Note: This story appeared in a previous edition of the Gypsy Journal.
In Oklahoma City we toured one of the best military museums we have ever seen, and learned about one of the most valiant military units in our nation’s history.
The Militia of the Territory of Oklahoma, later called the National Guard, preceded the 45th Infantry Division as citizen soldiers. The unit first saw service in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The cavalry troops became a part of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, better known as the Rough Riders. They took part in the famous Battle of San Juan Hill near Santiago, Cuba.
In 1916, these same citizen soldiers saw duty on the Mexican border following Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. When that conflict ended, the Oklahoma National Guard had only a month’s rest before being called to duty in World War I. Two Oklahoma National guardsmen would receive our country’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for their actions in the war.
The 45th Infantry Division was organized in 1923 from National Guard units from the states of Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
For the next seventeen years the division was called upon to maintain order in times of disaster and kept peace during periods of political unrest. In September of 1940, the division was activated for one year for training. By the end of the year the world situation had worsened, and the 45th, nicknamed the Thunderbirds, continued their training and prepared for war.
On July 10, 1943, the division participated in their first of four amphibious landings. By war’s end, the division served 511 days in combat, fighting their way across Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. The 45th suffered 3,650 killed in action and 13,729 wounded. The division captured 103,367 enemy prisoners. Eight of its members won the Medal of Honor.
The division earned the respect of both regular Army forces and the enemy for their fighting abilities. The 45th Infantry Division served with General George S. Patton’s U.S. 7th Army during the Sicilian campaign, and when the fighting was done, Patton told the soldiers “Your division is one of the best, if not the best division in the history of American arms.”
When North Korean forces invaded South Korea in June of 1950, the 45th Infantry Division was again mobilized. The Thunderbirds were one of only two National Guard divisions to see combat in the Korean War; the other being the 40th of California.
The division served in the Yonchon-Chorwon area, and in sectors fronting Old Baldy, Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge, and Luke’s Castle. The division remained in Korea until the end of the conflict in 1953. In all, the 45th Division saw 429 days in battle, participating in four campaigns.
Once the war ended and they were back stateside, their status returned as a National Guard unit. In 1969, the 45th Infantry Division was disbanded and restructured into an infantry brigade, an artillery group, and a support command, with state headquarters providing general administrative and logistical support. This did not mean the end of the Thunderbirds; the Thunderbird patch was retained by all the field units.
Today the 45th Infantry Division Museum tells the story of this famous unit, with a fine display of military equipment and artifacts. The museum’s fifteen acre park features an impressive collection of over 60 tanks, artillery, personnel carriers, aircraft, and the Thunderbird Monument, which pays tribute to the men who served with the division in World War II and Korea, as well as those men and women who continue to serve in Oklahoma’s National Guard. Landscaped walkways lead visitors past the equipment and vehicles, which are identified by plaques. A small picnic area with two tables is available.
Inside the museum, galleries display military weapons and equipment from earliest Territorial Days to the current Gulf wars. The Hall of Flags examines early Oklahoma military history. A series of exhibits takes visitors from the beginning of Oklahoma’s military history through the forts and along the trails of Indian Territory. Exhibits explore the role of the Indian Police, and tell of Oklahoma’s Civil War battles. The Spanish American War and Mexican Border displays tell of the formation of the 1st Territorial Regiment of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories, and their participation in the Philippine Insurrection and guarding the Mexican border.
The World War II gallery features artifacts and photographs which tell the story of the division’s actions in the European Theater of Operations. Also housed in the World War II gallery are artifacts owned by Adolf Hitler, including a silver tea service taken from his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, Germany.
The Korean War Gallery chronicles the division’s actions throughout the war. Often times referred to as the Forgotten War, the aim of this exhibit is to educate museum visitors about the Thunderbirds’ role in this important part of military history.
The Infantry and Artillery Galleries honor the fighting men who saw battle throughout the division’s years of service. The Supporting Forces Hall is dedicated to the men and women whose jobs made it possible for fighting men of the 45th to perform their duties on the battlefield. The aviation, chemical, medical, engineers, ordnance, armor, signal corps, quartermaster, military police, band, special services, and chaplains, all of whom played vital supporting roles in assisting the men of the infantry and artillery, are honored here.
On April 29, 1945, elements of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. The horrible scene that unfolded there reminded the men who participated in this historic liberation of the reasons for being at war with Germany, and left an indelible mark on the men who witnessed the atrocities of life in a concentration camp. The haunting exhibit on Dachau is one visitors will come away from moved by how cruel madmen can be to their fellow human beings.
On a lighter note, the Bill Mauldin Cartoon Collection displays over 200 original World War II cartoons by the celebrated artist. Mauldin joined the 45th Infantry Division in September of 1940 and became the cartoonist for the 45th Division News in October of the same year. Mauldin’s work recorded war from a unique perspective; he drew war showing humor in the face of misery. Mauldin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for editorial cartooning, and the army honored his work by presenting him with the Legion of Merit.
Plan to spend an afternoon when you visit the 45th Infantry Division Museum. This is not a place you can rush though, but it will be well worth your time.
The 45th Infantry Division Museum is located at 2145 N.E. 36th Street in Oklahoma City. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays. The museum is handicapped accessible and admission is free. Parking is limited, and large RVs would have a problem, so it’s better to leave your rig at a local RV park and take your dinghy or tow vehicle. For more information on the museum, call (405) 424-5313.
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Thought For The Day – Why is it called “after dark” when it really is “after light”?
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