks, Lt. Owen H. Perry, Co. C, 307th Inf., wrote:
I was in command of half of the company and had occasion to use George several times
in scouting. Many times the woods were so thick that it was possible to see for only a few yards, but George without any compass followed the line and I leading the platton [sic] with compass in hand came behind. Invariably George was in front holding the right direction. He acted as scout for me during nine days of fighting at the front, which was continuous. When I sent him out for information almost invariably he brought it back, and the information be [he] gave was always reliable. George was still a scout when I was wounded and sent to the rear on October 4th. He remained with the company until he was killed on Oct. 13th while on outpost duty near Grand Pre. Out of a party of four who were sent out on this duty, three were killed, including George. They were killed by shell fire, and no trace of them was left after the shell had exploded. I found it necessary to put in a new white man every day or so to do scouting work, but George was on duty all the time. George was well liked by the men of the organization and proved to be a good soldier. At the time when he went to the front George’s military training was rather limited.
Shadrack Ponca, machine gunner
Shadrack Ponca was considered a good soldier. Under personal remarks, an officer noted that Ponca “[h]ates to carry tripod on Machine Gun. Suggests that the dog cart used by the Germans be used in the American Army for carrying heavy parts of the Machine Gun and ammunition.” It is not indicated in the file whether the Army followed up on Ponca’s recommendation.
Josiah A. Powless, physician
Powless’s questionnaire gives no information on his addresses, place and date of birth, or tribe or nationality. The form notes that he was a “graduate of medical college,” but does not specify which one. He enlisted as a commissioned 1st Lieutenant in the Medical Corps and served at the front with the 308th Infantry of the 77th Division. Under the remarks section, Sgt. Maj. Gannon writes:
During an engagement at the front Captain McKibben, a medical officer, went to the aid of a soldier who had been wounded and was lying out under a heavy machine gun fire. While attempting to rescue this soldier the captain received a wound which proved fatal. Upon seeing the captain fall Powless, disregarding the great danger from Boche machine gun fire, went to the rescue of Captain McKibben. While engaged in this commendable work the Indian also received a wound which cost him his life. He was taken to a hospital on October 14, 1918, and died the same day.
Robert Dodd, “Lost Battalion”
Dodd, a private in the 77th Division, was part of the “Lost Battalion,” which was caught in a pocket by the Germans during the Meuse Argonne. Dodd was born in 1892, in Nablock, Nebraska. Four other men from his reservation (Dodd’s father was a Paiute) entered the military. Dodd had very little education, and was “inclined to be slow in expressing himself.” “When asked by his captain what he did in the Argonne pocket, Dodd said ‘there was nothing for him to do but shoot.’ ”
Ordering Copies of the Records
These records are in Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), 1917-1923, Entry 441, Correspondence, Reports, and other records relating to American Indians serving with the AEF, 1917-1919.
To request a search of the records, write to the Textual Reference Archives II Branch (RDT2), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001, or send an email to Archives2reference@nara.gov. When requesting the records include the name of the soldier and which division he was in; if possible include the company as well.
*There are very few photographs indexed under “Indians” in the index for the Signal Corps (Record Group 111) in the Still Pictures Branch at National Archives in College Park, MD. This was the only photograph that the author could confirm was of one of the men in the questionnaires.
Next article: Choctaw Code Talkers
Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.