Like many Indian
nations, many members of the Northwestern Shoshone, Washakie Community
left during World War II. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
said, "This generation has a rendezvous with destiny."
When Roosevelt said that he had no idea of how much World War
II would make his prophecy ring true. Over seventy years later,
Americans are remembering the sacrifices of that generation, which
took up arms in defense of the Nation. Part of that generation
was a neglected minority, Native American Indians, who flocked
to the colors in defense of their country. No group that participated
in World War II made a greater per capita contribution, and no
group was changed more by that war. During World War II more than
44,000 Native Americans saw military service. They served on all
fronts in the conflict and were honored by receiving numerous
Purple Hearts, Air Medals, Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze
Stars, Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, and three
Congressional Medals of Honor.
In spite of years of inefficient and often corrupt bureaucratic
management of Indian affairs, Native Americans and stood ready
to fight the "white man's war." American Indians overcame
past disappointment, resentment, and suspicion to respond to their
nation's need in World War II. Native Americans responded to America's
call for soldiers because they understood the need to defend one's
own land, and they understood fundamental concepts of fighting
for life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Native
Americans also excelled at basic training. Maj. Lee Gilstrop of
Oklahoma, who trained 2,000 Native Americans at his post, said,
"The Indian are the best damn soldiers in the Army."
Their talents included bayonet fighting, marksmanship, scouting,
and patrolling. Native Americans took to commando training; after
all, their ancestors invented it.
So the government of the United States found no more loyal citizens
than their own "first Americans." When President Roosevelt
mobilized the country and declared war on the Axis Powers, it
seemed as if he spoke to each citizen individually. Therefore,
according to the Indians' way of perceiving, all must be allowed
to participate. About 40,000 Indian men and women aged 18 to 50,
left the country and reservations for the first time to find jobs
in defense industries. This migration led to new vocational skills
and increased cultural sophistication and awareness in dealings
with non-Indians. Many members went to work in the defense industries,
and others went to war. For some, it was a chance to see the world,
for others, a chance to improve their lives with a steady income.
Women took over traditional men' s duties on the reservation,
manning fire lookout stations, and becoming mechanics, lumberjacks,
farmers, and delivery personnel. Indian women, although reluctant
to leave the reservation, worked as welders in aircraft plants.
Many Indian women gave their time as volunteers for American Women’s'
Volunteer Service, Red Cross, and Civil Defense. They also tended
livestock, canned food, and sewed uniforms. By 1943, the YWCA
(Young Women's Christian Association) estimated that 12,000 young
Indian women had left the reservation to work in defense industries.
By 1945, an estimated 150,000 Native Americans had directly participated
in industrial, agricultural, and military aspects of the American
For Native Americans, World War II signaled a major break from
the past. Many Northwestern Shoshones in the military made a decent
living for the first time in their lives. By 1944, the average
Native American’s annual income was $2,500, up two and one-half
times since 1940. Military life provided a steady job, money,
status, and a taste of the modernizing world.
The war, therefore, provided new opportunities for the Northwestern
Shoshone, and these opportunities disrupted old patterns. The
wartime economy and military service took thousands of Native
Americans away from the reservations. Many of these Native Americans
settled into the mainstream society, adapting permanently to the
cities and to a non-Indian way of life. Moreover, thousands returned
to the reservation even after they had proved themselves capable
of making the adjustment to white America.
World War II became a turning point for both Native Americans
and Caucasians because its impact on each was so great and different.
Whites believed that World War II had completed the process of
Indian integration into mainstream American society. Large numbers
of Indians, on the other hand, saw for the first time the non-Indian
world at close range. It both attracted and repelled them. The
positive aspects included a higher standard of living, with education,
health care, and job opportunities. The negatives were the lessening
of tribal influence and the threat of forfeiting the security
of the reservation. Indians did not want equality with whites
at the price of losing group identification. In sum, the war caused
the greatest change in Indian life since the beginning of the
reservation era and taught Native Americans they could aspire
to walk successfully in two worlds.
A good deal of credit must go to the Native Americans for their
outstanding part in America's victory in World War II. They sacrificed
more than most, both individually and as a group. They left the
land they knew to travel to strange places, where people did not
always understand their ways. They had to forego the dances and
rituals that were an important part of their life. They had to
learn to work under non-Indian supervisors in situations that
were wholly new to them. But in the process, Native Americans
became Indian-Americans, not just American Indians.