Joe Medicine Crow Becomes a Crow War Chief on the European Battlefields of WWII
Soldiers often become explorers, innovators, and survivalists based purely on the nature of their jobs. Militaries worldwide are home to some of the most intrepid gravel-eaters in history, but the United States claims an exceptional number of them. Perhaps we have a bit of it in our blood. The men who forged this country learned to survive from native peoples, who were integral in establishing our national identity. Despite the despicable treatment they faced at the hands of an uncaring government, Native Americans have still made some of the toughest soldiers that our military has ever seen. Joe Medicine Crow is a shining example of a native man who felt called to duty, and who takes from life everything it will give him.
Born in 1913 on a Montana reservation, Crow demonstrated an exceptional aptitude for learning and an ambition to succeed. He was also deeply tied to his culture, and had history in his family: his step-grandfather was a scout for General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Although he was academically inclined, he was also well attuned to the outdoors. He hunted dangerous game alone, spent days at a time on the plains, and learned to survive in extreme temperatures. He was the first of his tribe to graduate from college, and was studying for an advanced degree in anthropology when the USA became involved in WWII.
Crow’s grandfather had trained him to become a warrior. The Crow Tribe has a strong military tradition, being known as a very warlike culture that places a strong emphasis on success in battle. According to Joe, “The Crow people were so-called, ‘warlike.’ We were a very militaristic people.” Feeling a calling to battle as a Warrior and as a Crow, Joe joined the army and was shipped to the Normandy beaches. The year was 1943.
Joe wore two uniforms: the olive drab of the USA, and the war paint and yellow feather of the Crow. He was quickly noticed for his toughness, and willingness to brave enemy fire to secure an objective. During the Battle of the Rhine, Joe was tasked with taking a team of seven men across a no-man’s-land field of barbed wire an explosives to retrieve TNT from a decimated American position, and to then destroy manned German bunkers with the stuff. His commanding officer is quoted as saying “if anyone can do this, it’s probably you.” Apparently, Joe didn’t give a shit about machine gun fire, artillery, barbed wire, Germans, danger, or death. He sprinted dead across the field and secured the explosives. Then, with an armful of highly volatile TNT and a wall of German lead zipping around him, he sauntered up to the Siegfried line and blew a huge fucking hole in it. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his troubles. It’s also important to note that he didn’t lose a single man during that battle. He helped to liberate a concentration camp in Poland before returning home.
To Become a War Chief, One Must:
- Lead a Successful War Party or Raid
- Capture an Enemy’s Weapon
- Touch an Enemy Without Killing Him (Counting Coup)
- Steal an Enemy’s Horse
1 & 4. As a scout with the 103rd Infantry Division, Crow led a number of successful raids into enemy territory. One of Joe’s exploits included stealing horses from the enemy. Despite having prodigious numbers of motor vehicles, the German and Soviet armies both deployed horses routinely to support their maneuvers. During a scouting mission, the Americans came upon a farmhouse and spotted German soldiers with almost 50 horses. They had originally planned on bombarding the area, but Joe decided to liberate a few horses before doing so. He waited until nightfall, then drew his .45 caliber 1911 service pistol and snuck into the enclosure. Ultimately deciding to add insult to theft, he called a bone-chilling war cry as he herded as many of the animals out into the countryside as he could. He rode off singing a traditional Crow song. “The one I was riding was a sow with a braid, so I felt pretty good riding it,” he says. “It was a beautiful horse.” He paid no mind to the sleepy, underwear-clad German officers taking poorly aimed shots at him with their Lugers.
2 & 3. The chaotic nature of urban warfare in WWII made it so that surprise encounters with enemies were somewhat frequent. Joe was separated from his unit during a flanking maneuver in a German village. He rounded a corner, and found himself staring eye-to-eye with a young German soldier toting a rifle. He reacted quickly: “I saw his rifle and I knocked it out of his hands,” he recounts. “All I had to do was pull the trigger, but for some reason I put my gun down and tore into him.” The struggle was brutal and fast. The German got the better of him, and was on top of him. Joe saw red and got his hands around the young man’s neck, squeezing as hard as he could. The German produced a faint “…Mama,” at which point Joe let him go out of sympathy, but held on to the captured rifle.
Joe didn’t even know that he was checking items off of the War Chief list; he was informed of his status when he returned home. After the war, Joe Medicine Crow went on to contribute massively to his tribe, and Native Americans as a whole. He is still alive, at 102 years old. President Barack Obama awarded our hero the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for his contributions to the country and to his people. He was also awarded the Légion d’honneur for his service in France.