Joseph Medicine Crow served with the U.S. Army during World War II. During his service, he fulfilled four war deeds and became the last Crow Nation war chief.
Joseph Medicine Crow was born into a family of great Crow warriors in October 1913, on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. His grandfathers – White Man Runs Him and Medicine Crow – were his sources of early inspiration. White Man Runs Him served as a scout with the U.S. Army during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and Medicine Crow was a legendary Crow warrior who attained chieftaincy at the age of 22. They raised Joseph according to the tribe’s warrior traditions. In an interview for Ken Burns’ documentary “The War,” Joseph Medicine Crow said that Medicine Crow and his grandparents taught him the four war deeds he needed to fulfill to become a war chief:
- Touch a living enemy soldier
- Disarm an enemy combatant
- Lead a successful war party
- Capture an enemy’s horse
In 1943, Joseph Medicine Crow enlisted in the Army, serving with the 103rd Infantry Division. Throughout his service, he painted two red stripes on his arms. He also kept a yellow eagle feather under his helmet, believing it would protect him from harm.
Joseph was assigned to lead a squad of seven men to attack enemies at the Siegfried Line. As they were returning from this mission, his squad helped allies fight for control over a village. It was here that he disarmed a nearby German soldier by swinging a rifle at him. He then dropped his rifle and lunged at the German. They brawled, and when Joseph gained the upper hand, he placed his hands around the German’s neck and prepared to kill him. Upon hearing the German cry, “mama,” he released his grip and let the soldier escape.
Later in the war, Joseph was assigned to scout for his company. He found a group of Germans riding horses into a farmhouse to rest for the night. He quickly relayed this information to his company and presented his idea on how to approach the situation. His plan was approved.
The next morning, Joseph went to the pasture where the Germans’ horses were resting, sneaking by a few German guards along the way. When he got to the horses, he used a rope to make a bridle and mounted one of them. He then let out a cry, causing all the horses to stampede away, covering his escape. German soldiers started firing at him, but he had gotten away by then.
When World War II ended, Joseph Medicine Crow returned home and was celebrated by his elders. Having completed all four war deeds, he became the last Crow tribe war chief.
Along with being a warrior, Joseph loved to learn. He was the first in his tribe to attend college. In 1939, he received a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California and had worked in academia before enlisting in the Army. After returning from war, he became a tribal historian, working on preserving Crow culture and history. He published several academic papers and books. A list for some of his works and preservation efforts can be found here.
For his service, Joseph Medicine Crow received the Bronze Star Medal and France’s Legion of Honor. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Joseph Medicine Crow died on April 3, 2016. The following day, the White House issued a statement referring to him as a “bacheitche”: Crow for “a good man.”
We honor his service.
Writer: Calvin Wong
Editors: Jacob Reis, Christine Myers
Researcher: Monique Quihuis
Graphic designer: Mohogany Bridges