Dr. Josiah Alvin Powless (1871–1918) was the first Oneida Indian to graduate from a medical school in the United States. The physician fought two wars: one on the home front to help his people deal with the scourges of diseases that ravaged Indian Country and the other, trying to help his comrades survive the horrors – battlefield wounds and poison gas – on the Western Front of World War I. Severely wounded while pulling a wounded colleague from enemy fire, he died a hero on Nov. 6, 1918, just five days before the armistice that ended “the war to end all wars.” Although he received the Distinguished Service Cross, we believe that previously unreported details of his rescue make Dr. Powless deserving of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.
Dr. Powless served as a first lieutenant in the Medical Department attached to the 308th Infantry, part of the legendary “Lost Battalion” of the 77th (Liberty) Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The Oneida was seriously wounded on Oct. 14, 1918, at Chevieres, France, approximately two miles from the town of Grandpre, just north of the Argonne Forest, within the Ardennes District of northeastern France. The military engagement near the Aire River was part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that had begun on September 26. The physician died of his wound at the base hospital in November.
At least 12,000 American Indians representing more than 60 tribes were in the AEF. First Lt. Dr. Powless was one of approximately 150 Oneida Indians from Wisconsin who served in World War I. According to the late Susan Applegate Krouse, an authority on American Indians in the war, nearly three percent died, approximately twice the overall rate of fatalities. Powless was among the 540 officers of the Army Medical Corps killed on the Western Front. All of the five physicians assigned to the 308th were wounded or killed in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Powless received his posthumous commendation for his rescue of a wounded fellow physician, Dr. James McKibben, a captain in the Medical Department who had been recently transferred into the regiment. According to the War Department’s General Order No. 46 (1920), Powless had crossed an area subjected to intense machine gun and constant artillery fire, reaching McKibben, “whose wound proved fatal, and after dressing his wound had him carried to the rear.” Dr. McKibben died of his wounds in a base hospital on October 24. General John J. Pershing, the Commander in Chief of the AEF, posthumously awarded Powless the Distinguished Service Cross, saying he had “bravely laid down his life for the cause of his country.” But, as we shall see, there was more to the story, justifying the Medal of Honor.
The Making of a War Hero
This Oneida hero was molded by four great influences; his upbringing on the Wisconsin Oneida Reservation during a time of crisis for all American Indians, his education at the United States Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pa., his involvement in Episcopal Church matters and the guidance of its clerics, and the long tradition of Oneida military service in the United States Armed Forces.
Josiah was born to Rebecca and Peter Powless on Aug. 1, 1871, on the 65,400-acre Oneida reservation on Wisconsin. His ancestors had left their central New York homeland along with the majority of Oneidas in the 1820s and 1830s under immense pressures caused by the opening of the Erie Canal and the resulting attempts by land companies to acquire tribal lands.
Powless and nearly 500 Oneidas attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School, coming under the influence of its founder, U.S. Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Through military-like discipline, Pratt was committed to transforming his charges from their traditional ways. To accomplish his objectives, Carlisle emphasized numerous rules and orders. Male students were required to dress in military uniforms and march in step weekly on parade grounds. Each year, Pratt brought the youngsters to the Gettysburg National Battlefield, 35 miles from Carlisle, to instill a sense of American history and the importance of service to the nation. Later, during World War I, an Army report underlined the influence of these schools in the training of students for service: “Most of the Indians who are in the AEF have received military training in Government Schools, and the showing they have made in France is a gratifying commentary upon the value of the military education extended by the Government to its wards.”
The future Oneida physician was unlike most of the 10,000 to 12,000 students who attended Carlisle in that he spent more time – six years – on campus and completed the school’s degree program. Because of Powless’ superior academic performance, Pratt encouraged him to go on with his studies after his graduation. Consequently the Oneida spent a year at the Preparatory School of nearby Dickinson College.
Powless frequently came back to Carlisle with other former Oneida students and later became the president of the school’s alumni association. Much like Pratt, the Oneida came to believe that American Indians had to take their rightful place on an equal footing as citizens of the United States and enter the mainstream of American society and politics. He later joined the Masonic lodge in De Pere, Wis., and, on several occasions, ran successfully for Supervisor of Hobart, a town carved out of the Wisconsin Oneida Reservation. In 1911, he joined with his Carlisle classmate Charles Dagenett, a Peoria Indian who worked in the Office of Indian Affairs, in the initial organizing of the American Indian Association, subsequently renamed the Society of American Indians.
