The Warrior Spirit

Outside the Comanche Nation Tribal Complex nine miles north of Lawton, Okla., 14 warriors who lost their lives, went missing in action or were taken prisoner while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces are honored by a circular array of stone monuments.

Here can be found the engraved name of Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Wayne Klinekole, who survived the Bataan Death March and more than 1,200 days as a captive of the Japanese before he was liberated at the end of World War II. Near his place in the Comanche War Scouts Circle of Honor are tributes to two 82nd Airborne paratroopers of the Normandy invasion: Cpl. Johnnie Rivas and Sgt. Melvin “Hawkeye” Myers. Rivas parachuted behind enemy lines in the early-morning darkness of June 6, 1944, ahead of the D-Day beach landings, before a direct hit from an 88 mm artillery round ended his life, making him the first known Comanche to die fighting for the U.S. military. Myers was second, killed days later after saving the life of a fellow wounded soldier near Ste. Mère-Église.

Another stone pays homage to Army Cpl. Dennis King Karty, who was wounded multiple times while resisting captivity by the Red Army before finally dying after more than two years as a prisoner in the Korean War.  

Marine Cpl. Joshua Ware, the newest addition to the circle, lost his life in a firefight with insurgents near the Syrian border on Nov. 16, 2005, during his second tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His monument reads: “Will forever be 20 years old.”

To the Comanche, these and other names etched in the Circle of Honor are not simply immortalized. They are immortal. “A warrior never dies,” says Lenn Sovo, a Vietnam War veteran and member of American Legion Post 306 in Fletcher, whose Comanche lineage includes seven Tu-wee war chiefs dating back to the early 1700s. “He comes back as a spirit.”

Sovo has felt, seen and drawn courage from ancestors at various moments of his life, military and otherwise. He remembers in particular their presence when he was a young Army tank commander leading a platoon in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. “You felt that death was tugging at you all the time. There’s a bullet out there somewhere … an armor seeker that wants to put you on fire. The little skirmishes we did get in, I didn’t get as scared as what I should have, because you could feel – even though you were in that tank – that outside were my other warriors, and they were going to help. You drew on that.”

One of the men in his unit, Sovo explains, was a young white tanker from Kansas. He reported with astonishment to 2nd Lt. Sovo that he had seen an Indian ghost on a horse charging ahead of them during a night patrol. “He was very earnest about relaying that to me,” Sovo says. “I said, ‘My warriors are here with us.’” 

The Comanche Nation emerged at some foggy point in the 17th century, an aggregation of people from various tribes of the Great Plains and Intermountain West. Common threads were a distinct language (this would come in handy in the world wars); superior horsemanship, including an uncanny ability to hunt, fight and fire arrows while mounted at full gallop; and great planning, stealth and awareness, night or day, whether they were raiding the camp of an opposing tribe or battling the U.S. Cavalry on a harsh, arid landscape roughly the size of Afghanistan. They were, by most accounts, brilliant war strategists, who knew when to strike and how, and when to get out and how. In the majority of their conflicts, they generally came away with most of their enemies’ horses while their foes were left to consider how the hell to survive in the desert heat on foot without food or water. Comanche warriors could travel 100 miles or more without stopping after a battle, often with hundreds more horses than they had before, by moonlight.

The Comanches spent nearly two centuries in continuous combat to control a buffalo-rich terrain that stretched from the northern High Plains and included what today is most of Texas and Oklahoma, as well as portions of New Mexico, Colorado, Arkansas and Kansas. They dwelled, hunted and occupied a swath of the continent from the Canadian border south into Mexico. Their primary domain was dubbed “Comancheria,” and they defended it viciously against all challengers: the Spanish, other tribes, white settlers, the U.S. Cavalry, the Texas Rangers, itinerant bison hunters and anyone else who dared probe into their ancestral grounds. They became known, as a sign at the tribal complex reads, as “Lords of the Southern Plains.”

