The Story of Kansas

Military service: A Kansas tradition

An honor guard leads a contingent from McConnell Air Force Base in the Veterans Day parade on Main Street in Wichita. (Nov. 5, 2011)
An honor guard leads a contingent from McConnell Air Force Base in the Veterans Day parade on Main Street in Wichita. (Nov. 5, 2011) The Wichita Eagle

Walk into almost any cemetery in Kansas and look at the number of veterans’ graves dotting the landscape.

For more than 150 years —from territorial battles over slavery to the war on terrorism in Afghanistan — Kansans have fought, defended and died for freedom.

In each battle, Kansas men — and now in more recent conflicts, women — stepped up to serve.

“During the Civil War, Kansas had more men in service per capita than any other state,” said Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian and writer. “Kansas has contributed large numbers in most volunteer situations and that’s because of its dedication to country.”

Kansas troops during the Civil War suffered nearly 8,500 casualties and sustained some of the highest mortality rates of any state in the Union at 61 percent.

It could be that Kansans took their call to duty more personally, Oliva said, because of the state’s earliest beginnings. The territorial period — from 1854 to 1861 — was so violent and the stakes for joining the Union so high that Kansans held on to the right to serve their country.

“There is a great attachment to the Union, to serving their country,” Oliva said. “It is something that carries over from generation to generation.”

First to serve

After all, it was Kansas — not Massachusetts — that organized the first African-American troops to serve and go to battle in the Civil War.

The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry first saw action at the battle of Island Mound, Mo., on Oct. 28, 1862 and at the battle of Cabin Creek in Indian Territory on July 1-2, 1863. They fought alongside white soldiers.

Among those first soldiers was Cpl. James Whitefield Ross, a slave who had escaped to Topeka.

As soon as he arrived on free soil, he joined Company F of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry — and within months was promoted to corporal. He remained with Company F until Dec. 13, 1864, when it became the 79th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. He mustered out in October 1865.

It was the 1st Kansas Colored regiment’s valor during the battle of Island Mound that some say helped convince President Lincoln to proceed with the Emancipation Proclamation.

The 1st Kansas Colored lost more soldiers than any other United States Colored Troop regiment.

When Ross was inducted into the Kansas National Guard Hall of Fame two years ago his nomination read:

“Corporal Ross showed tremendous courage and dedication .æ.æ. Relinquishing the personal freedom that he and the others had finally obtained, risking their lives fleeing from the oppression of slavery, they volunteered to again risk their lives for a freedom not only for themselves and their race but for all oppressed Americans.”

After the war, Ross lived in Topeka and in his later life owned a farm near Mound City. He worked on the construction of the state capitol building in Topeka.

He died in 1926 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Mound City.

“Even though he was a slave, he was determined that his children be free and educated,” said Ross’ great-great-granddaughter Mary Brooks of Topeka. “And, it was important that he not only farm but that he buy and own his own property.”

Brooks said she does not know why her great-great-grandfather, after escaping slavery, joined the Army to fight in the Civil War.

“I think it is because it was something he believed he needed to give back to his country,” the 74-year-old school teacher said. “He wanted to fight against slavery, to fight the rules and laws that had been set up that weren’t fair to people. And, it was his determination to excel and give something back to society.”

Prairie soldiers

One of the most iconic Old West legends — William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody — started out a lowly private.

Cody was 18 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. But even before then, he had served.

When he was a teenager, he worked for the Pony Express. Later, he served in Company H, 7th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, and as a Civilian Scout for the 9th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.

By the time he was 22, he was handpicked by Gen. Phil Sheridan to be the chief scout of the 5th U.S. Cavalry. And, at 26, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

His nickname, of course, was earned after the Civil War when he had a contract with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to supply workers with buffalo meat. He is said to have killed 4,280 bison — also known as buffalo — in 18 months.

“One of the character traits Kansans often have is that they consider themselves to be pretty self-reliant,” said Dave Webb, historian and assistant director at the Kansas Heritage Center in Dodge City.

