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The American WW2 Soldiers Who Wore Swastikas




Contrary to popular belief, the traditional meaning of the swastika is neither anti-semitism nor white power. Its usage spans all across the globe, with dozens of ancient cultures using the swastika as a symbol for various cultural purposes. However, once the Nazi Party began using a crooked variation of the swastika symbol, leading to the negative connotations, we associate it with today. And it is rather shocking to learn the 45th Infantry Division of the United States Army proudly wore the swastika on their sleeves. While this inherent fact may sound like traitorous pro-Nazism, it is not. On the contrary, the 45th Division’s swastika display was as American as apple pie.




THE THUNDERBIRDS

Each Division in the United States Army is required to wear an insignia. This mandatory insignia is typically displayed on the upper part of the sleeve that covers the shoulder. In other words, the insignia is designed to be seen clearly by anyone looking at the soldier, showing other army members what Division you belong to. Furthermore, the Division insignia acted like a logo for a sports team or a company, serving as a symbol of their identity.

Today, the insignia commonly associated with the 45th Division is the yellow Thunderbird. The 45th Division wore the Thunderbird as they fought in Southern Europe, helping to drive out the Axis powers from Sicily and Italy. From the Italian peninsula, they participated in an amphibious invasion of Southern France and ironically fought an army wearing a crooked version of their former symbol. Eventually, the 45th Division fought said army in Germany, where the desecration of the swastika began.

While defeating the Germans in 1945, the 45th wore their Thunderbird insignia, their official symbol, for only 6 years. Before 1939 their symbol had been a swastika. But why? Why did they choose the swastika to visually and symbolically represent their Division?

THE AMERICAN SWASTIKA

The 45th Division began its formation in 1923. That same year Hitler was on trial for high treason for being an incessant demagogue, which led to his inevitable conviction. Hitler’s Nazi Party was growing--despite its leader being in prison. However, the now infamous crooked swastika had yet to be invented, leading the 45th Division to not have a second thought upon choosing it as their insignia.

The Division initially assembled after recruiting the 90th Brigade of the Oklahoma National Guard and other areas of the Southwest in 1923, drawing infantrymen from the rugged frontier lands of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. More specifically, the 45th recruited the 89th Infantry Brigade of the Colorado and Arizona National Guards to their Division.

These regions produced savvy outdoorsmen who were already well-trained in shooting and surviving under challenging situations, making them excellent Army infantrymen recruits. Oklahoma and New Mexico also housed two of the largest concentrated Native American populations in the United States. Thereby, many of the 45th Division’s members were Native American. After the second world war, three of the 45th Division’s nine Medal of Honor recipients were of at least a ¼ Native American descent.

The Division was proud of their heritage and decided to display their pride as prominently as possible: with their insignia. Found within the symbology of the Navajo, and other tribes in the Southwest, was the swastika. The symbol had been drawn in art and worn on headdresses long before Hitler was even a thought. As a matter of fact, old photographs show Native American basketball teams with swastikas boldly stitched onto their uniforms, clearly serving as their team logo. To a modern eye, the swastika on Native American sports jerseys seems abhorrently ironic. However, the swastika held a non-racist connotation for Native Americans living in Oklahoma and the Southwestern United States.

The Navajo, for example, drew the swastika to symbolize what they called the “Whirling Log” (tsin náálwołí). Whirling log stems from a Navajo myth that tells the story of an outcast seeking peace after leaving his tribe. The story goes on to explain how the outcast finds a whirling log in the nearby river, hops inside, and rides the current to safety and peace from his troubles. The story serves as a calming metaphor, reassuring the Navajo that the Whirling Logs will always care for them.

But during the 19th century, Whirling Log transitioned from a purely religious symbol wrapped in mythology to a decorative one as well; thus, it can be seen on domestic Navajo rugs and other handmade furniture. Other North American indigenous cultures--such as the Dakota, the Hopi, and various tribes along the Mississippi--created swastika imagery that scholars believe also held religious and self-identifying connotations.

However, the meaning behind the Whirling Log myth, along with many other Native American cultural concepts, is a far cry from what the swastika would come to represent in the years ahead.



MEANWHILE, IN NAZI GERMANY

Hitler did not stay incarcerated for long. Eventually, he was released and returned to the Nazi Party with new vigor and distributing a must-have item for anyone attempting to lead a socio-political revolution: a manifesto.

Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 and incrementally thereafter, leading to the Nazi Party’s ideas spreading throughout Germany, along with their symbol, the swastika, which became widespread in the 1930s. Once the symbol became associated with Nazism, the American military developed a disdain for the swastika, especially if it is currently stitched onto the uniforms of U.S soldiers. So, to avoid controversy, the 45th Division severed ties with the swastika.

With the swastika removed from 45th uniforms, the Division was left with no replacement insignia, especially on such short notice. Their subsequent search for a new insignia would take several years. During that insignia-less time, the 45th Division reviewed several design options but proved to be somewhat picky in their decision process. Moreover, after many submissions, one insignia finally caught their attention--a design by Kiowa tribe member Woody Big Bow. He resided in nearby Carnegie, Oklahoma, and drew the yellow Thunderbird, a traditional symbol found across the indigenous Southwestern United States.

Woody Big Bow’s design stuck, and the 45th Division officially became the Thunderbirds. In Southwestern Native American mythology, the Thunderbird symbolizes many divine concepts such as protection from harm, warnings of oncoming danger, comfort on long journeys, and a spirit guide through the underworld. When the 45th Division departed for their long journey into the center of Nazi Germany, this was the symbol they carried.




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