This company is dedicated to my father Watie (Waddie) Johnson (1924-2014)
"It's a long way from Pumpkin Hollow" He continues to be an inspiration.
“We would not need the Selective Service if all volunteered like Indians.”
Saturday Evening Post, September 1942
This quote typifies the constant response to the call to arms Native Americans have exhibited through the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century. Their contributions and sacrifices have been tremendous. It stems not from the “warrior” mentality to which this incredible response is so often contributed, but from a desire to defend “their” country, family, friends and land. It is also rooted in the strong cultural values that often seem to parallel traditional military values – strength, honor, pride, devotion and wisdom.
Watie Johnson was one Cherokee that typifies this spirit. He would:
- serve his country as a Marine,
- graduate from a high school he never attended,
- be seriously wounded while preparing for the invasion of Iwo Jima during WWII not by the enemy but through friendly fire,
- receive his diploma from an Admiral,
- greet visiting heads of state,
- become a boxing champion even though he could not walk without aid later in life,
- not be able to read nor write at 9 years old, but would earn two Masters degrees, acceptance into the Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University and
- live a life of service as educator and counselor.
No one knows exactly when Watie was born. We Cherokee speak of moons during a year rather than specific dates. He was told it was during Tihaluhiyi, Green Corn Moon, so we know it was mid-summer. For government purposes, he was given the date of August 1, 1924. Watie was born in a wooden house near Tahlequah in Pumpkin Hollow; you couldn’t romanticize or even upgrade it by calling it a log cabin. It was unpainted, uninsulated, no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no heating or cooling systems - not even fans. Water would be carried from a spring, stream or well.
His parents were Dave and Nancy (Palone) Johnson. Dave Johnson was a non-Indian with limited formal education and never burdened by the dictates of society. Nancy had been a “love child” or as they said in those days - a “woods colt” - of Andrew and Jenanna Palone, both full blood Cherokee.
Watie was the first of 6 children (“stair-sters” – born one year after the other.) Even though the family moved many times, education was very important to Dave and Nancy. The children attended Pumpkin Center School. It was a one room building with grades 1 through 8 and one teacher for all classes and subjects. There were usually about a dozen students. However, progress was slow and limited. Even though it was noted that Watie was bright and attentive, he still couldn’t read or write after many years.
A decision was made (Dave and Nancy let him think it was his) to attend a boarding School; the local Indian Agent was petitioned. After a wait that seemed too long, Watie and his younger brother were accepted to Seneca Indian School.
Seneca turned out to be a wonderful opportunity. Watie applied himself and wanted to excel. First on the agenda was to learn to read. Whereas school books would allow one to learn the basics, they weren’t very exciting. Comic books provided variety and could be obtained from the other boys. One particular comic book that caught his eye was about the Marines. He was intrigued by their adventures, courage and determination. He branched out to other reading materials including a book about Marine activities in China. After that, he was hooked. He knew that some day, he would be a Marine.
As he grew older, the summers were occupied by serving in the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in Bull Hollow where he worked hard and also took advantage of a boxing ring that had been set up. Since Seneca was limited to the elementary school grades, he transferred to Chilocco and continued his education in high school along with active involvement on the boxing team that included Golden Glove championships.
This was also a period of time where the drums of war sounded. In December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. News of this event spread throughout the school and several dropped out immediately to join the service. Watie was too young but desperately wanted to do his part and follow through on his commitment to be a Marine. As soon as he was old enough, he would join.
Toward the end of the boxing season, Watie noticed his breathing becoming more labored and a cough had developed. He always had tremendous stamina and able to lead the other boys in exercises and running but now he was coming up short. His chest was heaving after a practice round and Coach Colglazier asked Watie if he was okay. “I just can’t seem to catch my breath.” A fit of coughing ensued and the Coach knew he had to get him to a doctor.