The influence of the Episcopal Church on Powless began at an early age and continued through his life. Powless was educated at the Oneida Mission School of the Hobart Church up until the age of 14. In this church in 1897, he was married to his wife Electa Skenandore, who had also attended Carlisle. Two of their children were baptized in the church. Josiah and his wife Electa served as health workers in the Oneida Mission Hospital for over a decade. Both husband and wife were later buried in the Episcopal cemetery adjacent to the church.
After his post-graduate studies at Dickinson Prep, Powless returned to Oneida, Wis., and secured a teaching position at the newly established government school. In 1893, as a result of the lobbying of missionary Solomon Burleson, the Episcopal Church established a hospital on the reservation, although the facility was not fully functional until 1898. In addition, a small infirmary was established at the government school.
Burleson, before his death in 1897, had encouraged Powless to pursue a career in medicine. Three years later, Powless entered Milwaukee Medical College. Upon graduation in 1904, Powless was appointed as the mission hospital’s doctor and the physician at the government school.
Two of his greatest challenges were fighting tuberculosis and trachoma, scourges that were widespread through Indian Country. A federal public health study published in 1913 indicated that approximately 30 percent of Wisconsin’s Natives suffered from tuberculosis. Nearly seven percent had contracted trachoma, a viral disease of the eye caused by unsanitary conditions that often led to blindness. In 1912, there were more than 39,000 cases of trachoma, and nearly 30 percent of all children in federal Indian boarding schools had contracted the disease.
With U.S. involvement in World War I, the fourth great influence took hold, the Oneida military tradition. The Oneidas as allies of the United States had answered the call for military service many times before. Their impressive war memorial, found today near their Cultural Heritage Center on the reservation, honors those who served from the American Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Josiah Powless’ grandfather Peter Powless served in Company K of the 17th Wisconsin during the Civil War. Josiah’s oldest brother Emmanuel served in the Armed Forces during the Spanish American War. In March 1918, 45-year-old Josiah Powless volunteered for military service.
Dr. Powless joined the Army’s Medical Department that had been terribly understaffed when the country entered the war in April, 1917. He was first assigned to the 305th Infantry Regiment and sent for six weeks of training to Fort Riley in Kansas. In June 1918, he was shipped out for the battlefields of France and assigned to the 308th Infantry Regiment. Within three months, he found himself on the Western Front, in what was then known as “the Great War.”
War Service in the “Lost Battalion”
The Commander in Chief of the AEF, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, had made his mark chasing Pancho Villa and making an incursion in Mexico in 1916. In the 1880s, he had been a trooper with General Nelson Miles during the Geronimo campaign. A total of 1,256,478 Americans were to eventually serve under his overall command.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began on Sept. 26, 1918. In the course of 47 days of fighting in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, American casualties totaled 127,005 – 26,227 dead and 95,778 wounded. Another 5,000 were captured or missing in action. This casualty rate ranks as one the costliest campaigns in American history.
The 308th Battalion's role in the first part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive is legendary. It was the famous “Lost Battalion” of World War I. Under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey, an attorney from New York City, the 308th rapidly advanced into the Argonne Forest and became cut off from Pershing’s other forces. These American troops found themselves behind German lines with little ammunition and without food and water. Eventually, the 308th were rescued; however, only 232 out of the 679 men survived.
Powless was not the only American Indian in the 308th. Four others are named in a report found at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Private Roland Little Elk, a 26-year-old Sioux from South Dakota and a graduate of Haskell Institute, is described as “a splendid rifleman, intelligent” and “able to orient himself without difficulty,” having “a good sense of direction both day and night.” In the same report, Private Moses Smith, another Sioux, who was assigned to supply duty, was deemed hardworking and dependable. Private Frank La Barre, a Comanche from Oklahoma, was portrayed as a “very good soldier, fair leader, intelligent, quick.” Corporal Ernest Swallow, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, was cited as “an excellent soldier and well liked by men in his organization.” Three other American Indians also served in the 308th – Robert Dodd, a Paiute from Nevada, and two Oklahomans, James Corntassel, a Cherokee, and Sam Morris, a Choctaw.
