Assiniboine man recalls service in World War II
Editors Note An AP Member Exchange. With AP Photo.
By DAVID MURRAY
Great Falls Tribune
HAVRE, Mont. (AP) _ In the final days leading up to Gilbert Horn's departure for basic training, his mother called him to their family's home on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. It was 15 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but the storm clouds of war were swirling around Europe and the Pacific Rim.
Melvina Horn, a medicine woman of the Assiniboine Tribe, knew her second youngest son would soon face the greatest test of his life. In all, six of Melvina Horn's seven sons would eventually enlist in the military. Poor eyesight kept one at home.
For each of her sons, the ceremony was much the same. Melvina Horn performed the smudging ceremony, burning sweetgrass to purify themselves before prayer. Melvina Horn prayed that her sons be allowed to return and vowed to endure the agonizing Sun Dance ceremony if they all came home safely.
In September 1940, Gilbert Horn marched with 16 other young men through the streets of Chinook before heading to Fort Lewis for basic training. Horn's grandparents sang a warrior's song for their grandson as he marched out of town. Around his neck, Horn wore the sacred Eagle plume his mother had given him for protection. He was only 15 years old.
``I was a little snotty kid back then,'' he recalled with a chuckle. ``They must have got hard up.''
He would have to grow up quickly. Today, Gilbert Horn is nearly 90. He has a quick wit and loves to laugh _ nearly as much as he loves the rambunctious chaos of his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who come to visit him at the Northern Montana Care Center in Havre. Horn is reluctant to talk about his service during World War II. Many of the memories are just too brutal to recollect.
He is one of last remaining members of a generation of warriors who served this country during WWII as Code Talkers _ Native American servicemen sought out for their traditional language skills to send secret military messages. Horn is also distinguished as a veteran of Merrill's Marauders, a special operations jungle warfare unit of the U.S. Army that is famous for its deep penetration missions behind Japanese lines.
It is supremely ironic that many Native American soldiers were recruited during World War II specifically for their traditional language skills. In the decades leading up to WWII, most Indian children attending government- or church-operated boarding schools were forbidden to speak their native language and were sometimes beaten if caught doing so, according to information from the National Museum of the American Indian.
Gilbert Horn grew up speaking the Assiniboine language, only learning English after he began attending school in Dodson and Harlem. He escaped much of the harsh treatment other Indian children received. His skills in basketball and football earned him some reprieve.
``They didn't punish me,'' Horn said. ``I was a good athlete. I was in demand at the local schools.''
Life was hard for most Americans during the 1930s but even more so for Native people. According to Horn, joining the military was one of the few options open to Indians seeking a way out of the poverty and oppression found on the reservation.
``There was maybe one job for every 10 or 12 people, and the wages were so small,'' he said. ``There were no jobs, nothing to do _ and your parents couldn't hardly afford to feed you. We lived on gophers, I guess. As kids we ate magpies _ anything we could get. It really was tough. The only place you could turn to was the military.''
In the early 1940s, the minimum age for enlistment in the U.S. Army was 17, but recruits as young as 15 could enter the U.S. National Guard with their parents' permission. That was the route many young men on the Fort Belknap Reservation took. By the time the war started, most of the service age men at Fort Belknap already had left their homes.
``Everybody I knew was in the National Guard,'' Horn said. ``Probably 90 percent of the enlistees were young like that.''
After basic training in Tacoma, Wash., Horn was shuttled around to military bases from California to New Mexico. The hunting skills he'd learned growing up on the reservation served him well in the military. His commanding officers quickly learned that the young private from Montana was a crack shot with well-developed tracking skills. Horn received advanced training as a sharpshooter.
``We were more sensitive to sound and stuff like that,'' Horn recalled of the Native American troops he served with. ``I guess we had to be. We had to live by sound to get our food even.''
From the beginning, the units Horn was assigned to were integrated, with young Indian men serving shoulder-to-shoulder with troops from across the nation. Horn even recalls being something of a celebrity among the white troops who hadn't met a Native American before.
``I thought they treated me real well,'' he said of his comrades in the National Guard. ``In all the units I was in, I think they favored you, and the rest of the troops were real good. You were something else because you were a real Indian to them.''
As Horn was honing his skills as a rifleman, other Native American troops were beginning the specialized training in communications and encryption that would eventually produce what is commonly referred to today as the Code Talkers.
Within four months of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Marine Corp recruiters arrived on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona looking for volunteers for ``special duty.'' Eventually, more than 400 members of the tribe signed up for an intensive training at Camp Elliott in San Diego.
The important role of the Navajo Code Talkers is a widely acknowledged chapter of American history and has been the source of many books and several Hollywood movies. Less well-known is that recruits from at least 18 separate American Indian tribes eventually lent their native language skills to the U.S. war effort, including several recruits from the Assiniboine Tribe in Montana.
At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Horn was still only 17 years old, but with more than a year of military training, he was quickly transferred from the National Guard to the regular Army. His training in cryptology was less formal than what most of the Navajo recruits underwent, but he had the advantage of speaking a Native dialect closely related to the native tongue of several other tribes from the northern plains region.
``They were not exactly the same words, but similar enough so we could converse in Indian,'' Horn said of his ability to speak with other Native American troops fluent in a variety of Siouxian languages. ``As long as they could get two of us together _ they didn't have to be both Sioux or both Assiniboine _ they were close enough so we could converse.''
One obstacle that had to be overcome was the fact that there were no words in Native languages for verbs and nouns commonly used in mechanized warfare. The Code Talkers had to reach agreed-upon substitutes, such as ``bird'' for airplane and ``potato'' for hand grenade.
