PINE RIDGE –– When Garfield T. Brown volunteered for the Army at Fort Crook, Neb. in 1942, he did not realize he would play such a pivotal role in World War II and bring back an original flag of the Nazis captured in Aachen, Germany in 1944.
The Oglala Lakota soldier, and all 128 pounds of him, served in many conflicts during WWII; including North Africa, Omaha Beach, Normandy, Belgium, and the Battle of the Bulge.
The family of Garfield T. Brown did not know the extent of his service during World War II. The humble “radio man” would share stories sporadically with his 11 children, Elgin, Rosiland, Fred, Lester, Dorothy, Bonnie, Serena, Doreen, Garfield Jr., Harold, Richard and wife Zona Wilcox.
It was not until Brown passed away on Jan. 5, 2000, when his youngest son, Richard, began to probe through his personal papers and found a “Warrior’s Award” presented by the Hot Springs VA Domiciliary to Garfield Brown on Apr. 24, 1996, “in honor of your service in World War II as a Sioux Code Talker.”
While growing up, Richard Brown remembers his father sitting him down “during PBS specials on TV about the war, he would say, I remember that place” and talk of significant sites like Normandy, Omaha Beach and other experiences.
As a child, Richard did not pay as much attention to the war stories. It was not until he was a young adult that the stories began to resonate and he began to appreciate the battle field accounts of “Killer Kane”- a nickname given to his father, Garfield, by fellow soldiers in Europe.
One story Richard shared during an interview with Native Sun News was when the United States stormed and secured Omaha Beach. “He told me he had to carry his radio above his head. He was chest deep in water on Omaha Beach, while being shot at trying to get onto land,” said Richard, “He told me his radio weighed a lot.”
“When he made it to shore, his commander came over to him and said, ‘We were watching you. We seen you come on shore. Indian pick up your radio with one hand.’ My dad said he couldn’t pick it up. Then his commander said we watched you carry it with one hand Indian’ and my dad told them, ‘Well, hell I was being shot at and bombed at, what do you expect,” Richard told NSN.
The fear of being killed and his dedication to being a code talker, responsible for his radio, gave him the strength to lift his radio unit over his head that day. “I did not know he was a code talker, until after he passed,” said Richard.
Richard believes his father took with him the spiritual guidance of his Lakota ancestors and it helped to save his life and the life of his comrades on several occasions. “The spirituality of his grandfather and mother was with him in war,” says Richard.
Sworn to secrecy regarding the Lakota code used during World War II, Garfield T. Brown was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star, Combat Infantry Badge, and WWII Victory Medal.
Nearly a half-century later, the Native American code talkers began to get recognized for their selfless contributions to WWII. The French government awarded the Comanche Code Talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit.
In 1994, Garfield and other code talkers were invited by the Belgium government to be honored for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, in Bastogne, Belgium.
But it was not until 1996, when the VA in Hot Springs awarded Garfield T. Brown a certificate, that he and other code talkers began to be honored in the United States; fifty years after the war had ended. And on Nov. 20, 2013, the U.S. awarded Garfield with the Congressional Silver Medal, posthumously.
For many of the Native American code talkers, the secrecy of these “radio men” died with them.
Along with various medals and awards Richard discovered in his father’s personal belongings, was an original Nazi flag captured when the Americans and their allies seized the German city of Aachen after several days of brutal house-to-house fighting.
The final story Richard shared of his father’s wartime experience was when Garfield was present during the liberation of Jewish prisoners at a concentration camp. “The Jews were coming up to him and thanking him. One guy came up and shook his hand saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you. I’m free now. I’m finally free,’” Richard said.
After giving the freed prisoner some water and food, the skeletal presence died in his arms on that day in Germany.
The swastika is a symbol of hate and intolerance for many, but the original Nazi flag captured by the Lakota code talker from Pine Ridge became a sacred object once he displaced it in a symbolic gesture of freedom.
(Contact Richie Richards at email@example.com)