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Little is known of the contributions American Indians made to the Second World War. Many members of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indian Tribe served their country well and achieved many battlefield honors, but they received little recognition for those accomplishments. Today, 50 years later, their story is finally told.
The United States, coaxed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, joined the Allies against the combined forces of Japan, Italy, and Germany called the Axis.
The war was more than countries fighting each other. It involved people like the Potawatomi, who fought for this country and likewise, suffered the effects that last a lifetime. It was General Sherman of Civil War fame who said "War is Hell" and that proved to be a prophecy of sorts for almost everyone who survived World War II.
Potawatomis served in both the Pacific and the European theaters. For many, it was the first time they had ever left home, and they were to encounter a world vastly different from the close- knit environment of the reservation.
The Potawatomi soldiers saw new countries, new people, and a different lifestyle of trying to survive each new day in a combat situation. They understood that the Nazi and Japanese war- machines represented the oppression of people, a similar experience the young Potawatomi men's ancestors had endured long ago.
In fact, in November 1942, Richard L. Neuberger in "Asia and the Americas," informed his readers of a Nazi propaganda statement designed to exploit this history: "In the name of American progress, Indians had been slaughtered, dispossessed of lands, forcibly stripped of many aspects of their tribal cultures, and left the poorest of the nation's poor. How could American Indians think of bearing arms for their exploiters."
But, this didn't stop tribal members from joining in the war effort.
Between 1941 and 1945, 25,000 Native Americans were called up to fight in the U.S. military. Maynard Potts, 79, was one of 250 Indians from the four Indian reservations in Kansas sent to fight in the Pacific and the European theaters. He well remembers those war experiences as if they occurred yesterday. Potts had kept the painful memories of those blood-filled war days secretly stored in his mind, but decided to share his story so future generations will understand what a soldier experienced.
He left the United States from San Francisco January 23, 1943, aboard the troop transport Nordom. As they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, a man in the back of the boat shouted, "Golden Gate, Golden Gate, be back in '48."
Of course, the war didn't last that long, but it seemed like an eternity for these young men.
The troop transport traveled one month and one day to get to the war zone in New Guinea, a tropical island in the Pacific north of Australia. The unit aboard the 532nd Amphibian was attached to the Ninth Division of the Australian Army which had just returned from two to three years of combat in Africa.
It was because of the bravery of the Australians on several occasions that Potts was able to survive the war. They were ready to fight under any circumstances and showed no fear.
In April 1943, the American unit went to Milne Bay, New Guinea. During the first two weeks they went through 118 bombings by the Japanese. The bombing started at six a.m. and ended 20 hours later at two a.m. Because of the lack of air support, many Americans died during those initial days. Constant bombings and combat tends to bring out courage in some people and a paralysis of fear in others. Three unit sergeants "broke." They were too scared to leave the foxholes. They were reduced in rank to privates. Potts was then promoted to field line man for the duration of the war.
Potts related how much of the unit's experiences were erroneously reported in the military publication, History of the Second Engineer Special Brigade. The original reporter attached to this unit was killed in the early bombings at Milne Bay and his replacement reported second-hand information, never giving the unit the recognition it deserved.
For instance, the writer wrote that the entire unit was pinned down by enemy fire, while in fact, the only ones caught in this fire-fight were Potts and fellow Kansan, George Scott. Potts served the entire time overseas with this man, and forty years later, he searched for him in western Kansas, but Scott had died before they could see each other again. Scott said, in a less serious moment of the war, "my name is Scott, and I'm from Scott City, and I come from Scott County."
In another instance of erroneous reporting, the writer said two young captains were listed as killed instantly during one of the many bombings. In reality, Potts related how both captains, DeCasare and Pecorato, were both badly wounded. Pecorato's arms and legs were broken by the shrapnel that flew over where Potts was "dug in."
Once the bombing stopped, Captain Pecorato told Potts to light him a cigarette, to tend to the rest of the wounded and to check on him later. Upon returning, he told Potts to take the cigarette out of his mouth, for he was done. Shortly afterwards, the man died.
After the Allies finally wrested New Guinea from Japanese control in March 1944, Potts boarded a boat to the Philippines in what was called "island hopping," or seizing key islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean.
With this strategy, the Allies used each island as a springboard to attack the next island. The Philippines had been under Japanese control since May of 1942, and the Allies hoped to recapture it, cut off Japan's lines of communication with its overseas bases, and set up bases from which to attack Japan.
While on this first "island hopping" boat ride, Potts saw Japanese suicide planes take out three American ships one day and seven ships the next. Many Americans died there. It was hard to be at sea or on land because no place was safe.
Throughout the war, Potts was to see men wounded and killed, and he was to experience countless nerve-wracking bombings. But the hardest part was the fear and never knowing what would happen next. These hard times of war stayed with him even after fifty years, a suffering shared by many survivors of war. The years have only tempered the trauma.
Potts returned to the states, via Vancouver, Washington with several medals including the Bronze Star, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Phillippine Liberation Ribbon, and the World War II Victory Medal. Most of all he was relieved he had survived the war. He had been overseas 33 months.
It was two to three years before Potts could sleep right again. There were times when he would start laughing over nothing --- a reaction to 27 months of combat.
Potts did eventually overcome the problems of war and went on to be a strong leader of the tribe, helping many young people learn the traditions and culture of the tribe. But it took fifty years to talk about the war.