The Fighting Thunderbirds and the Road to Greatness

By David Althouse

 

The 45th Infantry Division earned its fighting fame during World War II, but a rough and rollicking history predates the division’s entry into that great conflict. What follows is an account of the division’s beginnings and history leading up to their mobilization for World War II – the first in a two-part series about the famed fighting force.

 

Thunderbirds Current LogoLessons learned from its role in World War I led to a strategic military reorganization by the United States in the years immediately following that bloody fight. Following World War I, the National Defense Act of 1920 gave the federal government authority to utilize elements of National Guard organizations in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona to create the 45th Infantry Division.

 

The division was officially organized in 1923, and the Oklahoma members camped together for the first time at Fort Sill the following year.

 

Earlier, Oklahoma military organizations that served as a sort of foundation for the 45th Infantry Division were the First Oklahoma Infantry Regiment that fought in the Mexican Border Conflict of 1917 and in the final month of World War I; and, before that, the Oklahoma Territorial National Guard, members of which served as Rough Riders with Theodore Roosevelt. Seven Oklahoma Rough Riders were killed and 27 wounded during the Spanish-American War. Frank Frantz and Chris Madsen, both Rough Riders, were notable figures in Oklahoma history.

 

From 1923 until the beginning of World War II, the 45th Infantry Division was called upon by Oklahoma governors to maintain order in times of disaster and keep the peace amid political unrest.

 

Governor John Walton used the division to keep the legislature from meeting when they were preparing to impeach him in 1923.

 

Despite threats of impeachment from the Oklahoma Senate, Governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray showed no compunction in calling up the division (in the form of the National Guard) to help enforce his political agenda.

 

Murray’s most famous utilization of the National Guard came during the “Toll Bridge War” between Oklahoma and Texas. The two states agreed to build a free bridge across the Red River on U.S. Highway 75 between Durant, Okla. and Denison, Texas. The governor of Texas attempted to block traffic from entering his state when the Red River Bridge Company of Texas, owners of the original toll bridge, disputed the purchase deal.

In July 1931, Alfalfa Bill charged the National Guard to reopen the bridge.

 

Texas stood down. Traffic commenced.

 

Thunderbirds Meeting HouseMurray even used the National Guard to help restrain oil production in the state. A vast quantity of newly opened wells caused oil prices to sink below costs of production. When Oklahoma oil producers did not comply with Murray’s orders to curtail production, the governor called out the National Guard, declared martial law, and ordered approximately 3,000 oil wells to be shut down.

 

Murray called out the National Guard 47 times and declared martial law over 30 times during his stint as Oklahoma’s chief executive officer.

 

Governor Leon Chase “Red” Phillips, a staunch enemy of New Deal initiatives, twice called out the National Guard – first to block the building of Lake Texoma, and later to prevent construction of Grand Lake. The existence of both modern-day Oklahoma destinations attests to his failed use of the division in stopping these projects.

 

The early shoulder sleeve insignia of the 45th Infantry Division featured red and yellow colors from the flag of Spain, a gesture of tribute to the large Hispanic populations of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. The insignia also featured a tilted red square encasing an image considered a symbol of good luck by the large American Indian population from those four states – a swastika.

 

As the beat of German war drums began booming ever louder in the early 1930s, the cry to remove the yellow swastika from the division’s patch reached its own fever pitch, according to Michael Gonzales, curator of the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City.

 

“In those days, people received their visual news at the movies,” Gonzales said. “Before the movie started, first a short cartoon was shown and then news clips pertaining to news from around the world. People from the American southwest [home of the uniformed men of the 45th Infantry Division] were going into these movies and they were seeing images of German men in uniforms wearing swastikas and learning about National Socialism. They came out of the movie only to see a fellow from their state on his way to drill, in uniform, wearing a swastika.”

 

Statue of the 45thGonzales said Guardsmen of the 45th were actually confronted on the streets by people asking if they were National Socialists.

 

“It was wisely decided to change the symbol, and a contest was held to help achieve this end,” Gonzales said. “The contest was open to all enlisted men of the 45th with the simple charge charge – change the patch!”

 

The first runner-up featured the same tilted red diamond as before, this time framing a smoking .45 caliber revolver in the place of the yellow swastika.

 

“It made sense, but it didn’t strike with the original theme of the shoulder patch,” Gonzales said. “The winning design featured the tilted red square framing the yellow thunderbird, and this stayed with the original theme of a Native American symbol in the center.”

 

Division members began receiving the thunderbird patch in late 1939. By September 1940, all members of the division wore the new emblem.

 

September 1940 was also the date when the division was mobilized in preparation for World War II.

 

“The federal government saw the Japanese fighting in the east, and they saw the Germans invade Poland in 1939, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that a war was coming and we were going to be right in the middle of it,” Gonzales said.

 

Up until nationwide mobilization of the National Guard, the American army consisted of a mere 120,000 men.

 

“We saw that the meat of our national defense was in our nation’s National Guard,” Gonzales said. “We decided to activate every National Guard in the country, in waves, and get them trained up.”

 

Bill Mauldin StampThe first to be called up was the 45th Infantry Division.

 

Soon, newly called-up division members from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona met at Fort Sill. When they stood in formation for inspection, their appearance was anything but “uniform.” Members showed up dressed in a motley assortment of military clothing, some of the garments issued by National Guard organizations and some purchased from army surplus stores across the southwest.

 

“At Fort Sill, many of these guys were issued uniforms from World War I,” Gonzales said. “They were issued what were called ‘Pershing’ boots, and these boots had been stored in Fort Sill warehouses for the previous quarter century and had never been used. These guys got brand spankin’ new boots – ostensibly!”

 

The military soon learned that the quarter-century-old boots were past their prime – especially when exposed to water. The acidic shoe leather, once wet, served only to destroy the aged cotton thread, rendering the boots worthless in the field or anywhere else.

 

Gonzales recounts a first-hand story from someone at Fort Sill at the time.

 

“This fellow, a World War II veteran who later volunteered at the 45th museum, was standing up at a Fort Sill rifle range, felt a funny feeling, and then looked down at his feet to see his boots disintegrating,” Gonzales said. “The stitches were dissolving, and the panels of leather just fell apart on his feet.”

 

One of the Thunderbirds tanksAt Fort Sill in September 1940, as the boom of Nazi war drums reached a fanatical pitch, the men standing in the rain wearing disintegrating boots surely pondered the strange foreign lands they would see for the first time, the family and sweethearts they would leave behind, and if they would ever return home to see these loved ones again.

 

Two years and nine months later, the men of the 45th were among the most highly trained warriors in the entire U.S. Army.

 

In due time, Adolph Hitler was introduced to a group of uncomplaining fighting men fully prepared to faithfully fulfill the duties of war – the fighting Thunderbirds.

 

 

For more information, visit the 45th Infantry Division Museum at 2145 N.E. 36th Street in Oklahoma City, or visit www.45thdivisionmuseum.com.