Numerous tests were performed and he was called into the hospital. “Son, sit down and let’s go over your results,” the physician said. “I’m sorry but I don’t have good news. See this right here?” The doctor held up an x-ray of Watie’s chest. “That is a spot on your lung. You have tuberculosis.” Watie took the news stoically. Even though his mother had died of TB a few years before, that outcome did not cross his mind. “Son, you’ll have to give up boxing and begin treatment immediately.” That’s when the hammer really fell. No more boxing? His sport, his calling, was no longer an option. Also, this could mean no longer being a Marine.
There were no medicines available in those days. Basically, treatment was complete bed rest - he was transferred immediately to a TB Sanitarium near Shawnee.
He found out that when they said complete bed rest, that is exactly what was meant. Patients were restricted to their bed and even had to be wheeled to meals. However, Watie was one of the luckier ones. Because of his superb physical condition, he was allowed to walk (slowly) to the dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They were watched closely and any sign of activity was halted immediately. It was a confining controlled environment where treatment went against every inclination of a teenage boy – to run or play was not tolerated. Here was an exceptional athlete forced to remain as motionless as possible.
Time passed very slowly, however, the cough began to subside and his stamina increased. He had been in the sanitarium for almost a year when some good news was finally delivered – he had tested negative and was discharged. He felt like a bird being released from a cage. One can almost feel his joy.
It was February 1943 and Watie was 19 years old. He had an opportunity to return to high school as a junior but that was not on his mind. Wordl War II continued and its outcome still in doubt. He wanted to do his part to support the struggle and would now be able to fulfill the dream that was planted when learning to read. He wanted to be among the best. He wanted to be a Marine. After seeing his family in Tahlequah, he made a bee-line to the recruiting office.
Watie walked into the recruiting office with confidence and pride. There was a spring in his step, boundless energy seeming to come from every pore of his body. “I want to be a Marine,” he told the recruiting officer.
“Glad to hear it. Sit down. Let’s go through some paperwork,” was the reply.
The usual personal questions were asked – name, address, age, school. They then wanted to know about his medical condition. The officer went down the list diseases and seemed very pleased to have such a willing and healthy recruit. He then asked Watie if he had had TB. Watie answered in the affirmative.
Everything came to a halt. The officer frowned, pushed the papers aside and sat back. “I’m sorry, young man, but we can’t accept you in the service.”
Watie’s heart sank. “But I’m cured! I don’t have it anymore!”
“There is nothing I can do,” was the response. The federal government had rigid standards at this stage of the war. TB was rampant among the Native population and highly communicable. They were not about to touch him with an 11 foot pole and let him potentially infect others.
Watie was devastated and left the recruiting office dejectedly. His head was down knowing his dream was shattered. It was a difficult night but he eventually began to think about the future. The choices were rather limited – go back to school or get a job. But the clock ticked and he thought some more about what had happened the day before. Slowly, his depression turned to anger. Those people didn’t realize who they had been talking to and they weren’t about to tell him ‘No.’ He’ll show them and began to think of a way to get into the Marines.
Then it came to him – he needed to erase his past and invent a new person. Since he was well known around Tahlequah, getting away from the area was necessary. With further investigation, he found that there was a federal program that would pay the cost of training and send you to a defense type job. This was where many Americans not able to meet the enlistment standards were able to proudly serve their country. Through discussion with the representative, he learned that they would teach him welding and send him to a job the Kaiser Ship Yard in Richmond, California. The first step in his plan was accomplished – he would be in a part of the country where no one knew him.
He also knew his birth certificate would connect him to the past. It would be impossible to change because it could be traced and confirmed – they would be looking for Watie. However, if the name were different, the trail would end. The change didn’t need to be dramatic (George or Fred) or it would never fly but close enough to allow issuance by local authorities. He took a chance and submitted an application for a new birth certificate (the original was conveniently lost) under the name of Waddie. A huge smile crossed his face when it arrived in the mail. They couldn’t track him back to that sickly kid now.
His training as a welder went well and quickly. He was finally sent to the Shipyard in California for employment. He worked a short while and then went into a local recruiting station.
