JIM KENT on WWI

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Family Memories of the Great War

(with Thoughts on Native Americans Who Served)

by Jim Kent

On April 6, 1917 – one hundred years ago today - the United States declared war on Germany and joined more than 2 dozen other countries in the largest conflict in the world’s history until that time.

Two of my ancestors soon entered the fray and found themselves part of the American Expeditionary Force sent to France to do battle along the 1500 miles of trenches called The Western Front.

Michael Hickey, on my mother’s side, I know little about except for the information in his pay record book: birth date; Amount of War Risk Insurance - $10,000; first entry - October 31, 1918; last entry - January 7, 1919. If this reflects his service he wasn’t in for long and may not have seen combat since the war ended on November 11, 1918.

Jerry Finn, from my father’s side, was a member of Battery D - the artillery unit commanded by Captain Harry Truman, our future 33rd president.

Uncle Jerry ate a thick piece of steak for breakfast each morning, a habit developed from too many months of short rations during the war. That tidbit, a book about Battery D, a brief meeting with him when I was 4 and a linen “Victory” postcard from France with “1918” woven across the front are the only memories I have of the quiet man who loomed large across my early Brooklyn youth.

Growing up in a family of veterans I was always fascinated by “The War to End All Wars” – which, sadly, never quite lived up to its name. Whether the uniforms, the patriotic songs my grandmother would sing to me or the legend of New York City’s “Fighting Irish” 69th U.S. Army regiment the images of those years captured my imagination from my pre-school days forward.

As I grew I was also impressed by Uncle Mike, Uncle Jerry and the many others like them who, though the children of recent immigrants to the U.S., were willing to put themselves at risk and, if necessary, lay down their lives in order to defend their land.

It wasn’t until I reached high school and began broadening my knowledge of history that I learned about the 12,000 men whose service was equally impressive, if not more so, considering what they had endured through the directives of the federal government.

I’m referring, of course, to Native Americans – whose people during the previous generation had been rounded up like cattle and placed on an early version of concentration camp called “a reservation”.

Whose traditional lands had been stolen over the previous decades by powerbrokers, private citizens and a federal government that when not initiating the theft through broken treaties permitted it to occur through inaction toward the thieves.

Whose numbers had been reduced by millions over the previous centuries as first Europeans arrived on these shores claiming other cultures’ lands as their own, then the leaders of a new nation announced that their god had decreed it their destiny to commit cultural genocide in order to obtain dominion over 3 million square miles of the planet.

Yet, their service in World War I was nothing new for the First People of this land who’d initially served the U.S. as scouts for George Washington’s Continental Army. Nor would it be the last time that men and women from the Lakota, Choctaw, Iroquois and dozens of other Indigenous nations would volunteer to defend the very flag that had invaded their traditional territories and reduced their populations to near oblivion.

Moreover, beginning in World War I Native Americans served in the U.S. military in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group. In that conflict alone almost 30 percent of the adult Native male population was enlisted in the U.S. armed forces compared to 15 percent of all non-Native males.

And Native Americans have served with distinction in every major conflict since.

But the most amazing aspect of their role in World War I was that the Native Americans who volunteered for service hadn’t even been “granted” citizenship by the country they were defending; the country that had taken their land, their liberty and attempted to take their cultures.

Of course, the question is: can one actually “grant” citizenship to the original inhabitants of a country. The answer is “no”.

Native Americans have always been citizens here – and that’s why they were fighting. To protect their land, their people and their way of life.

That’s why Native Americans will always fight. And that’s why they’ll always remain.

 

Published on 4/6/17 in the Lakota Country Times as “Fighting For Your Country Before You’re a Citizen”