All of Horn's training and experience with tracking, precision shooting, radio operation and translating his native language into English would soon be put to the test during one of the most dangerous and grueling Allied operations of World War II.
In the fall of 1943, Horn, now an experienced combat veteran, volunteered for service in a special operations unit preparing for combat in the South East Asian theater of WWII. The 5307th Composite Unit he joined would gain worldwide fame for its deep penetration mission into Japanese-occupied Burma.
The roughly 2,750 men who took part in the Burma campaign came to be known as Merrill's Marauders, who were so named for their commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill. During five months of field operations they fought the Japanese in five major engagements and 32 smaller skirmishes; they almost always faced superior forces. Gilbert Horn was right in the middle of it.
``It was a fighting unit, ready for action any time,'' he said of his reasons for volunteering. ``I wanted to go see the war. I didn't want to be in Montana all my life. I wanted to see what's across that big waters called the oceans.''
After intensive training in guerrilla warfare and jungle survival techniques, Merrill's Marauders began their mission in February 1944 with an 800-mile trek across the Himalaya Mountains and into the Burmese jungle. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Marauders' mission was to cut Japanese communications and supply lines, harasses them at every opportunity, and open the way for a planned U.S.-Chinese push to reopen a supply line into China.
They were only lightly equipped, with only the weapons and supplies they could carry on the 720 mules and horses they brought with them.
Like many veterans of his generation, Horn is reluctant to talk about the combat he experienced. He is more inclined to discuss the physical hardship the Marauders endured
``They were damn big mountains,'' he said of crossing the Himalayas. ``We had to cut steps to get through. Those guys that had the pack animals had to make steps for their horses or mules, too.''
The Marauders fought through the monsoon season, when jungle diseases and infection were at their worst. Horn remembers having to cross one river the Marauders were following 66 times. His feet were never dry.
``During the rainy season, it rained day and night continuously _ just rain, rain, rain,'' he recalled. ``You didn't have to take a shower anyway.''
The Marauders consistently went on with insufficient rations, surviving on Army K-rations that were so unappetizing that most of the men threw large portions of them away. As the months passed, more and more of the Marauders were stricken with diseases such as malaria, dysentery and typhus.
Still, they fought on. The Marauders' greatest victory came in May 1944. Now down to roughly 1,300 men, the Marauders combined with elements of the Chinese 42nd and 150th Infantry regiments for an attack on a Japanese airfield at the Burmese town of Myitkyina.
Though outnumbered by a two-to-one margin, the Marauders and Chinese forces were able to take the airfield then hold-on until Chinese reinforcements arrived. But the victory came at a high price.
Of the 2,750 who had left India five months earlier, less than 200 were fit for combat when Myitkyina fell. More than 1,600 had either been killed or seriously wounded in combat. More than 1,000 either died or had to be evacuated due to illness. Horn was wounded four times, including rounds to the chest, back and jaw.
``Very few of us came back because we were the striking units,'' Horn said of the Marauders' losses. ``There was no support. We didn't have any artillery. They just kept on knocking us down, whittling us down. It is hard to believe what we had to go through.''
The men of Merrill's Marauders have the rare distinction of having each soldier within its ranks awarded the Bronze Star. In June 1944, the 5307th Composite Unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for ``gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions. ``In June 1945, Gilbert Horn returned to Montana a decorated WWII veteran. Still just 20 years old, Horn was ready to leave the war behind him and start his life fresh.
But life on the Fort Belknap Reservation hadn't changed since he left. Racism and lack of opportunity didn't distinguish between civilians and veterans. Horn found that to most people he ran into, he was still just an Indian.
``When I first got back, I was treated like dirt,'' Horn said. ``It was still the same.''
It's important to recall that until 1948, states like Arizona and New Mexico didn't allow American Indians to vote at all. Utah didn't allow Native Americans into polling stations until 1957. Having served two tours of duty during World War II, Horn was supposed to be given preferential treatment when applying for certain jobs.
Where he lived, it almost never happened.
``Where the jobs were, nine times out of 10 they didn't even recognize the law,'' Horn recalled. ``They used us all right _ but they didn't want to pay us.''
Return veterans also were supposed to qualify for low-interest federal housing loans, but on the reservation that never happened. The problem was that the Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to sign waivers for reservation lands held in trust by the federal government.
Without it, there was no way to secure GI or Veterans Administration loans. If an Indian tried to secure a loan to build a house on the reservation through a local bank, it almost always was denied.
In one particularly galling act of racism, Horn remembers stopping by a local bar and seeing a sign posted on the front door reading ``No Dogs or Indians Allowed.'' He had risked his life and his health to help free southeast Asia from Japanese oppression, then found he still was discriminated against when he got back home.
No one in the civilian world at that time was even aware of the service the Native American Code Talkers had provided. Details of the program remained classified until 1968.
Yet not everything was a disappointment when Horn returned home.
Remarkably, all six of the Horn brothers returned from the war. True to her promise, Melvina Horn prepared herself to perform the Sun Dance in gratitude for her sons coming home to her.
Melvina Horn prayed and fasted, then cleansed herself with the fragrant smoke of sweetgrass. When she was finished, she was ready to have the flesh of her back pierced so that rawhide thongs could be passed beneath her skin and then tied to buffalo skulls laid upon the ground behind her. She would dance in a large circle for hours, dragging the heavy skulls across the earth until their weight tore the rawhide thongs from her back.
In the final moments before the dance began, Melvina turned to her son, Gilbert, and asked him to pierce her flesh.
Gilbert Horn would later tell his own children it was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com
By The Associated Press, Copyright 2014