The thing about Korea John Emhoolah remembers best is the cold—biting cold, sweeping in from the bitter north into unheated bunkers where members of the Thunderbird Division huddled.
“There were times you just couldn’t get warm,” recalled the 82-year-old Kiowa/Arapaho veteran. “But if you’ve trained for it, you can stand a lot of cold.”
Emhoolah took a few minutes out from preparations to go to Yale University where he was to be guest speaker at the Howard Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders.
He recalled some of his wartime experiences with clarity, others through memories more veiled.
No heat, no light, he remembered—to smoke a cigarette you had to go back behind the mountain where he was stationed as a front line forward observer, where he scanned across a valley to call artillery fire in on enemy positions.
“We were on top of a mountain,” he recalled. “I could see the enemy a mile or so away. When we fired the first round, we’d see where it landed—if it needed to be more on one side or the other, we let the battery know and they would adjust.
“When we called in fire for support, all six guns in the battery would fire and then start over—six rounds each—36 rounds, and pepper the area we were looking at. It was pretty effective.”
You might think he was Army-bound before he became a member of B Battery, 158th Field Artillery, 45th Thunderbird Division, Oklahoma National Guard, considering that six of the seven boys in his family joined up, but “I’m the one who started it off,” he said, and now, including nephews and other relatives, there are more than 100 years of military service in his family.
But it started out in less-dramatic fashion, when, as a student at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma in 1950, “I just joined to get a little paycheck every three months—I didn’t know it would lead to the Korean War.”
The 45th was called up, and its Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Wichita, Delaware, Caddo and other Native members underwent training at Camp Polk, Louisiana and then Hokkaido, Japan, until they landed in November, 1951 at Inchon harbor in Korea, where, laden with radios and gear, he fell from the ship’s icy netting into the landing craft. Although he kept going, his back “still bothers (him) to this day.”
He was in the mountain trenches from December 1951 to the end of April 1952 without the three-day breaks to Japan others got “and when they finally realized it, I was the first one to rotate out and be sent home.”
After his military service, he did a lot of things. He helped start up tribal colleges. He later directed the Indian education program for some Denver–area schools and co-founded Denver March Powwow. When the Denver Museum of Natural History wanted to put on a buffalo feast, he was the expert. When the Denver Art Museum needed someone to disassemble a tipi prior to gallery renovation, he was the expert there, too.
He is a member of the Waterbird Drum Group, a southern-style singing group, most of whose music comes from Kiowa warrior societies. He is a member of the O-Ho-Mah War Dance society, Kiowa Gourd Clan, and Kiowa Native American Church.
He will be on a Warriors in Uniform panel in early December at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., along with former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, and other notables.
He pointed out that American Indians had always been among the first to defend the country, their people and their families.
But he’s not without a sense of irony. “The treaties said, ‘You will fight no more’ and ‘You will not carry weapons anymore.’ But when World War I started, the nation turned to Native Americans—many of our Kiowas served in that war.
“I guess treaties were made to be broken,” he concluded.