There was a time—before being stationed in Normandy during WWII, serving over ten years with the Air Force and earning three bronze stars—that Richard Ackley Sr. couldn’t speak English.
He wasn’t the typical WWII recruit, in fact, less than a decade before he joined, he wasn’t even legally considered a citizen of the United States.
Ackley is Native American. His native language is Ojibwe. He learned to speak English when, at around the age of five, he was taken from his home and placed in a government-facilitated school system designed to conform Native Americans to American standards.
And until 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was created, Ackley wasn’t technically a U.S. citizen.
“People can’t even imagine it today, but that’s what it was,” said Ackley’s son, Richard Ackley Jr., who is also a veteran, from the Vietnam era.
Despite all of this, Ackley Sr. was expected to sign up for the draft, and like many he decided to enlist rather than wait for his name to be called.
Native Americans have long been involved with American military, despite their lack of rights. In fact, Ackley’s own father was a veteran of WWI, long before Native Americans were given citizenship.
“You look at a group of people who weren’t accepted, yet they went and fought in all the wars,” Ackley Jr. said. “That’s just the way it was.”
But now, turning 92 in a matter of days, Ackley is being honored for that service. On his birthday, March 10, Ackley will be presented with a citation of commendation from Wisconsin Representative Jeffrey Mursau, and next April he will be joining an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., for the WWII Memorial Service.
“The honor flight is a way to kind of give them one last shot at something that’s truly meaningful and worthwhile,” said Ackley Jr.. “Personally I think it’s an excellent program, and I think my dad is very fortunate to be able to participate.”
Ten years of service, culminating in the rank of Technical Sergeant, included coordinating airplane repairs for the Northern France Air Offensive, being a “turnkey,” or jailor, for Japanese-American citizens who were imprisoned after Pearl Harbor, and travelling the world from Hawaii to South Africa.
Though things weren’t perfect for people like him in the WWII era, he said he didn’t feel out of place in the military—maybe the reason Native Americans have always gravitated toward it.
“You’re just trying to be what you are,” Ackley Sr. said.
After all his experiences—learning first how to be a citizen, then how to be soldier—today Ackley is trying to find his way back to where he started.
“I had to learn all that military stuff for all those years,” he said, “Now, I’m trying to learn Indian life again.”
List of military achievements
- Specialized training in combat engineering and construction
- Uniform Lapel Button
- ASR 69 2 September 1945
- EAMET & AT Ribbons
- VM World War II
- Good Conduct Medal
- Three Overseas Bars
- Three Bronze Stars