Oklahomans suffered through the marathon struggle to defeat Germany, Japan, and Italy like all Americans did, but its fighting men left an indelible legacy of bravery and sacrifice. More than six thousand died and eleven thousand others were wounded. Most Oklahoma servicemen shipped overseas for little pay, away from family and friends for months or even years, multitudes of them suffering in malaria-ridden islands and jungles or freezing forests and mountains, not to mention experiencing the terrors of combat and fear of maiming, capture, or death.
The Thunderbirds man a frozen roadblock during the fearsome Battle of the Bulge, December 1944.
They participated in legendary deeds of valor such as scaling the Normandy cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, crashing their planes into the Japanese carriers at Midway, and winning history’s greatest naval battle at Leyte Gulf. The Sooner State produced nearly the highest number of Congressional Medals of Honor winners, proportionate to its population, of any state in the Union.
More than half-a-million Oklahoman men volunteered or answered wartime enlistment calls. This represented nearly 25% of the state’s entire population, including women, children, and senior citizens. Thousands volunteered prior to the war for the 45th Division of the National Guard, based in Oklahoma City’s Lincoln Park armory. Men from Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona initially comprised the 45th, and eventually men from every state. In September 1940 President Roosevelt federalized the division. Thus began its pilgrimage into legend as the famed “Thunderbirds,” named for the powerful bird of American Indian lore whose various movements supposedly generated wind, thunder, lightning, and storms.
After nearly two years of rough and varied training at Fort Sill and other locales around the U.S. that featured every conceivable terrain, climate, and situation, the Thunderbirds shipped out to North Africa in June 1943. Within a few weeks, they stormed the beaches of Sicily, the southern “boot” of Italy, in the largest amphibious operation of the war in terms of landing zone size and divisions landed the first day. For over a month, the Thunderbirds and other Allied divisions slugged it out with the Germans and Italians in a fight that cost nearly 25,000 Allied casualties. They won the battle, however, and muscled Axis forces off the island, opened the Mediterranean Sea for Allied naval forces, cleared the way for the Allied invasion of Italy, and ended fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s two-decade rule over that nation.
45th Infantry Division Chaplain Lt. Col. William King preaches to the Thunderbirds during Christmas Day services in Italy, 1943.
“The rest of the long odyssey of the 45th Division,” wrote historian Gaston Litton, “is a timetable in valor and honor, as the Division paused beside the now-famous places where heroism was tested before the drive and determination of the men carried the march forward to final victory.” They saw 511 days of combat in World War II, and fought at Salerno, Anzio, St. Maxine, and Alsace, crossed the Rhine, helped take Munich, and liberated the Nazis’ infamous Dachau death camp. Nine Thunderbirds received the Medal of Honor, including Broken Arrow native and Creek Indian Ernest Childers, and Long native and Cherokee Indian Jack C. Montgomery.
Their final wartime commander, General H. J. D. Meyer, pronounced perhaps the best epitaph for the 45th: “Whatever destiny may hold in store for our great country, and however long that country’s military history may continue, readers in the future will search long before finding a chapter more brilliant than that written by the quill that was dipped in the blood of the Thunderbirds.”
(Pictured left: The Thunderbirds' sleeve insignia.)