Stealth, silent reconnaissance, bravery and devotion have long been
hallmarks of American Indians serving in of the U.S. Armed Forces. From the
bold Apache scouts of the Indian Wars, to the Navajo code talkers of the
World War II, to the modern Navy SEALs and more, American Indians have
served valiantly at the tip of the spear of America’s elite in every
conflict of the 20th century.
But it was with 6th Army’s Alamo Scouts of World War II that the inherent
character of the warrior made a resounding contribution to the best record
of any unit in the history of the United States military.
Formed in November 1943 by then-Lieut. Gen. Walter Krueger, commander of
the 6th Army, to conduct raider and reconnaissance work throughout the
islands, beaches and jungles of the southwest Pacific, the Alamo Scouts –
an ad hoc organization officially known as the 6th Army Special
Reconnaissance Unit – performed 108 known missions behind enemy lines
without a single man killed or captured.
The unit’s unmatched military record included two daring prisoner camp
liberations and countless incursions behind enemy lines to gather
information, capture prisoners, rescue civilians and to organize, supply,
equip, and train Filipino guerilla units in operations against the
The Alamo Scouts participated in the Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea,
Leyte and Luzon campaigns and saw brief occupation duty in Japan following
the war, but were unceremoniously disbanded in November 1945, never to be
The Alamo Scouts are widely considered as the Army’s first long-range
surveillance unit and were awarded the Special Forces Tab by the John F.
Kennedy Special Warfare Center & School in 1988, recognizing the unit as a
forerunner of the modern Special Forces.
Volunteers for the Alamo Scouts underwent a rigorous selection process at
the division, regimental, battalion and company levels before selection to
one of the six Alamo Scouts Training Centers established throughout the
war. Class size ranged from 80 – 100 candidates, with an attrition rate of
more than 40 percent. As 6th Army advanced, old training centers would
close and new ones open.
At the end of each training class, remaining candidates voted by secret
ballot for the four men with whom they would most like to go on a dangerous
mission and for the officer they would like to lead them. In turn, the
officers voted for the men they would most like to have serve on their
Such a selection has not been used by the military since the Civil War, but
unlike the mixed results of that time, the Alamo Scouts experienced
resounding success. Retained graduates then were formed into elite six- to
seven-man teams led by a junior officer, with the team taking the last name
of the officer.
Candidates for the nine Alamo Scouts training classes were drawn from
highly qualified volunteers from various 6th Army units, including men from
the 158th Infantry Bushmasters, an Army National Guard unit federalized
into active service in September 1940. The unit was formed primarily from
men from Arizona and New Mexico who had trained extensively in the jungles
of Panama prior to deploying for the Pacific.
The unit contained American Indians from approximately 20 tribes, including
the Cherokee, Navajo, Chippewa, Sauk, Seminole, Papago, Fox, Chitimacha,
Pawnee and others, and brought a wealth of experience to the southwest
Pacific theater. Of the initial Alamo Scouts training class of 38 enlisted
men and six officers, eight were known to be American Indians.
Native participation in the military during World War II was 44,500 out of
approximately 16 million troops, or roughly one-quarter of 1 percent of the
total number of people in uniform. That figure was much higher in the Alamo
Of the 250 graduates and 138 retained operational scouts, 12 were known to
be American Indian, accounting for 6 percent of the total force. However,
given the unit’s top-secret classification, paucity of contact between
teams from one class to another and absence of detailed records indicating
race, it is likely that the actual number was much higher.
The first class graduated nine American Indians. Out of the four
operational teams that were formed, one contained four Natives: Pvt. Joseph
A. Johnson (Eagle Clan, White Mountain Apache, Cibecue, Ariz.), Sgt.
Theodore T. Largo (Pima, Phoenix, Ariz.), and Pfcs. Anthony J. Ortiz (San
Juan Pueblo, Chamita, N.M.) and Joshua Sunn (Maricopa, Laveen, Ariz.).
“All were exceptional scouts,” said George S. Thompson, leader of Thompson
Team. “But Joe Johnson was the best. We called him ‘the Ghost.’ I never
went anywhere without him beside me or in front of me. His eyesight was
exceptional, the best I had ever seen on a human. He could distinguish the
enemy in dense jungle from several feet and he was absolutely silent.
“In New Guinea he used to track the Natives. He showed them a thing or two
Those graduates who were not retained, or who chose not to be placed on a
team, returned to their parent units and conducted similar scouting and
patrolling work, normally with their unit’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance
platoons. Scouts placed on an operational team also had the right to return
to their parent unit at any time for any reason. With promotions a rarity
in the Alamo Scouts, because the soldier was on temporary duty away from
his unit, many elected to return.
“If selected, graduates had the choice of joining a team or returning to
their units with their buddies,” said Col. Robert Sumner, the late director
of the Alamo Scouts Association.
“Oftentimes a soldier felt a deep connection with their unit and wanted to
take back what they learned in the Scouts. Many few did that, while others
were ordered back because their units needed them. In fact, many units had
no intention of letting them stay because they didn’t want their best men
siphoned off. The needs of the Army were paramount and dictated how many
teams were retained.”
Lance Q. Zedric is the author of “Silent Warriors of World War II: The
Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines.” He is a lecturer on military affairs
and special operations forces, historian for the Alamo Scouts Association
and co-founder of www.alamoscouts.org.