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Indians Work for the Navy
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By Lt. Frederick W. Sleight, USNR
The story of the American Indian and his efforts in this second great world struggle is not limited to the exploits of soldiers. Men and women too old or too young for service with the armed forces have volunteered for work in the war industries as well as in food production. This report on one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest land-based activities illustrates the intense desire of the Indian people to serve where they are directly connected with the work of the war. The Naval Supply Depot at Clearfield, Utah, has as its aim and purpose general service to the fleet. It sends out a lifeline of supplies, pouring the essentials of successful warfare in an endless stream to the far points of the Pacific theatre.
The Depot was established in the spring of 1943, to start the flow of vital materials to the Navy. At this time, down in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, Indians were leaving home for military service. Ten per cent of the Pueblo Indians had gone into uniform. In the neighboring cities and the local communities help was urgently needed. The older men of the Pueblos, recognizing the emergency, decided to put an advertisement in the local papers offering their services for part-time work in the neighboring area. Soon trucks come pouring into the villages to pick up working parties, some even arriving from Colorado. When word of this project reached the offices of the Civil Service Commission in Denver, they sent a representative to Santa Domingo Pueblo to confer with John Bird, an Indian leader of political and social affairs.
John Bird was told about the new Naval Depot at Clearfield. The Civil Service understood that the Pueblo people wanted to help win the war; here at Clearfield was a place where men were needed, a place contributing directly to our successes in the Pacific. It was agreed that Pueblo men, if they went to work at Clearfield, would be allowed to go home during the summer months to plant and harvest their crops.
At the meeting called by John Bird, the Pueblos agreed that this was work, which they wanted to do. The farm agent was convinced that if they came back and formed in the summer months, the move to Utah for the rest of the year would be good. The task of recruiting men from all the Pueblos was given to John Bird, and he traveled from Taos on the north to Isleta on the south. Santa Clara, Jemez, and Santa Domingo gave the greatest number of workers. Sixty-two men came from Jemez alone. When they were examined and passed as physically fit by Indian Service doctors, they were ready to leave. About 150 men made up the first battalion that set out for Clearfield. Te first contingent of work hungry Pueblos, traveling in coaches reserved for them, arrived at the Navy Depot in December 1943.
Work assigned to the Indians has been varied. John Bird, who traveled with his people to Clearfield, has advanced to a supervisory position. He, like many of his men, has worked on the swing shift. Some of the men have been placed in the transportation division, and others have handled and loaded supplies destined for the ships at sea. Oscar Carlson, labor foreman at the Depot, says that the Indians Shoshones, Apaches, Sioux, Navajos, Ute’s, as well as Pueblos-are outstanding workers. They understand instructions well. They are not shirkers on the job. He says, “I have never had an Indian in my office for disciplinary action.”
The great problem of production, absenteeism, is unknown among the Indian population of the Depot. Indians are constantly on the job. Indian participation in the War Band campaigns has been 100 per cent—another indication that the Indians are whole-hearted in their devotion to the cause for which their sons have fought.
For two springs the Pueblo people have gone back to their forms, but, the growing season over, they have returned, often bringing with them new recruits to help with the big job. Mr. Carlson states that nearly all of the men return after a summer of farming, and that they all seem happy to come back. Further testimony comes in a report from the Security Department. This office, which handles all the policing of the area, has no record in the files any trouble initiated by the Indians.
From all quarters of the Depot have come similar reports. On the 10th of April, 1945,, Rear Admiral Arthur H. Maya, speaking at the ceremonies commemorating the second anniversary of the Depot’s commissioning, said: “I know that these fine people are doing a splendid job.”
High credit should go to the Indian for an outstanding part in our victory. He has sacrificed more than most men who are doing this work. He has left the land he has known all his life and has had to travel to strange places where people often do not understand him and his way of living. In most cases he has left his family behind. He has had to forego attending the dances and other religious ceremonies that are so much a part of his life. He has had to work under foremen and supervisors, in a way that is new to him. It is an adjustment more difficult for him than for the white man who has known these conditions before.
For all these reasons, the Indian should receive the highest praise. In his quiet way he has shown that he too has a stake in the conflict, and by his personal qualities he has made himself liked by everyone. To men like John Bird should go a special tribute? He helped interpret these modern problems to his people. When his brother Ted was killed in action in Germany last April, he flew home to comfort his mother and father. He has three other brothers in the armed forces overseas.
Like all Americans, these people look forward to the day when the soldiers will come home to a peaceful world. But these Indians have learned new skills and have acquired a new confidence in their own competence, which should be very useful in the tasks of peace.
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