FORT DRUM, N.Y. – The life and legacy of retired Lt. Col. Ernest Childers was celebrated during a plaque dedication ceremony Nov. 20 at the Range 1 training facility at Fort Drum.
Childers, a Muscogee Creek Indian from Oklahoma and a first lieutenant with the 45th Infantry Division, trained at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) before joining the fight in Italy during World War II.
Childers was assigned to C Company, 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division (Thunderbirds), and was among more than 44,000 American Indians on active duty between 1941 and 1945.
He distinguished himself during a battle at Oliveto on Sept. 22, 1943, when, despite fracturing his foot, he led the eight Soldiers under his command up a hill toward enemy machine-gun nests. Childers single-handedly killed two enemy snipers, attacked two machine-gun nests and captured an artillery observer.
For his leadership and bravery under fire, he was presented the Medal of Honor on Apr. 8, 1944. He continued to serve through the Korean War and during the first years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Childers retired in 1965 and died Mar. 17, 2005, at the age of 87.
Col. Christopher Chomosh, representing the Oklahoma Army National Guard and 45th Infantry Division, spoke about Childers during the plaque unveiling.
“Col. Childers still means a lot to the 45th Infantry, the veterans in Oklahoma and the Creek Nation,” he said. “A very humble man from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, he grew up very poor – one of five brothers. His mother could not afford to buy meat, and he used to tell the story that he was given one bullet a day to hunt rabbits. He became a good shot at a young age because if he missed, they didn’t get to eat that day.”
Chomosh said Childers never bragged about his war exploits, and he rarely showed anyone his military awards.
“His daughter described him as a quiet, strong man who was always humble,” he said. “She said he was proud to be a Creek warrior and proud to be a Thunderbird.”
A display inside the Range 1 facility tells the story about the day Childers received the Medal of Honor. While recuperating at a military hospital in Naples from a wound he sustained during the Battle of Anzio, he was informed that Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers, deputy commander of the Mediterranean Theater, wanted to speak with him.
“My immediate thought was, ‘What the hell have I done now?’ Generals just don’t go around talking to second lieutenants on a friendly basis,’” Childers is cited as saying.
Childers joined a group of recovering patients lined up in formation as a military band performed.
“Somebody read the citation, but I was so nervous, I didn’t really understand what they were talking about,” Childers said. “They put a medal around my neck, and people came up and congratulated me. I asked one guy, ‘What the hell is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s the Medal of Honor.’”
The U.S. has awarded more than 25 Medals of Honor to American Indians, and Childers is recognized as the first recipient in the 20th century.
The Range 1 facility was dedicated to Childers in 2001 as the LTC Childers Inclement Weather Training Facility. One of the new displays that honor Childers and the 45th Infantry Division is the original program from the building dedication signed by the World War II veteran.
This was the second in a series of three plaque dedication ceremonies at Fort Drum that honors a distinguished Soldier or recognizes an upgrade to an honoree’s award.
The Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis Weapon Training Center (Range 2) rededication ceremony was held in September to reflect the Distinguished Service Cross upgrade, and the Atkins Functional Fitness Facility will be rededicated in 2020 to honor Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, the 10th Mountain Division’s most recent Medal of Honor recipient.
“Commemorations like this are important because they give us the chance to reflect on our shared history as Americans and to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of all of our people,” said Lt. Col. Kyle Upshaw, 10th Mountain Division (LI) G9.