“Sit down. Let’s go through some paperwork,” was the reply after hearing what Waddie wanted to do. The birth certificate was handed over. He again went through all the usual questions. The kicker finally came.
“Have you ever had tuberculosis?”
“No.” The recruiting sergeant continued writing. At the end, Waddie was requested to sign a few more papers and then dismissed.
Outside the door of the recruiting office, he looked up into the sky, took a deep breath and smiled broadly. He was to report to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California in two weeks. He was a Marine.
Your introduction to the Marines was called boot camp. This is where you learn the basic military requirements and get into shape. In peace time, boot camp lasted several months. Since the Japanese had attacked and the Marines were expanding so fast, training had been condensed to six weeks. At the start of the war, the Marine Corps consisted of two under-strength divisions of around 25,000 men. At the war's end, a Sixth Division was being formed and the Corps had grown to over 500,000. Watie was right in the middle of this.
Boot camp was just as rigorous as all the books and movies portray it but he didn't hate it as much as most of his fellow platoon members. The strict and military-like discipline maintained at Seneca and Chilocco had prepared him well.
Orders given by the officers and leaders were never to be questioned, only acted upon immediately. This was critical for a well functioning combat unit. However, there can be extreme requests.
On this particular day, Watie’s platoon was to be loaded into trucks and taken to a particular destination for maneuvers. As they waited, the corporal received word that the trucks would be late. In order to fill the void, they did double-time over to another area of camp. Upon stopping, the corporal yelled, “You maggots, grab your shovels and move that pile of sand over to there,” pointing to a spot about 100 yards away. “Aye, Aye, Sir,” was the immediate response and the men began working on the project. It was over an hour before they finished the exhausting work but every last grain was relocated to the new area.
Another notice was delivered and the corporal was told that it would still be awhile before transportation would arrive. The corporal had to again think of something for the men to do. His brow furrowed and he looked around. One could almost see the gears turning and his eyes widened as a decision was made. “Atten-hut!” was the order – all the recruits stood ramrod straight. “Move that sand back to where it was. It’s not supposed to be there!” Again “Aye, Aye, sir” was heard. The men broke up and all were thinking of more backbreaking work. Watie murmured quietly, “That sure is stupid.” Unfortunately, it was not quiet enough. The corporal heard him and went ballistic. “Are you questioning my order! Are you questioning my decision?!” Watie suffered through the verbal tirade and other punishments. It went to a point where he heard a court-martial was being considered but, given the need for manpower during the war, the incident was dropped. Needless to say, Watie was much more careful in his comments.
The next phase of training continued the mental and physical conditioning and learning how to shoot properly. There were four rifle positions: prone, kneeling, sitting and standing (offhand), and three firing modes: Slow-fire, rapid-fire, and fast-fire. The possible results: not qualify, qualify, marksman, sharpshooter, and expert. A few members in the group were familiar with rifles but most of the platoon wasn't. The ones more experienced smugly felt they had an edge but it sure didn't turn out that way. To their chagrin, many of the men who had never fired a rifle before in their life did much better on the range than they did. The effects of firing a high powered weapon also affected the men differently. Many men got black eyes and other got fat lips.
Watie had fired a gun before but it was not a regular part of his upbringing; they had been too poor to own one. But the process seemed to fit him naturally – taking a deep breath, sighting his target, squeezing the trigger. He was calm and steady. In the end, Watie qualified as an expert, the highest ranking. This level was doubly desirable because it meant an extra five dollars per month, and a five dollar raise was significant. But, more importantly, he began to stand out.
As usual, Watie was quiet, determined and excelled. The difficult work he had completed as a teenager while in the CCC in Bull Hollow prepared him well for the hardship of boot camp. He was a man who never had to blow his own horn; always letting his actions speak for him. Because he felt this was the way a man should act, he did not look favorably upon those that did not. Mike Saboris of Youngstown, Ohio, one of his best buddies from boot camp, recalls a certain incident that exemplifies Watie’s demeanor.
