One of the U.S. Army’s most successful fighting units in World War II was also one of its most racially integrated.
The 45th Infantry Division had three regiments that consisted of Mexican Americans, Southwestern cowboys and at least 1,500 Native Americans from 50 tribes. Historians say most of the young men were from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma.
The division would be known as the Thunderbirds because they went into battle with the image on the shoulder of their uniform. The thunderbird was considered a supernatural entity that protected humans from evil spirits and exacted vengeance on enemies.
Gen. George S. Patton took note of the Thunderbirds, calling them “one of the best, if not the best division in the history of American arms.”
Patton took note because they endured 500-plus days of combat in less than two years – from Italy to France to the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.
Historians say they went through some of the most grueling battles of the war. They’d become one of the most decorated American combat units of World War II.
The Thunderbirds are the subject of a four-part adult animated miniseries on Netflix called “The Liberator.” It premiered on Veterans Day – Nov. 11, 2020. The cast includes Native American actors.
The miniseries follows the division through battles across Sicily, Italy, France and into Germany. It is based on the book by author Alex Kershaw.
A Smithsonian Magazine review describes it as a cross between “Band of Brothers” and “A Scanner Darkly.”
“The miniseries uses animation to tell the real-life story of Felix Sparks, a company commander who eventually rose through the division ranks, and the experiences of the fictional Sgt. Samuel Coldfoot and Cpl. Able Gomez, two composite stand-ins for the Indigenous and Mexican American soldiers, respectively, who made up the bulk of the Thunderbird Division,” the review said.
Kershaw said “The Liberator” adds a different racial dimension to World War II, because “when you watch it, a lot of the time you’re looking at a Native American and a Mexican American.”
One real life Native American that Kershaw writes about in his book is a Choctaw sergeant named Van Barfoot.
In May 1944, Barfoot singlehandedly took out three machine gun nests and captured 17 German soldiers. He turned back a counterattack of three Nazi Tiger tanks by destroying a lead vehicle with a bazooka. He would later be given the Congressional Medal of Honor and was commissioned as a second lieutenant for his service.
Kershaw said the Thunderbirds broke through the Siegfried Line and entered Germany in 1945. They fought in the battles of Aschaffenburg and Nuremburg, and were ordered to march to Berchtesgaden to capture Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at his alpine retreat. But they would be ordered instead to go to Dachau.
For more, go to netflix.com and search “The Liberator.”