Ernest Childers’ Path from Poverty to American Hero

Ernest Childers’ Path from Poverty to American Hero

World War II Medal of Honor recipient Ernest Childers, a Muscogee Creek Indian, was born in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in 1918. His people had once inhabited northern Florida, most of Alabama, southern Tennessee, and western Georgia; they fought two wars against the US government in 1813-14 and 1836 to keep their homeland. They lost and ended up forcibly removed along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s to the Indian Territory, today’s Oklahoma. During the Civil War, internal divisions surfaced as different Creek factions fought on both the Union and Confederate sides.

They re-established themselves after the war as the Creek Nation with a new capital at Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Their territory originally encompassed two million acres, but most of that was gone by the time Childers was born. Congressional acts dismantled the Five Civilized Tribes’ government, opened up the Indian Territory to settlers, and broke tribal lands into small private parcels. The bulk of Creek lands and resources were lost, sold to make ends meet, or foreclosed upon to pay property taxes to Oklahoma, which became a state in 1907, and its counties.

Childers, one of five brothers, thus came of age amidst widespread impoverishment. His father, a lawyer, died when Childers was 12 years old. By then, it was the middle of the Great Depression, and between that and the bleakness of the Dust Bowl, poverty was all over the place, not just in Native American communities. As a youngster, Childers became a sharpshooter who relied on his hunting rifle to put food on the table. Things got so bad during the Depression that his mother not only couldn’t afford to buy meat but could only afford to give him a single .22 cartridge a day to hunt a rabbit for dinner. As he put it: “I got to be a very good aim because if I missed, we didn’t eat.”

In his teens, he was sent to Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a huge federal boarding institution with over 100 buildings spread out over 5000 acres; it taught classes from elementary grades through high school. It sought to assimilate Native American children into white culture and put a heavy emphasis on strict military regimentation. During WWII, dozens of Chilocco alumni died fighting for the United States, and its graduates included two Medal of Honor recipients: Childers, as well as fellow alum Jack Cleveland Montgomery, a Cherokee Native American.  

Childers graduated from Chilocco in 1937 and joined the Oklahoma National Guard. There, he was assigned to the 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division. Unlike African Americans then and during WWII, Native Americans were not segregated by race and were included in units with white soldiers. Originally, the 45th Division’s patch was a swastika, a Native American good luck symbol, but the Nazis ruined swastikas for everybody. So a new symbol, a legendary Native American creature known as a thunderbird, was adopted, and the 45th got nicknamed the “Thunderbirds.” The division was activated and called into service in 1941, and Childers rose in the ranks to sergeant.

A Maimed Childers’ Leads his Men Victory at Oliveto

Childers and the Thunderbirds first saw action during the Allied invasion of Sicily, which began on July 10th, 1943, and he displayed great leadership in combat. By the end of the campaign, when the Axis defenders had been chased off the island and to the Italian mainland, Childers had been promoted from the enlisted ranks and made an officer, with a commission as a second lieutenant. On September 9th, American forces landed in Salerno on the Italian mainland, and the German defenders put up fierce resistance. It was during that bitter fighting that Childers earned America’s highest military honor.

In the early pre-dawn mist of September 22nd, 1943, Childers’ unit came under heavy German fire near Oliveto, a small town in a heavily forested and hilly region about 30 miles northeast of Salerno. He fell into a shell crater, fractured his instep, and struggled to a makeshift aid station to have it examined. As soon as he reached the aid station, however, it was hit by an enemy mortar shell that wrecked the place and killed the doctor on duty. Childers thus found himself with a painful foot fracture, no chance of immediate medical care, and to make matters worse, he and his men were soon pinned down by heavy machine gun fire from German-occupied houses atop a nearby hill.

Unable to do anything about his foot, the injured Childers decided to do something about the Germans. He and eight men crawled through broken terrain towards the enemy machine gun nests. They finally reached a stone wall overlooking a cornfield, and he ordered his men to cover him as he crawled towards the enemy-held houses. As he described it: “I crawled back and told my men to lay down a base of fire over me … You see, I had to crawl because of my broken ankle. . . . I couldn't tell that as I was crawling, I was crawling up a slope of a hill. I came up behind one of the German machine-gun nests that had us pinned down.” 

