Native American Experience in the U.S. Military
Thomas Oxendine, from Pembroke, North Carolina, became the first Native American Navy Pilot when he served in World War II.
Oxendine had an illustrious career as a Navy pilot, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for landing at sea and under gunfire to make a rescue. After 29 years in the Navy, Oxendine transitioned to civilian life as the head of public information with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and settled down in Arlington, Virginia, where he lived until his death in 2010. His oral history interview sheds light into the complex history of Native American and United States Federal Government relations in the 20th century, and is a wonderful source in this time of reflection on Veteran, Native American, and United States founding history.
In this clip, Thomas Oxendine describes the segregation of Native Americans in the US Military, and gives an account of his famous rescue on Yap Island.
NARRATOR: Thomas Oxendine
INTERVIEWER: Joe B. Johnson
DATE: May 22, 2007
TO: Well, as I was just pointing out my background is a little unusual in that I am a Lumbee Indian, born on a farm near Pembroke, North Carolina.
In 1941 – very unusual. There was an enterprising person who had a flying school in Lumberton, North Carolina, Horace Barnes. And he petitioned the government to do a study by training ten Indians to fly, and do a study similar to what they were doing with blacks down at Tuskegee, Alabama. So I was fortunate enough at age eighteen to get a license to fly. So at the time of Pearl Harbor I already could fly and went down to join up in January, and joined the Navy and became the first American Indian to go through Navy flight training.
You may have an interest in how that came about, because the policies of government during the days of segregation were a little unusual, in that the way the Armed Forces dealt with segregation, the Army only segregated black people. They had all black people doing what they did in the Army, they did it in a segregated unit. There were no restrictions on Indians in the Army. They could attain any level they had the skills and qualifications. So it only applied to blacks.
At the same time over in the Navy, the Navy restricted their officer corps to Caucasians. Indians could be any of the enlisted grades but not an officer, and blacks could only be steward’s mates. Again, that’s not good or bad, that’s flat out the way it was. In fact, the application for me signing up for the Navy had three categories: they were Caucasian, Negro, others. I don’t know who all the others were but Indians were in the “others.” So the qualifications for a naval officer was Caucasian and certain age. I think it was 19-26.
I found out the Navy has a problem with me in that at the time I applied, the Navy had enlisted pilots called NAPs or Naval Aviation Pilots. The Army had Flying Sergeants and what they did is: they did routine maintenance flights, ferried airplanes and what have you. But the war had just broken out and the Navy did away with the enlisted program. So I’m not restricted from entering flight training.
However, if they put me in, by the time I get to the other end, completion, there is no enlisted program. So it took a couple of months and finally permitted me to enter and then I got all kind of publicity as the first American Indian to go through Navy flight training. But that was kind of a fluke, and I don’t know of any others who came in until President Truman integrated the Armed Forces in 1947.
JJ: All right. That’s an unusual way to get through, and you then went through the training and went on to be an active aviator and had a career.
JJ: You made at least one rescue?
TO: Yes, on July 24, 1944. It happened at Yap Island. We got a message that there were three downed pilots, in too close to the beach for their submarines to pick up. We were one hundred or so miles away, and flew in to make that rescue. The first pilot was going without anyone in his backseat and we spotted the raft, and he landed and made that recovery. They said there was a third pilot crew member in the water also, but without a life raft, and that is very difficult from being airborne to locate a person who is just in there with a life jacket under enemy gun fire.
But while that rescue is taking place by the other aircraft, I finally spotted him, and I went in to make the rescue, and the gun fire got really heavy and the air group commander said: “Do not land, do not land,” but I had already made up my mind I would not take my eyes off this person.
So I landed and went in and picked him up and leveled out and avoided the gunfire. I didn’t get hit but had splashes all around while I’m making that. So I kind of wiped my brow and said” Thank goodness I was able to do that.”
You can find Thomas Oxendine’s interview in its entirety in the Center for Local History – VA 975.5295 A7243oh ser.3 no.207
The goal of the Arlington Voices project is to showcase the Center for Local History’s oral history collection in a publicly accessible and shareable way.
From June 2017 – May 2018, we will post one oral history clip and transcript each month, focusing on Arlington’s history, culture and identity.
What is the oral history collection?
Oral history is a popular method of research used for understanding historical events, actors, and movements from the point of view of people’s personal experiences.
The Arlington Public Library began collecting oral histories of long-time residents in the 1970s, and since then the scope of the collection has expanded to capture the diverse voices of Arlington’s community. In 2016, staff members and volunteers recorded many additional hours of interviews, building the collection to 575 catalogued oral histories.
To browse our list of narrators indexed by interview subject, check out our community archive. To read a full transcript of an interview, visit the Center for Local History located at Central Library.