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NEWS | Nov. 25, 2014

Historians' corner - Honoring Native Americans for heroic service

By Bill Boehm National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - November, American Indian Heritage Month, is an appropriate time to remember the men and women from the American Indian community who contributed to the cause of liberty in their service for America's National Guard.

Three Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients, two from World War II and one whose award from his service in the Korean War recently reminded all Americans of the toll that combat inflicted on all Soldiers throughout their lifetime, serve as shining examples of this high call to service.

The state of Oklahoma is headquarters to today's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), also known as the "Thunderbirds" that recalls the region's Native American heritage. Since the unit's founding in 1923 as the 45th Infantry Division (ID), valorous service has been the hallmark of the Thunderbirds. With the federalization of the National Guard in 1940, the 45th ID readied themselves for fierce combat in the European Theater of Operation (ETO).

In the 1930s, growing up among other Indian tribes in Oklahoma, two young men would cross paths in school, not knowing that events halfway around the world would bond them. Jack Montgomery and Ernest L. Childers attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School near Ponca City, Oklahoma. Montgomery was a member of the Cherokee tribe, while Childers was part of the Muscogee band of Creek Indians.

During World War II, these two schoolmates became members of the 180th Regiment, Oklahoma's own infantry regiment within the 45th Division. Respectively, 2nd Lt. Childers and 1st Lt. Montgomery earned the (MOH) for actions performed in Olivetto and at the Battle of Anzio in Padiglione, Italy, in 1943 and 1944 against the occupying German army. Both individual's actions caused significant fatalities to the enemy as U.S. forces moving forward in their respective offensives. Both men's actions also resulted in taking several dozen prisoners. Each man survived the war and lived into the decade of the 2000s.

Another National Guard member also fought in World War II for the 164th Infantry Regiment, North Dakota National Guard, after it was placed in federal service along with its companion units among the 34th Infantry Division. Soldiers hailed mostly from Iowa and Minnesota. This was Master Sgt. Woodrow Keeble, a native of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Keeble's lofty physical stature overshadowed nearly all his fellow Soldiers, and he became renowned for his tenacity on the battlefield.

Although the 164th had started training after the national mobilization of 1940-41; however, as the Army "triangularization" of its National Guard units (converting four infantry regiments to three in a division), the 164th joined the 132nd from Illinois and the 182nd from Massachusetts, which was among the nation's oldest infantry units.

They would form the "Americal" Division, the first infantry division formed outside the United States. Even though the assemblage would officially become the 23rd Infantry Division, the name "Americal" would be remembered. The hybrid name, taken from the names America and New Calendonia, referred to the unit's first combat action at the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. The Americal Division is noted on Guadalcanal for its support of the First Marine Division in 1942, the first land-based offensive action by a U.S. Army combat unit in World War II. Their presence in teaming together to eventually capture the Japanese air strip was critical to making the first steps of progress for the Allied forces in the Pacific theater.

As rugged as the Battle of Guadalcanal was for young Sgt. Keeble, he again served his country in the Korean War in 1951 when the 164th Infantry Regiment was reactivated. He eventually was assigned to "G" Company, 2-19th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division as a master sergeant because he became a trainer to the unit. Among his strengths were marksmanship prowess and his ability to maintain a high level of concentration on the battlefield.

During the grueling offensive against Chinese communist forces near the town of Kumsong in October 1951, Keeble sustained multiple wounds. Remarkably, Keeble single-handedly destroyed three enemy machine-gun bunkers and killed an additional seven enemy soldiers in nearby trenches. In this stage of the Korean War, where high casualties in battle commonly became a routine event, Keeble's valor marked a stellar measure of resolve.

Although others detailed Keeble's bravery in combat and earning the Distinguished Service Cross, the degree of heroism demonstrated eventually hastened calls for the Army to advocate an upgraded battle award, to the Medal of Honor. Applications for the MOH for Woodrow Keeble first submitted were lost, and another one entered beyond the time allotted. After the Dakota congressional delegations intervened in the wake of repeated bureaucratic delays into the decade of the 2000s, Keeble received his due over 25 years after his passing, in 2008, when President George W. Bush awarded the Keeble family the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Though this distinction sadly took more than 55 years after the action, and to the American public, was a stark illustration of the bravery and valor that American Indian Soldiers had demonstrated in their defense of the United States of America. Master Sgt. Woodrow Keeble and other warriors unquestionably demonstrated their ability to withstand great pain on the battlefield and put forth sacrifices far beyond the ordinary.