OKLAHOMA CITY — Years after he was awarded the Medal of Honor, Ernest Childers told his wife that he received it at a little racetrack in Naples, Italy, during a low-key ceremony that was followed by a small military parade.
But the photographs Yolanda Childers received in the mail just a month ago — two years after her husband’s death — revealed just how grand the scene was when the nation’s highest military honor was given to Ernest Childers, the first American Indian to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.
“It was just a huge parade,” Yolanda Childers said as she held up a collection of vintage photographs to lawmakers and Oklahoma National Guard officers and men during a joint session of the Oklahoma Legislature in which her husband and his unit, the state’s legendary 45th Infantry Division, were honored.
During an emotional tribute, Oklahoma’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, presented her with a ceremonial Medal of Honor flag to honor her husband, who died in March 2005 at the age of 87.
She then donated the photographs, given to her by the son of the military photographer who took them, to the 45th Infantry Division Museum, which preserves and display artifacts about the state’s military history.
“They have come finally home to rest,” Yolanda Childers said as she looked up into the House gallery where uniformed members of the Army and Air National Guard were seated.
“He loved you so much,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion. “Don’t ever forget him because he never forgot you.”
Ernest Childers, a native of Broken Arrow, received the Medal of Honor for action at Oliveto, Italy, on Sept. 22, 1943, when he was a second lieutenant. A Muscogee (Creek) Indian with some Cherokee ancestry, Childers entered the 45th Infantry Division at Chilocco Indian School in 1937.
“He wasn’t doing anything courageous,” she said — he was just trying to protect the lives of his men.
Gov. Brad Henry, who hugged her as others in the chamber stood in applause, said he met with members of the 45th Infantry Brigade during a recent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They are just doing a great job for the United States of America,” Henry said. “This is really an important time as the Thunderbirds answer the call.”
Wyatt said about 1,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard are currently on duty overseas and between 2,500 and 3,500 more are scheduled to be deployed in early 2008.
Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 45th Infantry Division. Place and date: At Oliveto, Italy, 22 September 1943. Entered service at: Tulsa, Okla. Birth: Broken Arrow, Okla. G.O. No.: 30, 8 April 1944.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action on 22 September 1943, at Oliveto, Italy. Although 2d Lt. Childers previously had just suffered a fractured instep he, with 8 enlisted men, advanced up a hill toward enemy machinegun nests. The group advanced to a rock wall overlooking a cornfield and 2d Lt. Childers ordered a base of fire laid across the field so that he could advance. When he was fired upon by 2 enemy snipers from a nearby house he killed both of them. He moved behind the machinegun nests and killed all occupants of the nearer one. He continued toward the second one and threw rocks into it. When the 2 occupants of the nest raised up, he shot 1. The other was killed by 1 of the 8 enlisted men. 2d Lt. Childers continued his advance toward a house farther up the hill, and single-handed, captured an enemy mortar observer. The exceptional leadership, initiative, calmness under fire, and conspicuous gallantry displayed by 2d Lt. Childers were an inspiration to his men.