Using ditches, dips, and folds in the ground for cover and concealment, Childers braved the fire of two German snipers as he limped and crawled his way to the nearest house. Upon reaching it, he killed two enemy soldiers in a spray of gunfire, then killed the Germans manning the first machinegun nest he found. He then crawled behind another house that contained a second machinegun nest and pelted it with rocks. The Germans thought the rocks were grenades and rushed out of the house into the open, where Childers shot one dead, and one of his men killed another. Childers then continued up to the hilltop, where he captured a German mortar observer.

That enemy observer was lucky to live and be taken prisoner. Childers elaborated on how he bagged him: “The German must have been watching the action because when he came out toward me, I was on my knees training my 30 caliber carbine on him. I was yelling to one of my men, 'Take him prisoner!' My sergeant yelled back, 'Shoot the bastard!' I yelled, 'I can't, I'm out of ammunition.' … My body was wet with sweat since the German was fully armed, and I was holding an empty rifle on him. That German was the only surviving German in the entire action of that day.”

And the Nation's Highest Honor Goes To...

Childers was sent to an American hospital in North Africa to recover from his injuries, then rejoined the 180th Infantry Regiment to take part in the Battle of Anzio in 1944. It began as an ambitious plan for an amphibious assault to land American and British forces behind the Germans’ Winter Line, to outflank them and seize Rome before they had time to react. Instead, it ended with the landed Allied forces surrounded in a pocket at Anzio. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lamented: “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.”

The Battle of Anzio became a 136-day bloodbath in which the Allies suffered 43,000 casualties. Amidst the bitter fighting, Childers was wounded once again. As he lay in a hospital bed in Naples, he got word that a general wanted to see him. An alarmed Childers wondered, “What general sends for a second lieutenant?” He soon discovered that his actions months earlier at Oliveto had earned him the nation’s highest honor. On April 8th, 1944, nine companies stood at attention as Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, the Mediterranean Theater’s deputy commander, awarded Childers the Medal of Honor. The citation read: 

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action on 22 September 1943, at Oliveto, Italy. Although 2d Lt. Childers previously had just suffered a fractured instep he, with 8 enlisted men, advanced up a hill toward enemy machinegun nests. The group advanced to a rock wall overlooking a cornfield and 2d Lt. Childers ordered a base of fire laid across the field so that he could advance. When he was fired upon by 2 enemy snipers from a nearby house he killed both of them. He moved behind the machinegun nests and killed all occupants of the nearer one. He continued toward the second one and threw rocks into it. When the 2 occupants of the nest raised up, he shot 1. The other was killed by 1 of the 8 enlisted men. 2d Lt. Childers continued his advance toward a house farther up the hill and, single-handed, captured an enemy mortar observer. The exceptional leadership, initiative, calmness under fire and conspicuous gallantry displayed by 2d Lt. Childers were an inspiration to his men.”


That made Childers the first Native American awarded a Medal of Honor since the 1880s. He was granted leave, returned to the US, and met President Roosevelt at the White House. When he got back home to Broken Arrow, he was honored with the biggest parade in the town’s history. As described in a contemporary publication: “Schools and businesses were closed; the entire population of the town and surrounding country turned out; the parade was impressive; and the key of the proud little city was presented to the home-town boy who had indubitably ‘made good’.”

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Childers’ WWII awards included the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and an Italian Cross of Valor. Oklahoma also honored him when its legislature bestowed upon him the state’s first Distinguished Service Medal. He stayed in the Army after WWII and served through the Korean War, as well as the early years of the Vietnam War, before he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965. He died in Tulsa in 2005 and was buried with full military honors close to where he had grown up in Broken Arrow.



Some Sources and Further Reading

American Indian Magazine, Spring 2018, Vol. 19 No. 1 – “Fighting the Nazis: A Creek Indian Wins the Medal of Honor”

Army dot Mil – American Indians in the US Army: Ernest Childers

Los Angeles Times, March 26th, 2005 – “Ernest Childers, 87; Native American Awarded Medal of Honor in WWII”

National World War II Museum – Medal of Honor Series: Second Lieutenant Ernest Childers, US Army

Washington Post, March 23rd, 2005 – “Medal of Honor Recipient Ernest Childers Dies at 8”