What was left of the 308th emerged from the Argonne Forest and headed northeast. On October 14, the Americans once again encountered heavy fire as they advanced towards the Aire River. It was there after acts of courage, that Dr. Powless was seriously wounded, dying 23 days later, only five days before the war’s end.
Powless’ Heroism: The Full Story
The Oneida physician was one of 97 soldiers in the 308th Infantry Regiment to receive the Distinguished Service Cross. The authors feel he should also join the five of his comrades who received the Medal of Honor. Certain vital details of Powless’ death were missing from the War Department’s General Order No. 46 and General Pershing’s award of the Distinguished Service Cross to Powless’ widow.
In 1927, Sergeant L. Wardlaw Miles described Powless as a “full-blooded Indian and most picturesque though an unpretentious figure,” who bravely “hurried at once to the side of his colleague [Dr. James McKibben] resulting in his being seriously wounded.” Miles’ account adds crucial details to this history, as do military and tribal records and the extensive questionnaires and reports filled out by American Indian veterans and deposited at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.
In a report dated April 18, 1919, Lieutenant W.C.O. Clarke, indicated that the regiment was “all extremely fond” of Powless. Clarke described him as “a bang up doctor. A delightful chap as well as an efficient physician and surgeon. He was hard to keep up under and to keep within bounds.” That quality was Powless’ undoing.
On October 14, Captain Allan J. McDougall, who headed M Company of the 308th, had moved northeast just out of the Argonne Forest. Already a winner of the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery, McDougall was ordered by Division headquarters to send his men, along with a small contingent from the 307th Regiment, to reconnoiter and find a safe place for the American troops to take a defensive position in preparing to ford the Aire River. Powless and McKibben were to accompany the troops.
Emerging out of the thickets of the Argonne Forest onto a road adjacent to the river, M Company found itself exposed to German machine gun and artillery fire. McDougall and his Acting Sergeant, John C. Lenahan, were wounded. (Lenahan, a private, received the battlefield promotion because of the incredible number of casualties taken in the Argonne Forest.) Dr. McKibben rushed to their side and was also hit by German fire. Dr. Powless was told not to advance because of the incredible losses of men attempting to rescue the wounded, but he went in anyway, carrying out his Hippocratic Oath to care for his fallen comrades.
Taking heavy fire from the enemy, Powless did not just attend to Dr. McKibben, but to Sergeant Lenahan, Captain McDougal and several others. Lieutenant Clarke’s report described what happened next. The Oneida physician “got the wounded back, and just about completed his dangerous mission. A shell exploded and wounded him in the side.” Powless, McKibben and Lenahan subsequently died of their wounds.
Powless’s remains were kept at a French cemetery for the next three and a half months, a long delay caused by a global influenza pandemic that hindered transport back to Wisconsin. The pandemic killed a half a million Americans and 50 million people worldwide, much more than all the casualties of World War I.
On Feb. 23, 1919, Powless was honored in the Masonic Hall in De Pere, given full military honors by his Oneida people and the American Legion. After a eulogy by the Episcopal priest, the physician was then buried in the Oneida Reservation’s Episcopal Cemetery. Although he was educated at Carlisle, encouraged to assimilate and even became a local Wisconsin town official, in death he remained an Oneida, a hero to his people, based on his medical service on the reservation and his ultimate sacrifice in the “war to end all wars.”
On Nov. 6 and 7, 2002, the 84th anniversary of his death, Powless’ memory was honored at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; Army officials dedicated the post’s guest house in his name, in a ceremony attended by his grandchildren. In addition to this belated honor in Texas and the earlier posthumous award of the Distinguished Service Cross, the authors believe that the courage he displayed in the Ardennes in World War I justify his being awarded the Medal of Honor. His actions displayed on Oct. 14, 1918, were extraordinary and do separate him from the numerous fellow soldiers who received battlefield honors in France for their service to the nation.