One particular Marine had been selected to go to officer candidate school after boot camp. He was condescending, a bully, and quick to point out his superiority. Once again, he was picking on some other recruit. Having seen this numerous times, Watie became totally fed up with the situation but he realized that starting a fight and throwing the first punch could mean the end of his Marine career. However, Watie knew this was wrong so he wandered over and made himself conspicuous – he had a plan.
With Watie coming into his sphere, the bully started picking on him. The usual and predictable insults were thrown his way. “Hey, Chief, where’s your squaw? You run like a papoose! I’ll scalp you later.” On and on.
When Watie finally had had enough, he calmly leaned over and spit on the boorish recruit's boots. The recruit’s eyes got wide with surprise and his face reddened. He then started a big round house punch in order to lay out this challenger. Watie applied his boxing skills, blocking the punch and following up with a combination that cold-cocked the recruit. With numerous witnesses, it was told that Watie was only defending himself. No charges were ever brought and the other man curbed his obnoxiousness the remainder of boot camp. (In his Marine tenure, Watie was 22-0 with 14 knockouts and later won the Marine South Pacific Welter Weight Title (max 147 lbs.) A professional career in the ring was a definite option.)
He began to think about options after boot camp. Over the last few weeks, Watie had heard about an elite special forces group, the Paramarines.
In September 1939, the onset of World War II displayed a new and very successful kind of warfare. The Germans termed this ‘blitzkrieg’ – a lightning war. This is where overwhelming military force would be quickly applied against the enemy and included infantry, aircraft, armor and parachutists. In particular, the new tactic of armed soldiers dropping from the sky was an unparalleled success. Airborne forces could constitute "a paralyzing application of power in the initial phase of a landing attack.” In addition, several officers specifically tied these ideas to the application of amphibious operations required by the island-hopping strategy to be employed in the Pacific theater.
The odds of being accepted were overwhelming. The Paramarines was open to volunteers only. It was risky. It was dangerous. On top of it, the individual was only volunteering to be considered. This group allowed only the best to try for admission and even then there was a 40% washout rate. This was the elite of the elite. It was further known that personnel qualifying as parachutists would receive an unspecified amount of extra pay. Congress would eventually set the additional monthly amount for parachutists at $100 for officers and $50 for enlisted men. Since a private first class at that time earned about $36 per month and a second lieutenant $125, the increase amounted to a hefty bonus. After making a dollar a day for the CCC in Bull Hollow, this would be close to being independently wealthy.
At the end of boot camp, all the men were lined up in front of the Sergeant. The Sergeant went down the list calling each man’s name and destination.
Saboris, Mike- Communications
Tedder, Joseph– Communications
“Johnson, Watie! Camp Gillespie!”
Watie had got what he wanted. He was the only one in his group that requested and was accepted to try to become a Paramarine. Parachute duty promised "plenty of action" and the chance to get in on the ground floor of a revolutionary type of warfare. A Time magazine reporter noted that the parachutists were "a notably tough-looking outfit among Marines, who all look tough."
Watie was trained as a sniper, in demolition and operated the flame-thrower. With his skills, background and training, he was going to get his wish and be in the thick of battle.
However, just when things appeared most promising for Marine parachuting, the Corps shifted into reverse gear. There was tremendous pressure on Marine manpower, in addition to difficulty obtaining qualified jumpers and, it turns out, the Marine Corp also lacked sufficient numbers of aircraft for a massed parachute drop. The chronic shortage of aircraft hobbled the program. In the summer of 1943 the Corps had just seven transport squadrons, with only one more on the drawing boards. If the entire force had been concentrated in one place, it could only have carried about one and a half battalions, hardly enough to affect the outcome of a battle.
On 29 February 1944 the 1st Marine Parachute Regiment was officially disbanded. Its manpower would form the core of the new 5th Marine Division. This division formed the backbone for the invasion of a sulphrous, isolated extinct volcanic island, Iwo Jima.
