This Day in History: Second Lt. Ernest Childers’s bravery in Italy
On this day in 1943, a soldier participates in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Would you believe that he had a broken foot while he did it?
Second Lt. Ernest Childers was a Muscogee (Creek) Indian and one of just five American Indians to receive a Medal during the 20th century.
In retrospect, much of his early life had prepared him for what was to come.
Odd as it might sound today, Childers got his first gun when he was just 8 years old. His father taught him to hunt with that gun. It was a skill that would get put to use when his father passed away just a few years later. Finances were so tight that Childers’s mother would give him just one .22-caliber cartridge a day. It was the young boy’s job to hunt a rabbit for dinner with that single bullet.
“I got to be a very good aim,” he later said. “Because if I missed, we didn’t eat.”
As so many in that generation did, Childers went to war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He started with the Oklahoma National Guard, but he would end up serving with the Army for much of his life, finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1965.
His Medal action came on September 22, 1943, near Oliveto, Italy. Childers’s platoon was moving toward a dug-in enemy position when the young second lieutenant stepped into a shell crater. The misstep broke a bone in his foot. Childers was getting first aid when he heard a thundering noise in the distance.
His men were under attack.
The medics wanted Childers to stay and receive treatment, but Childers refused. If his men needed him, he had every intention of being there. He hurled himself toward the conflict, broken foot and all.
What happened next amazed everyone.
Childers led eight soldiers up a hill, coming around behind the German position. As the Americans approached the enemy machinegun nests, he ordered his men to lay down a base of fire. He’d crawl up the hill and attack the enemy himself.
Unfortunately, two enemy snipers were nearby. They spotted Childers and tried to take him out, but Childers got them first. Then he moved on to the first enemy machinegun nest and took that out, too. As he tried to move to the second, he was spotted again. The enemy inside ducked out of sight, and a frustrated Childers threw a huge rock into the foxhole.
Apparently, the Germans thought the rock was a grenade, so they jumped up. Once they were in sight, Childers shot one of them. One of his men shot the second.
The story ends on a somewhat humorous note. Childers was still advancing further up the hill, but he’d run out of ammunition. Of course, a little thing like “no ammunition” wasn’t going to stop the man who had come so far. When he reached the house, he simply yelled “surrender!” in such an authoritative tone of voice that the enemy inside promptly complied.
Childers would receive a Medal for his actions that day, yet he didn’t think there was anything special about what he’d done.
“Heroism was the furthest thing from my mind that day,” he told a reporter several decades later. “I was just trying to stay alive and help keep my buddies alive.”
Broken Arrow Sets Statue Dedication (Daily Oklahoman; Sept. 22, 1994)
Dennis McLellan, Ernest Childers, 87; Native American Awarded Medal of Honor in WWII (LA Times; Mar. 6, 2005)
Laurence M. Hauptman, Fighting the Nazis: A Creek Indian Wins the Congressional Medal of Honor (American Indian Magazine; Spring 2018)
Medal of Honor citation (Ernest Childers; WWII)
Morris P. Moore, Indian is First Oklahoma Foot Soldier to Win Top Medal (Daily Oklahoman; Apr. 16, 1944)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)
Tom Holm, Code Talkers and Warriors: Native Americans and World War II (2007)