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Remembering the Thunderbirds – Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Division

The 45th Infantry Division's shoulder sleeve insignia.

The 45th Infantry Division's shoulder sleeve insignia.

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
—Winston Churchill

When U.S. Army Specialist, Daniel Crisp, walked into the 45th Infantry Division Museum at 2145 N.E. 36th Street in Oklahoma City, he was treated like a celebrity when museum staff realized they were in the presence of a 19-year-old modern representation of the long and distinguished line of heroes of this famous infantry division.

Crisp was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. His cap was fitted perfectly on his head. As he walked by a model depicting what the modern soldier wears on the battlefield, he surveyed it with a look on his face as one who knows intimately the horrors of battle.

A native of Tecumseh, he graduated from high school just two years ago, and has already seen action in Afghanistan.

“It is very different over there,” he says as he explains the sights his young eyes have observed. “Women cannot show themselves except for their eyes, and the terrain over there is hard and difficult to navigate.”

Crisp has been involved in combat on two occasions.  At 19, he seems hardened in some ways to the realities of war that few his age could even realize. As part of the historic 45th Infantry Division, his unit supports an ADT (Agricultural Development Team) that works to improve  the infrastructure of the country in ways to develop and sustain its food supply. Roughly half of the Afghan population makes its living by farming. Crisp and his National Guard unit are dedicated to making that effort a success by protecting them from enemies dedicated to stopping any hope of success and long-term advancement for the people of Afghanistan.

It is evident on this, his first visit to the museum, that “the 45th is huge.” Looking around at the portraits, photographs and weaponry of the past, it is clear that he is honored “to be part of something that has done so much for the our country and the world.” Walking by a portrait of one of the most famous figures in the 45th’s history—Lt. Col. Ernest Childers (a citizen of the Creek Nation)—Crisp is careful to read the citation of this Native American’s Medal of Honor.

Lt. Col. Ernest Childers, left, with Gen. Jacob L. Devers shortly after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. (PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

Lt. Col. Ernest Childers, left, with Gen. Jacob L. Devers shortly after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. (PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

“I can only imagine what those who came before me actually saw when they entered Germany and finally took over where Hitler once lived,” he commented.

The Thunderbirds—Makers of History

When Gen. George S. Patton described the 45th Infantry Division, he said it was “one of the finest, if not the finest infantry division in this history of modern warfare.”

This was high praise from a man known to be quite cutting with his criticism and scarce with his compliments.  During World War II, this division made four amphibious landings and fought in eight campaigns that finally ended with liberation of one of the Nazi’s most famous death camps—Dachau. The men who first entered the camp and saw the rotting corpses and people who looked as if they were already dead were forever changed by the experience.

As the 45th marched toward the conquest of Hitler’s regime, they chased the German army across the entire region of Southern France and into Nuremburg, Germany itself, where the incessant pounding of the 45th resulted in the surrender of the Third Reich soon after Hitler committed suicide.

A Nazi flag which flew over the German headquarters bears the faded signatures of Oklahomans who left their homes as mere boys and gave the final blow to a nation that was once thought unstoppable in its military aggression. When Albert C. Thomas from McAlester, Gene Roberts from Holdenville, and Monroe D. Little from Wewoka, signed that flag, they knew they had made history. The boys from Oklahoma tell the story of their mission on that small flag: “Nuremburg, April, ’45; Dachau, May 1, 1945; Munich, May 3, 1945. 511 combat days, 1,005,406 rounds fired by division artillery.”

These men (most of whom are now dead) left the towns and hamlets of Oklahoma and participated in one of the 20th Century’s greatest feats—the defeat of the Nazi regime. Eight of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor even as the division sustained one of the highest casualty rates of any allied division in World War II—approximately 62,500 enlisted men and officers.

The Thunderbird is the symbol of the division because of the heritage of the men who formed the 45th —most of whom were Native Americans from Oklahoma. In the early stages of the war, most strategists and planners for the German army regarded the National Guard units as some of the weakest links in the American army. Propaganda from the Nazis spoke of the 45th as “disadvantaged Indians who were forced into service for a cause they despised.” German leaders described the Indians as “unequal to the quality of the Arian race” and were thought to be easily defeated because of their race.

Following the invasion of Sicily, Salerno and the epic battle at Anzio, the view of the German army changed as the Thunderbird came to be a feared symbol by the Nazis. They learned that the division was one of the most fierce in the American army, and the citizen soldiers from Oklahoma often delivered the knock-out blow that saved the day.

Of Memory and Mission

Memorial Day, 1945 proved to be a symbolic occasion for members of the 45th. With the Nazi regime toppled and the war moving toward its conclusion, the service prepared by the chaplains proved to be a climatic experience of gratitude to God for many of the men present. On that day as the unit remembered the fallen from their ranks, it was Maj. Gen. Robert T. Frederick who delivered the keynote address to those assembled in Munich.

“These men have made their own glory by their deeds,” he said. “It is for us to see that they shall be eternally memorialized by the perpetuation of the ideals and principles for which they fought and fell.”

Frederick’s words were soon heard around America and the world as they were printed in every major newspaper across the nation.

Each Memorial Day, a service of remembrance still takes place at the 45th Infantry Museum. The tragedy is that war still dominates the world, causing the United States to give of her sons and daughters to conflicts far from home. The Thunderbirds, however, always are quick to say that the U.S. Army infantry remains, in the words of their creed, “the Queen of battle—meeting the enemy face to face.”

And on this day when a 19-year old man from Tecumseh, gazes on the history of his unit, he is all too eager to smile and say, “I’m honored to be a part of this division.”

Author: Douglas Baker

View more articles by Douglas Baker.

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  • Jana Gambrell Rowland

    Thank you for the article about the Thunderbirds. The picture of the familiar red and gold patch brought back so many memories of my father, Charles Gambrell. Dad served in World War II, the Korean War, and returned to serve in the Oklahoma National Guard for over 24 years. He was so proud to wear the Thunderbird Insignia and that same patch now holds a place of honor in my home. Dad was also so happy to serve as a leader in our hometown church, First Baptist, Hydro. He became a “blue hat” leader on Disaster Relief teams and he enjoyed that very much. Thank you again for bringing back memories of my wonderful father.

    Sincerely,
    Jana Gambrell Rowland
    Weatherford

  • JOHN THIBODEAU

    My father, Donald Thibodeau is 93 and was part of the Oklahoma National Guard. He was part of the 45th 180 regiment from MASS who went over under the Oklahoma Guard. Looking for any information regarding him and the unit members. Thank You

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