At this time, Watie was on Guadalcanal. When the Paramarines were disbanded, the men were given a choice – support airborne material re-supply (a very dangerous job where planes would fly in at low altitudes in order to drop ammunition, weapons and other supplies) or join another combat division. Watie hadn’t entered the Marines to drop supplies to troops – he chose combat.
At first, they were shipped back to Camp Pendleton. After a short stay, the big island of Hawaii was named the training ground for these troops and the site was given the name Camp Tarawa (named after the island where a recent and intense battle had taken place.) The training ground was basically volcanic rock; if you fell, your hands could be cut and bleeding.
Watie had a distinctive pronunciation of the state – Hi-Woi-Yee. Years later, there were times where he would mention the state and everyone would look at each other “What did he say?”
Training there included amphibious landings and storming beaches. Toward the end of August 1944 it was decided to include maneuvers with live ammunition. This is where bullets are fired over the heads of the men and other explosives are used in order to simulate battle. It is a time where special care is always taken and mistakes are rarely made because of precautionary measures. Just in case, there was always a corpsman present. Corpsmen are Navy Medics assigned to the Marine Corps, they are highly skilled in treating men who are wounded by the kinds of weapons used in warfare. Needless to say, corpsmen are respected and protected by Marines, with their life if necessary.
It was a good day. They were marched several miles out to an area covered with volcanic debris. It also was mostly flat with very little plant life. The men completed their exercise around 10:30 in the morning without incident and it was time to relax a bit before heading back to their camp. Small groups started to form and the chit-chat began.
Watie was talking to three other men about food and the hard work. Behind him and a short distance away, a private saw a mortar shell that had failed to detonate – it was a dud and simply left to be gathered later. Even though Marines are taught from Day 1 to give duds a wide berth, this man seemed to think “What a great souvenir to have, this is something he could keep and show to others.” The man reached down, picked it up and held his treasure in his hands.
Suddenly, there was an explosion. Shrapnel went flying in all directions.
With his back was to the individual, the shards of metal struck Watie instantaneously in the legs and back. Additional pieces also pierced his left hand. There were several other men down and screams of “Corpman!” began. This was not like any Hollywood adaptation. It was quick. It was violent. It was ugly.
Watie opened his eyes after the explosion and had dirt in his mouth. The pain was unbelievable and coursed throughout his body. He did not understand what had happened. His friends surrounded him and told him not to move. They could see the blood beginning to flow and soak into his clothes. The small tears in his fatigues revealed where the shrapnel had entered. The shrapnel had spread in an irregular pattern. Men closer than Watie and even in the group he had been with had not been touched whereas one even farther away had died.
The corpsman began cutting his trousers away and was working to staunch the flow of blood from several shrapnel wounds (28 good sized plus numerous small ones). His official medical record lists it as gun-shot wounds, multiple and severe. Fortunately, our corpsman had been with the Marines Corps for about 20 years and had worked in several battles – Guadalcanal was one. His quick action and experience ultimately saved his life.
He felt no pain (that would come later) and it took a little while to regain full consciousness. Watie couldn’t see for a little bit and this was initially of some concern. Fortunately, it cleared up and he began to assess the damage to see if he might be paralyzed. Fortunately, he could move his arms, legs and fingers of his right hand. His left hand wasn’t working and when he looked, he could see that part of the palm of his hand was missing and there was a small hole in the back. The corpsman bandaged that hand in a fist shape. His back and right leg had received the bulk of the shrapnel. His left leg, though injured, was in pretty good shape.
There were no medical facilities anywhere near. Fortunately, there was a small Army hospital on that side of the island of Hawaii. Their ambulance was on the run. He was unconscious most of the time. Once there, he was attended by two young doctors with several nurses. It turned out that he was the first patient they had treated with shrapnel wounds but they did an excellent job. He was there about a week before being placed on a hospital plane and flown to Honolulu. He received several blood transfusions at the Army hospital; the first of a total of 54 over about a 6 or 8 month period.
