Joseph Medicine Crow: Winter Man Warrior

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarred Martinez
  • 366th Fighter Wing

Joseph Medicine Crow was born on Oct. 27, 1913 in the Crow Indian Reservation, Montana. His birth name was Winter Man, named by a Sioux man who happened to be visiting when Joseph was born. The Sioux and the Crow tribes had fought each other at various times before Native American reservation systems were put in place. The Sioux man named Joseph “Winter Man” in honor of the fighting he took part in against the Crow people, having personally survived injuries sustained during the winter.

While Joseph was growing up, he was raised partially by various grandparents and adoptive family members, who told him stories of their time during the American Indian Wars, a series of conflicts between the American Indian nations and the expanding United States. His primary caretaker was his grandfather, Yellowtail. Yellowtail was not himself a warrior, but he knew how to raise Joseph to be a warrior. He ran Joseph through endurance training: running laps in the snow outside the house, bathing in the nearby frozen river, and rolling on the frozen ground. He was raised to be tough.

In 1938 Joseph Medicine Crow graduated college, the second Crow Indian to do so. In 1942 Joseph enlisted in the Army, to fight in World War II. One of the men interviewing prospective enlistees had been a college roommate of Joseph’s, and offered him a commission instead of an enlistment, as he met the criteria and was qualified and skilled enough to become an officer. Joseph declined, not wanting to start out as an officer.

Joseph served as an infantryman during the American invasion of Germany from 1944 to 1945. When in combat, he wore traditional war paint under his uniform and kept an eagle feather in his helmet lining. He credited these traditions for saving his life multiple times while under enemy fire.

He left the military in 1946 with the rank of Technician 5th Grade. Upon Joseph’s return home, the Crow people held a welcome back reception for him, and urged him to tell his war stories. He did so, not knowing that he had fulfilled important steps to become a part of history. To become a Crow War Chief, a Crow Warrior must perform four different tasks:

1) Lead a war party: During the winter advance of the U.S. Army, Joseph’s unit crossed the border from France into Germany. The border, as he describes it, was a creek between two hills. His unit descended the hill on the French side, and went up the hill on the German side. The top of the hill was being targeted by a German machine gun, and any men who tried to go over the hill would get hit by machine gun fire. Joseph was chosen to lead a group of six other men to go back to the French side and bring back boxes of explosives to try and destroy the machine guns. Under a smokescreen, Joseph led his men up the hill, which had not been cleared of landmines, under mortar fire and through muddy and icy terrain, and finally grabbed the explosives at a makeshift U.S. headquarters. The explosives were kept in boxes that weighed fifty pounds each, and if a stray mortar or bullet struck one it would take out his whole squad. They made the return trip through more mortar fire, and the explosives were used to destroy the German guns holding the U.S. advance back. Joseph Medicine Crow successfully led a war party.

2) Take an enemy’s weapon: During an attack on a German town, Joseph Medicine Crow encountered a lone German soldier in an alleyway. He hit the enemy under the chin with the stock of his rifle, knocking him down. The enemy dropped his gun, and attempted to recover it. Joseph kicked it out of the way, taking away his weapon.

3) Lay hands on an enemy: Joseph subdued the same enemy soldier; he threw aside his rifle and tackled the man, almost strangling him. His squad interrupted him in the process, stating they would rather shoot the German. The soldier surrendered, and Joseph had physically touched the enemy.

4) Steal the enemy’s horse: The German army was on its last legs at this point in the war, their troops were surrendering by the thousands each day. Joseph Medicine Crow and his unit were pursuing a group of around fifty SS Officers who had abandoned their troops to retreat. The Officers were on horseback, as most of the German military had been using horses for most transportation due to fuel shortages. The SS Officers stayed in a farmhouse overnight. Joseph asked if he could make an attempt to take the horses away, in order to cut off a means of retreat before his squad attacked the farm. His Commanding Officer gave him permission. Joseph and one other soldier snuck into the corral holding the horses. Joseph mounted one horse as the other soldier opened the gate at the other end of the corral, and he let out a loud Crow war cry, startling the horses. They stormed out of the corral, Joseph egging them on until they were in the woods. His squad initiated the attack then, and Joseph had taken forty to fifty horses. His Commanding Officer even allowed him to continue to ride the horse as they continued their march, until they realized he made too good a target on horseback, and he dismounted.

The tribal elders proclaimed him as a War Chief on the spot, and gave him a new name: High Bird. He was the last Crow War Chief.

After his war service, Joseph Medicine Crow led a long career dedicated to history as the Crow Tribe Historian and Anthropologist, as well as being a spokesperson and guest speaker at various museums and events around the country. He received an honorary Doctorate from the University of California and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then President Obama. He wrote many books, told many stories, and maintained the traditions of his tribe.

Joseph Medicine Crow passed away April 3, 2016, at the age of one hundred and two.