Thus the Comanche culture, even today, is built on a warrior spirit. The spirit is honored and exercised through service in the modern U.S. military and expressed in dance, art, regalia, ceremonies and a spirituality that reaches deep into a mystique-filled past.

In his New York Times best-seller “Empire of the Summer Moon,” which details the rise of the Comanches, their resistance to reservation life and eventual integration into U.S. society, author S.C. Gwynne put their particular style of warfare this way: “No American or Texan on a work plug could ever be a match ... The Comanches had been fighting this way for 200 years. They engaged in this sort of combat as a way of life, against lethal and highly mobile opponents. War was what they did, and all of their social status was based on it.”

“That’s why I joined the military,” says Baliente Herrera, a Comanche Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. “The only way you’re going to war is if you join the military. I wanted the opportunity of my grandfathers. Their grandfathers all did it. Some men grow up to become warriors.”

Edmond Nevaquaya, a member of the Comanche Nation’s Native American Church, says the spirit that shaped the identity of his people “has always been talked about in history. Our people have always been warrior people. It was not just to go out and make war. The main livelihood was the protection of our people.”

There is both irony and symmetry that the Comanches, who frustrated U.S. military efforts to carve pathways of manifest destiny in the middle of the 19th century, went on to become patriotic members of that military in the 20th. “A lot of our people who went to war went voluntarily because they were told that other dictatorships were coming about – to take land and freedom of religion,” Nevaquaya says. “What we have here are warriors who believe in protecting our freedom and way of life.”

“You feel it in your heart,” Sovo says. “You are pulled to be a warrior. You are called. You are asked. And you can’t turn them down. When you’re asked to perform something, and you’re a Comanche, you don’t step back. We were taught that from small kids, up through teenage years and into early life. You embrace it and do the best you can.”

The walls inside the Patriot Room of the Comanche Indian Veterans Association at the tribal complex are covered with photographs and biographies of those from the nation who have served in America’s wars. Among them is the black-and-white image of Oscar John Wahkahquah and wife Ni-ve proudly displaying the U.S. flag – he in his World War I Army uniform, she in her traditional native dress. Panels inside the Patriot Room quantify Comanche wartime service: 60 in World War I, 217 in World War II, 142 in the Korean War, 307 in the Vietnam War, 79 in the Gulf War and more than 100, and growing, in the global war on terrorism. Hundreds of other Comanches have served outside designated war eras.

The Comanche population today is about 16,000, down from approximately 50,000 at the turn of the 19th century. Smallpox and cholera decimated the population in the early 1800s, and buffalo hunters later rendered their main source of nutrition nearly extinct. By the time they begrudgingly moved onto the reservation in the mid-1870s, the Comanches there who could be counted numbered only about 1,600. A nomadic people, they resisted boundaries. But once they became Americans, they did not resist service to their country.

Among the biographies displayed in the Patriot Room is that of Thurman Ray Tahsuda, who was drafted into World War II in 1944 and went to Europe to fight in the final eastward thrust to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich. A member of American Legion Post 24 in Anadarko, Tahsuda remembers that when he first entered combat as an 18-year-old replacement along the Belgium-Germany line, with the 260th Infantry Regiment, 65th Infantry Division, “a sergeant hollered, ‘Fresh meat!’ That was us.”

Tahsuda soon heard another voice, from the back of the room, he recalls. “‘Any one of you Okies?’

“I said, ‘Yo!’

“The next thing he said, ‘Are you a blanket?’

“I said, ‘Yo!’”

“He said, ‘I want you.’ The gentleman was from Oklahoma. I never did know what tribe he was in – Ponca or Osage – and I got under his wing. We Indians have our own way.”

Tahsuda was moved to the front line as U.S. forces began their late-winter push into Germany. “This squad leader said, ‘Ray, we’re going to have to relieve the observation post at night,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know why, but they think an Indian can see in the dark.’ They gave me that job of going out on night patrols, relieving observation posts up front ... in what the old-timers would call no man’s land.”

