John Bear-King, of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, served in World War II alongside six other Sioux Code Talkers in the 302nd Reconnaissance Troop in the First Cavalry. While they were deployed they served in places such as New Guinea, the Admiralties, and the Philippines under Gen. Innis Palmer and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. During WWII, Bear King and his fellow code talkers were vital to the United States military because they had a very rare talent, the ability to read and speak the Native American languages of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. Many of the details of the Sioux Code Talkers have been lost throughout history, but a few people have researched and preserved the memory of their service. One of these people is John Bear King’s grandniece, Andrea M. Page. Page spent over twenty years researching and writing the book, Sioux Code Talkers of World War II, which honors her great-uncle and other Native American Code Talkers by telling their story of sacrifice and courage.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Native Americans enlisted by the thousands to fight alongside Americans to defend the United States. According to army officials, if the eligible males in America enlisted in the same proportions that the Native American men enlisted, the draft would not have been needed. In the First Division Association newspaper, The Saber, General MacArthur’s orders were quoted as: “You Sioux were good in battle. Past generations of your people used to fight against us, but now you are going to fight in a different way for us” and the seven Lakota code talkers were given the nickname of, “MacArthur’s Boys.” During their time in the First Calvary, the 302nd Reconnaissance Troop worked wherever they were needed and were given priority over the radio waves. The Sioux languages were virtually unknown to the world because the United States government attempted to wipe out Native American culture and languages in a series of assimilation policies and acts during the 1800s and early 1900s, and so the only people who spoke it were the Native Americans who grew up on the reservations. Not only did their rare ability to speak Native American languages make them an asset to the U.S. military, but their skills in scouting, hand-to-hand combat, and shooting also set them apart from the rest. These skills were necessary for reconnaissance missions because the main objective was to be invisible, advance into enemy territory, gather information, and then escape without being caught. After gathering information they were then able to convey it to each other and other Native Americans using the Sioux languages freely across radio waves without enemies being able to decipher their code. Their messages were untouchable and did not require the code talkers to further create more code for their own messages because no one understood the complex Native American languages and had no resources with which to begin to decode the languages. The United States government once tried to wipe out the Native American languages and then relied on it during World War II, giving them a major advantage over the Japanese.
One of the questions that drove Andrea M. Page to search for answers about her great uncle was, “why would these Sioux ever specifically join the cavalry during World War II?” after the horrific treatment of their people at the hands of the United States government. These men chose to defend America and sacrifice their lives for the same government that sent in the Seventh Calvary that massacred hundreds of Sioux during the Wounded Knee Massacre. Page says that she was “overflowing with pride” as she kept digging for information and learned that “they used their native language for the good of others.” The story of the Native American Code Talkers during World War II is one that is filled with sacrifice, pride, and courage. The lives of these code talkers were forever changed after joining the fight in WWII and are heroes to the American people. John Bear King’s time in the Pacific was one of heroic measures, although there are not many specific details on his time there. He received the Philippine Liberation Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.
After returning to America, he worked in a stockyard in Mobridge, SD and was a talented calf-roper and bronc rider. As a result of his service, John Bear King suffered from malaria and a spinal injury, and succumbed to his illnesses on September 2, 1949 and interred at Black Hills National Cemetery. John Bear King’s and the Native American Code Talkers’ legacy lives on and both were recognized again for their service in 2013 by receiving Congressional Gold Medals. As South Dakota congresswoman, Kristi Noem, stated at the ceremony, “It may have taken awhile for us to get to this point, but the bravery, selflessness, and patriotism of South Dakota’s Code Talkers will never be forgotten.”
Written by Courtney Buck