The permanent hospital near Honolulu was full so temporary medical facilities had been erected on Waikiki Beach. The personnel and equipment were first rate. It appeared that he would recover from all of his wounds and that none were life-threatening. The plan was to transfer him back to the States for further recuperation. Watie settled back and began to think “Well, maybe I won’t get into this battle but there will be others. I’ll walk off the boat, work hard, get well and transfer to another unit.”
However, while waiting on the beach, he noticed a stiffness in his left leg. By the next day, there was a noticeable swelling. He didn’t know exactly what was happening because this was the so-called ‘good leg.’ With each passing day, the leg grew larger and the stiffness turned to pain. In about 4 or 5 days the pain was beyond description, not even morphine could temper it. In addition, his leg had begun to turn black.
The medical personnel examined him closely. It turned out that a small piece of shrapnel had nicked a vein and caused leaking to occur; the blood flow had been slowly cut off to a major portion of the leg.
The diagnosis was gangrene. Given the advanced state, the only alternative was amputation.
The medical personnel provided their recommendation. He was also informed that there was no anesthesia available for this procedure because of extreme shortages on the island.
A short time later, a tourniquet was placed around his left leg about as high as possible. The leg was then packed with ice. After a period of time, all pain slowly ceased and he began to feel comfortable. He was awake all during the procedure. Amputations in the field were what’s termed guillotine. That is to say the extremity was amputated in a manner that looked as if it had been done by a guillotine.
He didn’t know when the tourniquet was removed but passed out shortly after the doctors finished their work. He was transferred to a private room (the only time while in the Marine Corps) and assigned a nurse. He was her only responsibility for a day or so.
He felt no remorse; he would have done almost anything to stop the pain.
About 2 weeks later, he was placed aboard a hospital ship bound for San Francisco. There were other sick and wounded aboard the ship but he never saw them. They arrived in San Francisco sometime during the night and he was met by an ambulance that took him directly to Mare Island Naval Hospital. All Marine, Navy & Seabees amputees were sent to either Mare Island or to Philadelphia. These two facilities were equipped for and specialized in treating amputees. If one lived west of the Mississippi, they were routed to Mare Island, Vallejo, CA. East of the river were sent to Philadelphia, PA.
He did not know it at the time but was to spend 2 years on Mare Island in recuperation – far longer that what was considered reasonable for his wound.
The hospital was three stories high with 6 wings. They were not crowded and it was clean as a pin located on a huge lawn with a golf course near by. There were a few patients that were golfers. Each ward had space for about 40 beds with enough space for two teas to work – doctor, nurse & aid. Looking back , he realized the care received there was among the best he experienced in his life.
A typical day began about 5:30 a.m. with an aid coming to the beds of those unable to go to the bathroom to assist them in their toilet & sponge bath. Nurses would distribute medicines to those that needed them. All patients ate at their bed. After breakfast more medicines would be distributed. A short time later a doctor, nurse and a couple of aids would arrive to check patients – clean and bandage wounds. A clean up crew would come to perform housekeeping and janitorial work. There were various kinds of activities referred to as occupational therapy – leather work, basket weaving, painting, etc. For those who were mobile, a large beautiful shaded lawn was available. The also had an excellent store and library.
All physical therapy was on a prescribed basis specific to the wound of the soldier. For example, a physical therapist would work with his hand 2 or 3 times a day doing massage and stretching exercises. He would then follow-up with the procedure of squeezing a rubber ball as often as possible. Virtually all the men were in good physical condition and would be up and around shortly after coming to the hospital.
While in the hospital, men were fitted with a prosthesis (arm, leg) and taught to use it. They were very primitive compared to what’s available now. They were made of wood, heavy, uncomfortable, clumsy, etc. If one had a knee or elbow, they could usually learn to control an artificial limb very well.