They passed from village to town, fending off Hitler’s last desperate defenses, crossing rivers, moving on foot if they couldn’t catch a ride on a tank. “Wherever you threw your pack was where you landed, where you’d sleep,” Tahsuda recalls. “That was your area. Sometimes you’d dig in. Sometimes not.”

On one patrol of his unit’s march into Germany, Tahsuda remembers how his Indian upbringing helped. “I was out in front of the two scouts, and the company was behind us. I saw something moving in the brush. I looked real good. There were two gray caps sticking out. And this (machine gun) was pointed right at us. I was a stealthy Comanche, I guess ... I sure was walking light. I got up where I thought I was safe and I yelled, ‘Machine gun on the right!’ as loud as I could. When I did, I heard everyone behind me: ‘Hit the dirt!’ They never did open up. They finally came out. Lo and behold, they were just a couple of kids – 15 or 16 years old. Not the old hard-nosed Wehrmarcht. That’s probably the thing that saved us. We were in such a position that they could have just cut the whole bunch of us to pieces. We were very fortunate that day.”

Tahsuda was there when the Allies ended Hitler’s reign and then spent five months as a guard at Dachau, where Nazi war criminals were held before trial and execution by hanging nearby. In the final months of the war, the teenaged Comanche warrior had passed concentration camps and saw firsthand the grim remains of the Holocaust. “They had small camps everywhere,” he says. “It made me mad. I didn’t want to take any prisoners. We didn’t know all the bad things that were going on. We didn’t know how extensive it was.”

Sovo believes he has encountered his warrior ancestors on unexpected occasions. One time, as a schoolteacher on a training retreat at a ranch in New Mexico, he and his group were visiting a rancheria seven miles from the highway. As they were waiting to leave in a van, Sovo – in his 40s at the time – decided to run back to the highway, along the desert road, instead. He grabbed two bottles of water and took off on foot.

“In that run, I got to this flat area. I was probably about four and a half miles from the ranch house, and I heard hollering – whooping as they call it – and I looked over my left shoulder. I saw this group of horses and riders. The way they were dressed, I knew they were Tu-wee warriors. They were the ones who protected the rear of the Comanche bands as they moved wherever. They were special fighters. They fought the Cavalry and never got any of them killed or left behind. They won most of their battles. I saw this group, and I heard it. I didn’t get scared. I felt very humbled and honored for this group of Comanche warriors – Tu-wee riders – to come and be with me in my run to try to get out to the road. When I looked at them – they didn’t look at me – they held up their lances and was hollerin’. It told me, ‘You’re going to make it. You’re doing fine. And they wanted to let me know they were watching over me.’ The next thing, they peeled off to the left. As the dust caught up to them, they just faded off. You saw the heat waves there. I could actually see the outlines of the horses, their regalia and weapons they were carrying.”

It happened again in China. Sovo was on a teaching trip there when the 9/11 attacks shut down air travel. As the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were smoldering, he was at a hotel praying over all that was happening half a world away. He gazed across a lake at a man-made island. “The image of warriors was on that island there,” he says. “I could see the outline of these warriors, and one of them that was there was my father. And he would raise his hand four times with his lance, and I knew everything was going to be all right.”

Sovo had earlier felt the presence of Comanche warriors, including his World War I veteran great-grandfather, before he deployed to the Vietnam War. They visited Sovo when he was called back to active duty during the Gulf War as a safety officer and fire marshal with the Fort Sill Medical Command. He also felt them at his wedding to wife May. 

“They come and go all the time. They come back to military people while they are sleeping and give them encouragement, and let them know how or what may be ahead of them. That way, it protects them in their military careers. As a warrior, you never die. They will come and visit you, and they will give you insight. You won’t be scared.”

“I knew, the way I was raised, that I could handle anything the Army put me through,” says Herrera, who served from 1997 to 2005, and whose grandfather Charles Chibitty was a World War II Comanche code talker. “I volunteered. Because of my religion, I wasn’t scared.”

