The Stories that Pictures Tell

For me, one of the great and unexpected joys of writing a book was hearing from interesting readers.  One such person is Lee Bishop, a former Army captain and current World War II re-enactor who possesses a remarkable range of talents and interests.  Lee is an excellent source for information on just about anything having to do with Army life in World War II. 

Today, Lee emailed me a portion of a photo he bought at a military collectible show in Portland, OR.  These were huge photos that Army units had made during the war.  They were very long and usually rolled up and contained all the unit’s members, along with equipment.

Lee spotted one roll marked “180th Infantry Regiment, 1941” and stopped in his tracks.  That was the regiment of one of his heroes, Bill Mauldin.  So Lee bought the photo, unrolled it, and kindly scanned the section that contained Mauldin’s Company K.  Take a look at this enlargement below.  Click on the photo to see a full version.

Company K, 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, 1941

Company K, 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, 1941

For me, historical artifacts are most interesting not for the questions they answer but the questions they raise.  Look closely at the squinting faces of these men lined up in front of a guidon with “180th” blazoned above crossed rifles and “K” below.  If you blow the photo up a bit, you see how dark many of these soldiers’ complexions are.  The US Army was segregated and barred African Americans from regular units.  But these soldiers were Native Americans and Mexican Americans, and they comprised one of the most remarkable infantry units in WWII.

The 45th Infantry Division was the National Guard for Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.  Its first insignia had been a gold swastika on a red background, a mystical thousand-year-old Native American symbol of eternal migration and return.  The division did not see fit to change the emblem until shortly before the outbreak of war in Europe.  In 1939, the men removed their shoulder patches and replaced them with a gold Thunderbird, another Native American symbol signifying the promise of rain and bounty.

Most of the men in this photo were of hardscrabble backgrounds.  Many came from the heart of the Dust Bowl, where drought, mechanization, farm foreclosure, and depressed agricultural prices had devastated local communities and prompted a mass exodus of poverty-stricken “Okies” from the region.  Even as late as 1941, before Pearl Harbor, this division was woefully under-equipped.  Note the soldier on the extreme right of the photo, six or seven men up from the front.  He’s wearing a WWI vintage wool tunic.  This wasn’t unusual.  When Mauldin first joined Company K in the fall of 1940, they were using 1903 Springfield rifles and wore cracked hobnailed boots, peaked campaign hats, jodhpurs and puttees.

Mauldin was one of the few Anglos in his company.  Most were Native Americans, mainly Choctaw, whose ancestors had been removed from the American Southeast and sent into the “Indian Territory” of Oklahoma during the 1830s. 

These Indian soldiers left a profound imprint on the regiment, one visible not only on the 180th’s insignia, an Indian head with the motto “Ready in Peace and War” written in Choctaw, but also in the unit’s espirit.  For Native Americans, volunteer soldiering was part of a larger struggle to claim the full benefits of citizenship. Oklahoma’s various Indian tribes had long pledged their armed service to white authorities in return for rights and recognition.

In the Civil War, some tribes had fought with the Union, others with the Confederacy, all depending on the guarantees that each side offered. In 1898, Oklahoma’s Indians charged up Kettle Hill and San Juan Heights with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. In World War I, they served in the 142nd Infantry and saw some of the fiercest fighting in France. The reward for such service was citizenship, from which most Native Americans were otherwise barred. So when Oklahoma christened the 180th Infantry as its National Guard after World War I, Indians joined as a matter of course. By 1941, the regiment had become more than a mere Guard unit; it was an institution of racial uplift, advance, and empowerment.
Having come from the margins of American society himself, Bill Mauldin adored these Native American comrades.  He didn’t yet know that he possessed a great deal of Indian blood (his paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Chiricahua Apache and grandfather a mixed-blooded Cajun).

Which one in the photo is Mauldin?  Look at the left-hand side of the column, six rows up behind the officers.  Even at a distance, those ears and that round face are unmistakable.  Bill Mauldin at age 20, just before the war that would make his famous.