His stump was 2 ½ inches long – not much longer than many people’s thumb. It was too short for controlling a prosthesis or keeping it on. It’s interesting that the only amputees shown on TV are the ones with most of the stump left. He never ran into any one with a stump as short or shorter that was able to use a prosthesis successfully. He used crutches most of the time and a wooden leg on special occasions.
Watie never asked for nor sought pity. These were the cards that life dealt and you played them accordingly. Sometimes, simply walking was very challenging. In fact, he was incensed if someone showed him any favoritism due to his injury. His brother, Tip, recalls a time that they were walking down the street in Tahlequah when one of his crutches slipped. It happened very quickly so he did not have a chance to put his hands in front to cushion the fall. He landed almost full on his face with a considerable thud. His nose was bleeding and there was a cut on his cheek. Tip, knowing how to handle the situation, stood quietly and waited for him to get up. However, another good Samaritan thought he could help and stepped in while giving Tip a dirty look. This was almost his end. As he reached down, Watie practically punched the man – he needed help from no one! “Get away from me!” Watie proceeded to raise himself upright, stand and continue walking down the street.
Over time in the hospital, he began to get better. At 19 years old, he had been in the tenth grade enlisting. He loved activities of an academic nature and this fit in with his realization that he would have to prepare for an occupation that did not require the full use of my extremities. The better education I got, the more opportunities for employment. This would require a high school diploma first. Teachers from Napa Union High School would come in to teach him while he was still in bed and unable to sit up. His efforts took some time but much was self-study and he was able to accelerate the process.
After some time, he completed all of his requirements and was ready for graduation. This was a special occasion and the military brass also saw it that way. In a demonstration of respect to all of the graduates, an admiral was dispatched to bestow the honor upon each worthy recipient. Watie had just received his diploma without ever having seen Napa Union High School.
During this time, his treatment continued. Two operations were necessary for the revision of his stump and two or three were necessary to give him a partially functioning hand.
He was progressing well. Release from the hospital was in sight and the same joy began to return when he thought how he felt when he left the sanitarium after his battle with tuberculosis. Then he got the call.
“Watie, we have just reviewed your blood panel and have some bad news. The results show that you have contracted osteomyelitis. This is an infection of the bone marrow that appears to have been caused by the remaining shrapnel in your lower spine. No matter what our treatment, you need to understand this could be a fatal.”
He took the news stoically realizing this was merely another challenge to overcome. The doctor continued, “We have three options available. We can operate but there is a huge risk of paralysis. We can treat this with antibiotics but it is deep and in a position where it might be ineffective. This would also be very difficult on your body. The last is basically spontaneous healing – let your body fight off the infection and work its way back to normal.”
The last option was chosen but it meant an extended stay at Mare Island facility. For three years, he woke with the possibility that this infection would take the wrong turn.
During this recuperation period, he was asked to attend other functions. In 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. The Charter was signed on 26 June 1945 by the representatives of the 50 countries. Watie was one of the servicemen in attendance and shook hands with Vyasheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister under Stalin.
Watie was finally released from Mare Island facility in April 1946 with promises to check in. His career of service would include teaching, working with the disabled and deaf and functioning as a health director on the Ute Indian reservation in Colorado.
Many years later, when asked about his experiences, he stated, “I have thought very carefully and don’t recall any feelings of guilt, remorse, victim, anger and guilt because I was denied participation in the Iwo Jima operations. However, when I look at all I have been blessed with, it makes it a bit easier.”
His answer is particularly telling; it would seem that life had dealt him a particularly burdensome blow. In his response, he speaks nothing of the soldier that picked up the mortar shell, nothing about the loss of his limb and functioning left hand, nothing about the loss of a potentially lucrative career in boxing. He stated he was denied participation in the Iwo Jima operation. He lost friends and acquaintances in that battle. Recently, while speaking in front of a group of people, he lost his composure and broke down when this topic came up. He felthad personally let people down because he was not there. His selflessness and courage is an inspiration to the Cherokee Nation.