The Little Known Story of the Warrior, Soldier, and WW II Hero
“War Chief of the Crow Indians” isn’t a title that’s just
randomly thrown around to any guy who happens to own a
gigantic, awesome-looking headdress and a really bitchin’
traditional-style wooden bow made out of the bark of dead
You don’t become a War Chief just because you’re the oldest dude in the tribe, or the most badass hunter, or the only guy in the hood capable of bench-pressing an automobile.
It’s an ancient, prestigiously honorific position bestowed only upon the bravest, the strongest, and most hardcore person around and the only way to attain this hallowed title is by proving yourself in combat and unlocking the four achievements the Crow believed to be the most insanely-difficult things a warrior can attempt in battle: Leading a successful war party on a raid, Capturing an enemy’s weapon, Touching an enemy without killing
him, and Stealing an enemy’s horse.
None of this stuff is easy, and pretty much all of it requires you put your life on the line by voluntarily bringing yourself face-to-face with at least one warrior who is presumably in the process of actively trying to rip you limb from limb with a bowie knife and then splatter your corpse across the countryside with a well-placed headbutt.
It’s like the Crow Indians’ way of making sure they don’t have any sucky weaklings leading their tribe into combat.
At 98 years old, Joseph Medicine Crow-High Bird is the last surviving War Chief of the Crow Indians. He is a hardcore, fearless, neck-snapping warrior who accomplished all of these tremendous feats of bravery in combat and proven himself a step above the majority of humanity on a really super badass scale.
And he did it all in World War II.
Joe Medicine Crow was born on a reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana in 1913. Raised in the illustrious warrior tradition of the Crow, this dude had some pretty hardcore people to look up to as a young man – his step-grandfather had been a scout for Custer at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn (the Crow had a generations-long blood feud with the Lakota Sioux), and his paternal grandfather was a guy named Chief Medicine Crow who was like the Michael Jordan of Crow war heroes.
So, naturally young Joseph was drilled into a tough-as-hell warrior capable of handling himself in any situation. The majority of this young warrior’s childhood was spent undergoing hardcore Spartan-style feats of strength, piledriving buffalo, riding horses bareback, swimming through mighty rivers, punching things, and running barefoot through the snow-covered plains uphill both ways.
He was taught to control his fear in the face of imminent peril, learned to hunt dangerous animals by himself, and trained his body to survive prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures. He was also taught the war history of his tribe, and in addition to honing his body to the ultimate wilderness survival machine, became the first member of his tribe to graduate with an advanced college degree, receiving his MA in Anthropology from USC in 1939.
Joe Medicine Crow was in the process of working on his PhD when the United States entered World War II. Never one to back down from the opportunity to put his powers of mass destruction to good use, Crow enlisted as a scout in the 103rd Infantry and was sent to the beaches of Normandy to wreak havoc on the forces of European Fascism.
Despite serving in a war dominated by automatic weapons, heavy artillery, and gigantic tanks armed with 88mm cannons, Medicine Crow held on to the time-honored practices of his tribe – he always wore bright red war paint into combat and strapped a sacred yellow-painted eagle feather to his helmet for good luck.
He also counted the four coups required to distinguish himself as a Crow war chief, which is no small task when one of those tasks involves stealing a horse from the enemy.
#1. Leading a Successful War Party on a Raid
As an infantry scout, you probably don’t get too many opportunities to lead a group of men into combat. Pvt. Medicine Crow got the opportunity to do just that in the snow-covered battlefields of Western France while the Allies made their push from Paris towards Berlin.
The border to Germany was a heavily-fortified wall of impenetrable machine gun bunkers, tank traps, trenches, moats and artillery positions known as the Siegfried Line, which was basically like a functional, not-worthless version of France’s Maginot Line.
Well, during one particularly nasty portion of the battle for the Rhine, Medicine Crow’s commanding officer ordered the Native American warrior to take a team of seven soldiers and lead them across an field of barbed wire, bullets, and artillery fire, grab some dynamite from an American position that had been utterly annihilated, and then assault the German bunkers and blow them up with TNT.
This was basically a suicide mission, but, according to Medicine Crow, when he got the mission his CO’s exact words were, “if anyone can do this, it’s probably you.”
That’s not exactly a phrase that inspires tremendous confidence, but Joe Medicine Crow didn’t give a twit’s wit.
He charged out, evaded an endless rain of fireballs, shrapnel, and misery, grabbed the TNT from a supply crate while tracer rounds zipped past his head, and then charged balls-out towards some German machine gun nests while carrying an armload of ultra-high explosives. He miraculously reached the wall in one piece and blasted a hole in the Siegfried Line so the infantry could advance.
