The service and sacrifice of indigenous members of the U.S. military is notable and, perhaps, best exemplified through the legacy of Native American Medal of Honor recipients. These stories are exceptional reminders of the lengths service members will go to defend freedom and each other. How many of these famous twentieth-century Native American soldiers do you know?
1. Harold Turner: World War I
The only indigenous Medal of Honor recipient in World War I, Harold Turner was second-in-command of a platoon that fought near St. Etienne, France. With the last four members of his platoon sheltering from a barrage, Turner attacked alone, running 25 yards under “continual fire from four machine guns.” Amazingly, he survived the assault on the defensive position, which had 50 German soldiers in addition to the four machine guns, and received the Medal of Honor in 1918.
2. Van Thomas Barfoot: World War II
You might recognize Van Thomas Barfoot’s last name. In June 2023, the Virginia Army National Guard installation Fort Pickett was renamed Fort Barfoot for this Medal of Honor recipient. In just one day in Italy in 1944, Barfoot single-handedly disabled two machine-gun nests. His ferocity encouraged another machine-gun crew to surrender. During a counter-attack, he blew up a tank with a bazooka and then helped two wounded U.S. soldiers get to safety nearly 1,700 yards away. He received the Medal of Honor in France a few months after his heroic actions.
3. Ruben Rivers: World War II
As a Cherokee and Black American, Ruben Rivers served in the storied Black Panthers, a segregated tank unit under Patton in the European Theater. In November 1944, Rivers suffered a severe leg wound when his tank was mined. Despite his leg “slashed to the bone,” Rivers refused medical help and evacuation, instead taking command of a tank. Three days later, Rivers directed heavy tank fire and refused to withdraw when Germans zeroed in on the American tanks. Seeing German positions, Rivers radioed, “I see ‘em; we’ll fight ‘em!” He did until his tank was hit and he was killed in action. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1997.
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4. Charles George: Korean War
On the last day of November in 1952, Charles George was part of a raid meant to capture a prisoner of war for interrogation. George jumped into a trench and fought hand-to-hand. When they had captured a prisoner, the rest of the group began to withdraw; however, George and two others stayed behind to provide cover. Throwing himself on a live grenade to shield his brothers-in-arms, he didn’t make a noise and did not give away their position. He died after being evacuated from the fighting. George’s father accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of his son in 1954.
5. Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr.: Korean War
Part of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr. is known for a gargantuan feat of bravery and daring in the Korean War. After alerting his company to the approach of enemy soldiers, he engaged them at point-blank range. Even after becoming mortally wounded, he continued fighting, using a tree to stabilize himself. His actions and sacrifice allowed the rest of his company to regroup and prevented further loss of American life. Want to learn more? The Association for the United States Army has published a free comic book detailing Red Cloud’s heroism.
6. Dwight W. Birdwell: Vietnam War
If Dwight W. Birdwell’s name sounds familiar, it’s because you may have heard it on the news recently. Birdwell received his Medal of Honor from President Joe Biden in 2022, more than half a century after his heroics. During an especially vicious skirmish, Birdwell gave aid to his wounded tank commander and “assumed the tank commander’s position.” Standing halfway out of the tank’s hatch, he continued firing various guns, only to discard them once he ran out of ammunition or they overheated. He scavenged machine guns and ammunition from a nearby crashed helicopter and continued fighting. During the fight, he was wounded repeatedly but refused to evacuate. With other soldiers that he rallied, he advanced, helping the wounded to safer areas and ultimately defeating the North Vietnamese soldiers.
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You may know them for their appearances on the red carpet, but did you know these famous people also had military careers? Some are storied, others … not so much. But all served their country!
In case you were wondering…
How many Native Americans are Medal of Honor recipients?
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 33 indigenous North Americans have received the Medal of Honor. It’s worth noting, however, that 16 of these Medal of Honor recipients received the award for actions against indigenous people during the Indian Wars of the 1870s.
Who was the first Native American to be awarded the Medal of Honor?
Co-Rux-Te-Chod-Ish is the first known Native American recipient of the Medal of Honor. He was presented this honor in 1869 as a Sergeant in the U.S. Military during the Indian Campaigns. His correct name was Co-Tux-A-Kah-Wadde, but the Medal of Honor naming error has never been fixed.
How rare is it to get the Medal of Honor?
Extremely! The National Medal of Honor Museum estimates that more than 40 million Americans have served in the military since the creation of the medal. Of those 40 million service members, 3,517 have received it.
What percentage of the military is Native American?
According to the Department of Defense’s most recent demographics data, military members self-identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native are 1% of the total military force; those self-identifying as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander make up 1.1%.
How many Native Americans currently serve in the military?
In a 2021 survey, 20,276 service members identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 22,671 identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
Joanna Guldin-Noll spent years teaching at a Baltimore high school, pioneering the school’s first AP English Language and Composition course, garnering thousands in grants for her students, and teaching American Literature, honors, and recovery courses. With a Master’s in Secondary English Education from Johns Hopkins, she was an adjunct faculty member and portfolio coach for the School of Education’s master’s program and served as a consultant for educational start-ups. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband John and her puppy Albus.