Bushmasters: The Color of Heroism

President Franklin D. Roosevelt once referred to the attack on Pearl Harbor as a date which will live in infamy. December 7, 1941 marked the catalyst for America’s fight against fascism in our declaration of war against the Japanese. This was a war America says that it was proud to fight because we were fighting Nazis and the racial cleansing that they stood for. As a civilian I have never seen military combat, just living everyday in my skin is viewed as the “other” in America. This article is about an infantry of heroes that, stateside, were viewed as the “other” their entire lives. These men were once thought of as weekend warriors in the eyes of the U.S. military but they proved to be “real soldiers” who faced jungle warfare to protect the Panama Canal. They are, the Bushmasters.

Before the nickname was earned, this infantry was documented as the 158th Infantry Regiment consisting of 22 Native tribes and Mexican-Americans. The history of the 158th goes as far back as the Civil War era with Captain Hiram S. Washburn of Company E who swore in mostly Mexican-Americans who suffered from the Apache raids. Captain John D. Walker of Company B had a squad consisting of mostly Pima Natives and Mexican-Americans. As we are all familiar with manifest destiny, white hegemony had proven the victor as it would be years before the Apaches surrendered. The significance of this little backstory is that this infantry consists of Native tribes that were at one point at war with one another. Their homelands are now a place where the color of the confederate uniforms are a sign of patriotism. General Leonard M. Crowley said that “the patriotism of these young students/soldiers was ingrained. The Indian boy is raised with the flag at the reservation [as] an eternal emblem of protection, of goodness, of sanctity” but what’s good about being forced to go to assimilation schools? Around 25,000 Natives saw active duty during WW2 as their cultures were stripped from them on their own soil. Ralph Cameron was a Maricopa native who went to an assimilation school from the 4th grade through high school. He later joined Company F of the Arizona National Guard to fight crimes against humanity.

The concerns around the Canal zone were the Germans who had the ability to blend in with Latin America considering the long relationship between them. In August 1940 it was estimated that 448 Germans, 49 Japanese, and 116 Italians lived illegally in Panama. The threat was the shipping routes being attacked in the canal zone and the amount of supply route information being relayed by German sympathizers. Records reveal that hundreds of U-boats destroyed thousands of tons of allied shipments and convoys relentlessly. Who else would make the perfect spies for counterintelligence than the Spanish-speaking Bushmasters? Thanks to the Bushmasters in civilian clothes, they were able to find out that prostitutes were being paid to get sailors to talk about their assignments. That same information was passed to “runners” who would go off into the jungle and report to enemy ships by radio. The U.S. military has had a long history of using the “otherness” of hyphenated Americans when it suits them but what about right now? As soon as a commercial comes on T.V. with a Spanish voice over, the white American complains about how it indoctrinates America! When walkie-talkies first came out as a warfare edge, Prugh Herndon recognized the potential of the Native Americans under his command through their languages that they were forced not to use. Herndon’s father was the superintendent of the Indian Training School in Tucson, so much of his childhood was around Native Americans. Whenever he needed to relay messages, he used one of his Native soldiers to transmit the message to another walkie-talkie operator. The U.S. Marines would go on to take credit for using the power of diversity for modern warfare, but we know the truth.

As an outsider looking in, I can’t help but see the hypocrisy of naming Pearl Harbor as an infamous day but not Thanksgiving. It seems that tyranny exists when it threatens the freedom of white men but relies on brown skin for liberation. How is it that America justified putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps for possibly being spies for the Nazis that are doing the same thing? American classrooms glorify that we fought fascism but fail to mention where Hitler got his inspiration. The Bushmasters were heroes that fought crimes against humanity for the Government that took their land. The very languages that the U.S. government was so invested in eradicating proved to be their best advantage in warfare. Yet white supremacy unjustly remains intact.


Bushmasters: America's Jungle Warriors of WWII. Anthony Arthur

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