Medicine Crow received a Bronze Star for this action and his squad did not lose a single man in the battle.
Yeah, I’d call that a win.
#2. Taking an Enemy’s Weapon Away from Him
Shortly after moving through the Siegfried Line the 103rd Infantry was ordered to capture a nearby town that was being staunchly defended by the enemy. (I read one source that Joe was photographed leading the charge and leaping through the breach he’d created in the wall thus making him the first American soldier to set foot on German soil; however I wasn’t able to verify this fact or locate the photo.)
While the main elements of the 103rd moved into the well-defended main street of the village, Joe Medicine Crow’s scouts were ordered to flank around through a back alley and get behind the German fortifications. Well, as this was going down, Medicine Crow got separated from his unit and while he was in the process of sprinting through some German family’s backyard, a random Nazi stepped out from behind the wall with his rifle at the ready.
Joe didn’t see the guy until the last second and ended up running right into the guy like the Juggernaut from the X-Men.
The two guys smashed helmet-to-helmet in a maneuver that would have netted Medicine Crow a 15-yard penalty in the NFL, and the force of the running mega-Indian flying headbutt sent the Nazi and his rifle sprawling aimlessly across the lawn.
Joseph Medicine Crow, however, still had his rifle firmly wedged in his kung fu grip and was ready to pull the trigger.
#3. Touching an Enemy Without Killing Him
Joseph Medicine Crow now found himself standing rifle-to-face with an unarmed German soldier, but gunning down an unarmed man wasn’t his style– he was much more of an “honorable combat” sort of warrior– yet he wasn’t about to let his enemy off the hook without getting in a red, white, and blue knuckle sandwich, either.
So Joe Medicine Crow threw down his rifle and cold-cocked the guy in the face, Batman-style.
The two guys started going at it, and at one point the Nazi almost flipped the tables and pinned Joe. Our Native American warrior freaked out, grabbed the German by the throat, and started squeezing.
Just as he was ready to choke the life out of his enemy, the German, sensing imminent death, started calling out for his Mom.
That kind of put the kibosh on Joseph’s kill thrill.
So he let the guy live, taking the German– and his rifle– as a prisoner of war and knocking out the two War Chief prerequisites with one well-placed face-punch.
#4. Stealing an Enemy’s Horse
Of all the stuff on this borderline-impossible list, this is the one that seems would trip up most people these days. But, no lie, in early 1945 Joseph Medicine Crow stole 50 horses from a group of surprised German officers.
The account starts with Joe and his men on a scouting mission deep behind enemy lines. While surveying the landscape for enemy troop movements, Medicine Crow’s small team of recon experts just happened to come across a small farm where some senior members of the German officer staff were holed up – along with some awesome thoroughbred race horses.
So, naturally, Joe had to steal them.
In the early hours of the morning, Joseph Medicine Crow, dressed in his blazing U.S. Army uniform, snuck past the sleeping guards armed only with a rope and his Colt 1911 .45-caliber service pistol.
He found the best horse in the group, tied the rope into a makeshift bridle, mounted the horse bareback, and then gave a super-outrageous-loud Crow war cry as he herded as many horses out of the corral before the startled Nazis started firing bullets at him.
Hauling butt through the German countryside in the dead of night, Joseph Medicine Crow sang a Crow war song while German officers ran outside in their underwear taking potshots at him with their Lugers. Around 50 horses were stolen from the battalion of German officers.
This stuff is so crazy you couldn’t even make it up.
In the last days of the war, Joseph Medicine Crow helped liberate a concentration camp in Poland by ramming a jeep with his commanding officer through the front gates.
The SS guards immediately dropped their guns and ran away without a fight.
After the war, Joe finally headed home to his tribe in Montana. When the Crow elders heard about his through-the-roof Gamerscore they made Joe an official War Chief in the Tribe– a post he now holds by himself.
Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird was also made a Knight in the French Legion of Honor, received three honorary PhDs, authored nearly a dozen books on military history, stayed married to the same woman for over 60 years, and has been the official historian for his tribe for the last fifty years.
In August of 2009 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor awarded to American civilians – for his combined military service and all the work he has done to help improve the lives of the people of the Crow people.
The 95 year-old Medicine Crow personally led the ceremonial
dance after the ceremony.
From BadassoftheWeek.com– and slightly abridged
Images and additions by the Humboldt Sentinel
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Thank you, Joe
Ken Burns and KPBS-San Diego: Medicine Crow War Chief Story from “The War” (via YouTube)
Nabokov, Peter. Native American Testimony. Penguin, 1999.
Robinson, Gary and Phil Lucas. From Warriors to Soldiers. iUniverse, 2010.
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