World War II

We are doing our best to win the war to be free from danger as much as the white man. We are fighting with Uncle Sam’s army to defend the right of our people to live our own life in our own way.

Lewis Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo)

American Indians enlisted in overwhelming numbers after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Forty-four thousand of an estimated Native American population of under 400,000 saw active duty, including nearly 800 women—between 5 to 10 percent of the entire Indigenous population.

Historic image of five marines and a navy corpsman raising a U.S. flag in Iwo Jima durng World War II

National Archives photo no. 520748

The historic photograph by Joe Rosenthal, taken on February 23, 1945, depicts five marines and a navy corpsman raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the battle for the island of Iwo Jima in World War II.

Corporal Ira Hamilton Hayes (Pima, 1923–1955) remains one of the best-known American Indians to serve in World War II. In 1945, Hayes was one of six servicemen who raised the American flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific—a moment captured in a celebrated photograph (Hayes appears on the far left). The men became national heroes.

Ira Hayes standing and holding a parachute inside of a plane

National Archives photo no. 519164

Ira Hayes, age nineteen, at the United States Marine Corps Parachute Training School, where he was dubbed Chief Falling Cloud. San Diego, California, 1943.

Native people cited multiple reasons for volunteering for military service, including a powerful commitment to protect their country—both the United States and their ancestral homelands—from enemy invaders. Native servicemen fought in many of the war’s pivotal military campaigns.

The war had a significant and lasting impact on Indian Country. Approximately 150,000 American Indians participated in military service or agricultural and industrial jobs to support the war effort. The exodus from reservations, which accelerated after the war, eroded the physical boundaries that separated Native peoples from mainstream America.

Large group of prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp celebrating their freedom by raising a homemade American flag

National Archives photo no. 111-SC207745 (Album 1469)

As soldiers of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions of the Seventh United States Army arrived, prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp rejoiced in their freedom by raising a homemade American flag. Dachau, Germany, April 30, 1945.

The 45th Infantry Division, known as the Thunderbirds for their distinctive insignia, became one of America’s most acclaimed World War II combat units. American Indians made up about one-fifth of the 45th, including three who received the Medal of Honor: Jack Montgomery (Cherokee, 1917–2002), Van T. Barfoot (Choctaw, 1919–2012), and Ernest Childers. General George Patton said to the Thunderbirds, “You are one of the best, if not the best, divisions in the history of American arms.”

The war also gave rise to a growing sense of expectation. Having answered the call of duty, many veterans began to advocate for a new day, when America would honor tribal treaty rights and allow Indians to live in their own way.