A life-size statue in front of the Comanche Nation Tribal Complex depicts a warrior spirit, lance in hand, whispering into the ear of a U.S. radioman in World War II combat fatigues. The “Spirit Talker” memorial honors the 17 Comanche code talkers who served with the 4th Infantry Division and the five Comanche code talkers who confused the enemy on the World War I battlefields of France between Aug. 12 and Nov. 11, 1918. 

Sovo, whose parents were both fluent in their native tongue, is one of an estimated 1 percent who speak Comanche today. “At meals, Mother or Dad would say, ‘Whatever you want off the table, you have to ask for it in Comanche. If you don’t know how, then we will correct you.’ We were brought up speaking Comanche as well as English.”

The Indian schools did not approve of Comanches speaking in their native language. Nor did the schools always succeed in converting the students to new ways of life. 

“My father wasn’t very much of a student because he would run off,” Tahsuda says. “His parents took him to Fort Sill (Indian School). We lived probably 15 or 20 miles southeast of Lawton. Of course, the only way they had to travel was wagon and team. On the way back, they stayed all night with some neighbors in between. When they got home the next day, my dad was sitting out on the front porch. He had beaten them back home. Then they sent him to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Well, Grandma and them got a letter after he had been there probably a week or two, that he wasn’t there anymore. He had left school. It must have taken him a month to get home, or longer. That was the end of his school days, about eighth grade, I guess.”

Tahsuda’s father had walked from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, foraging and working for food along the way, until he made it back to his people.

“It was hard to keep them in school. That was Comanche life. A lot of it was the outdoors. I think that contributed to my being able to exist better when I was in the Army. My Native American background helped me. I knew how to be out. My dad was a hunter and a fisherman. We’d been out at night many times hunting. Of course I was ready for the outdoors. The city kids had a harder time.”

Sovo worries that today’s Comanches, like most American youth, are losing touch with the outdoors. Smartphones and video games have replaced war play along the Comancheria creek beds traversed by their ancestors. 

“I think it’s the end of a generation,” he says. “When I was teaching, I would tell those kids in the sixth grade, ‘Do you have a creek by your house? It’s freedom. You guys have something other kids don’t have – the kids in the inner cities. Don’t let it go to waste. Some day, there will be beaucoups houses, and that creek won’t be there for you.’”

For young Comanche warriors who enter military service today, the nation has special ceremonies, Nevaquaya says, to provide “spiritual help to find out who they are. Mountain warfare. Guerrilla warfare. That’s who we are. A brave and fearless people.”

Every Memorial Day, Chandler-Bilyeu American Legion Post 306 members gather early in the morning and make the rounds of rural cemeteries, one of which is all-Comanche, to present the colors and to pay tribute to all who served before them. The post takes pride that between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., it will conduct ceremonies at nine small cemeteries that might otherwise be forgotten. Some of them also volunteer at the Fort Sill National Cemetery, where more than 4,000 veterans and their families – including many Comanches – are laid to rest on Indian ground that later became the reservation.

From the national cemetery, looking west toward the Wichita Mountains, where an angular sunset paints the rugged landscape in dusty hues of red, yellow, orange and indigo, the horizon remains much as it was when Comanches of past centuries gazed upon it, confident in their certainty that nothing is more honorable than fighting for the freedom of your country, even if that means death.

“You’ve been taught it by the elders, that there is a hereafter,” Sovo explains. “And it’s reinforced by the clergies, whatever church you go to. It’s more reinforced when you, like myself as a peyote man, go in the tipi and pray all night long with other men and other veterans. Some will relay to you that you don’t have to worry because when you are no longer here on mother earth, you’re going to be met by your people – the warriors that have gone on before you. They are going to be able to identify you because, most of the time, we are buried in our Comanche regalia. 

“Myself, I will be buried as a Tu-wee warrior. I will have my buckskins on. I will have my breastplate on. My hair will be loose to blow in the wind. They will know you – those Tu-wee warriors. They will bring that horse to you. And they will give it you. And you will get on it. And you’ll ride with them, off into the far distance, where God is at, and He will meet with you there, and He will know that you are a warrior.”  


Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.