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In a 1994 interview with the Holton Recorder's Sandra Siebert, tribal member Milton LaClair related how he was only 19 when he landed on a French beach. He recalled the carnage and death that lay along the beach.
"We couldn't believe it," he said.
LaClair--a private with B Company, 18th Infantry, First Division--was in the "second wave" of soldiers who landed along the coast of Normandy on D-day, June 6, 1944, in a massive Allied effort to push the Germans out of France.
The first wave had suffered many casualties, creating a gruesome scene to greet those who followed.
But the soldiers like Milton weren't allowed to contemplate the casualties. They were pushed relentlessly forward.
"They told us 'You have to get past the dead and up the hill.' That's all we heard--"Get up the hill," he recalled. "It was tough because the Germans were sitting on top of the hill firing at us."
Time on the beach passed like a nightmare. It seemed to LaClair as if he was always either flat on his stomach, or crouched over, or trying to run with bullets singing overhead and shells exploding on either side. "It's hard for someone who's never seen it to visualize and feel it."
On Omaha Beach (later nicknamed "Bloody Omaha"), where LaClair landed, they faced the most difficult of the five invasion sites to secure. But by nightfall, the Allied forces had topped the hill and gone about a mile inland. Then began an unusual style of combat.
The French farmers had small plots of land of little more than an acre surrounded by thick hedgerows, behind which German and Allied troops entrenched themselves.
"We'd snipe at each other from hedgerow to hedgerow," he said.
LaClair was assigned to duty as "company sniper."
For more than 50 days, LaClair and his fellow soldiers experienced almost constant combat, eating C-rations and sleeping in shifts in muddy foxholes during the so-called "quiet times" for a couple of hours--if they could sleep that long.
LaClair saw many close friends fall, including his "best buddy," after whom his eldest son is named.
"He said to me, 'Milt, if I don't get out of this, you name your first boy after me.' I was with him when he was shot--on my right, just a few yards away from me."
His quiet words belying the depth of emotion behind them.
But in combat, there is no time to mourn. After the battle, the soldiers regrouped, and names were called out to see who survived.
"I said I saw Frank shot," Milton said. "Somebody marks it down, and you go on."
The day after his 20th birthday, Milton's division was pulled from combat and each man got a hot shower, a change of clothes (the first time in 40-some days) and a hot meal.
The following day, the soldiers marched back into combat. Less than two weeks later, a mortar shell exploded near Milton, killing his sergeant and wounding him and another man in his squad.
His right leg was blown off below the knee (he later lost more of the leg to gangrene), and he suffered an extremely deep wound to his back. Yet he was able to apply a tourniquet and inject morphine (provided to each soldier) as he had been trained. LaClair then crawled to his friend who lost part of his left leg in the explosion and assisted him with first aid procedures.
LaClair was to spend nearly two years in a military hospital recovering from his wounds.
After he left combat, LaClair developed a revulsion to guns, which he was able to overcome. His combat experience left many physical and emotional scars ("It took me a good many years before I could ever talk about it," he said).
But the experience also gave him a greater appreciation of life and spirituality that he has carried for 50 years of civilian life.
"There are no atheists in foxholes," he said, recalling a well-worn but significant phrase. "You become closer to God in combat."
Another Potawatomi, Elwin I. Shopteese, served in E Company of the 137th Infantry, 35th Division in the war.
"Al," as he was known, fought in Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and other parts of Central Europe. For his fighting in a battle at Omaha Beach, on July 6, 1944, he won a rare battlefield commission, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a combat soldier.
Shopteese also won a bronze star, another high battlefield honor, for heroic duty in connection with military operations against the Germans near Herne, Germany, on April 10, 1945.
During this particular battle, Shopteese formed a small patrol and led it to a point inside enemy lines while the rest of the unit was pinned down by enemy fire. The patrol's move disorganized the enemy, and this action saved the lives of the rest of the unit. They advanced and were able to rout the enemy.
Shopteese rose to the rank of Captain. Later he also fought in the Korean War in the 1950s.
In the many years following the two wars, Shopteese never talked about great honors he received on the battlefield. He dedicated his life to alcohol prevention programs and helped many Indian people get a new start in life. He, along with Potts and LaClair, was truly one of the unsung heroes of the war.
These brave men lived to tell their story, but not all were so fortunate. Three Potawatomi men made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for the good of this country. Lavernne "Sas- Weh" Thomas, Paul "Wah-mego" Wamego, and William Lasley died during hostile action, just as another Potawatomi named Lyman "Amp-Tab-Ko" Tapsee had done during an earlier conflict -- World War I. Wamego served in the Army and died in Germany. William served in the Army and died in Italy. Lavernne served in the Marine Corp, earning a Silver Star and died at Iwo Jima.
They, along with many other men during this war, will never know long life because they chose to defend all the freedoms we enjoy today.
While this writing only tells part of the story of the Potawatomi in World War II, many others will never be told. Some old veterans are gone. Others, to this day, can not bring themselves to talk about their experiences, and some wrongly regard their contribution as minimal.
For example, we will never know Leroy Mitchell's experiences and insights as a driver for the great General Patton. Leroy died of a heart attack in 1992 and we will never know what he experienced. We will never know what went on in Albert Wahweotten's mind when he was forced to parachute from his aircraft over occupied Yugoslavia and subsequently won an Air Medal with three clusters.
We will never know how Nelson Potts improvised in that German concentration camp, but we can understand the tears that came when he returned to his home and saw his mother hanging up clothes in her yard. We will never know and can never describe the elation of returning home to the Potawatomi reservation --alive and well, with the ability to live another day.
No longer would the soldiers have to see the killing, to smell the stench of death, and to feel the grip of fear. The war ended, but more was in store for the returning veteran. Now, they had to live with what they saw and felt for the last few years.
Some turned to drinking to forget their war-time experiences, while others went on living life the best way they could under the circumstances. But, one thing for sure, life was never the same for these Potawatomi men. The Potawatomi soldier returned to the close knit environment of the reservation with a vastly different outlook on life.
Generally, the Potawatomi's war experiences paralleled the combat life of the white and black soldiers. There were little differences. Everyone suffered equally and many can't get the war out of their lives. Potawatomi society and the country have benefited from the contributions made by all of these soldiers on the shores of the Phillipines and the lands of Europe.
They received little recognition for their contributions, but inside they know what they accomplished and that's all that really matters.