“They feel they can handle situations as they come up — whether that be from fighting Indians or a farming crisis. It’s a ‘can do’ spirit. It’s the same thing that got our grandparents through the Great Depression.”

And although legends like Buffalo Bill may gain notoriety for their stories, more often it’s the lesser-known soldiers who end up being the long-term heroes.

Such was the case of Capt. Allison Piley, a soldier who fought in the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

As a soldier on the Kansas prairie, he survived blizzards and being shot at, and was at Beecher’s Island where he was among 50 scouts who held off 1,000 warriors over a nine-day battle. He was among four soldiers who escaped and traveled on foot 73 miles to Fort Wallace, where he arranged a rescue for the men left behind.

A fellow soldier would later write:

“ .æ.æ. Courage was unnoticed — it was taken for granted on the plains; but Piley’s courage was notably different from that of his fellows. He delighted in a desperate situation. He was a natural leader .æ.æ. Piley always took the hard end of a job.”

Barnstormer pilot

Albin Longren was the first Kansan to successfully fly a Kansas-made aircraft over Kansas. It was a friend of his who formed one of the nation’s first aviation units.

Topekan Louis Phil Billard bought his first airplane from Longren on April 7, 1912, and learned to fly by watching Longren.

In 1916, when World War I was heating up, Billard formed Kansas’ first aviation unit — Company B, Signal Aero Corp. The unit was tiny, consisting of a motorcycle and four planes.

In 1917, Billard enlisted in the Army. By the summer of 1918, he was flying over France.

On July 24, 1918, as Billard and his mechanic were testing a De Havilland 4 over the French countryside, the plane crashed. A statue stands in honor of Billard at Forbes Field in Topeka.

Youngest general

At the turn of the 20th century, almost every American knew Frederick Funston’s name.

He grew up near Iola and in 1896 went to Cuba, where he joined Cuban forces fighting for their independence from Spain.

In two years there, he lost 17 horses, fought in 22 battles, was shot through both lungs and an arm, and contracted malaria.

While Funston was recovering from his wounds, Kansas Gov. John W. Leedy promoted him to colonel of the “Fighting 20th” Kansas Regiment, which Funston led into the Philippines as part of the Spanish-American War.

Under Funston’s leadership, the “Fighting 20th” took part in 19 battles and a special mission in which they captured rebel leader Emillio Aguinaldo.

For that, Funston received the Medal of Honor and was named a brigadier general. At 34 he was the youngest general in the U.S. Army.

Kansas contributions

During World War II, the supreme commander of the Allied forces was Kansan Dwight Eisenhower.

In Wichita, the “Battle of Kansas” was won when aviation workers built planes that helped win the war.

It was Kansans who, in 1952, provided the inspiration for Veterans Day observations nationally. Emporia residents started a grassroots effort to observe the day honoring veterans of all wars.

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation recognizing Nov. 11 as a federal holiday. Before then, it was known as Armistice Day.

Topeka lawyer Harry Colmery is best known for helping draft the GI Bill, which provided many returning World War II service members loans for homes, businesses and education.

In later years, other Kansans would step to the forefront.

Gen. Richard Myers, a Kansas State University graduate, retired as the 15th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 2005 after serving more than 40 years in the U.S. Air Force.

Although he was born in Kansas City, Mo., Myers grew up in Johnson County. He joined the Air Force in 1965, the same year he graduated from K-State. He flew more than 600 combat hours in Vietnam.

Wichitan Robert Gates made history two years ago when he became the only Secretary of Defense in U.S. history to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president.

Gates was born in Wichita, graduating from East High School in 1961. He joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1966 and spent nearly 27 years as an intelligence professional, serving six presidents. He was director of the CIA from 1991 until 1993.

He has been awarded the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal twice and CIA’s highest award, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, three times.

Last year, he was named “Kansan of the Year” at the annual dinner of the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas.

Called to serve

What is it about Kansans who serve?

Currently, there are 16,199 active duty soldiers from Kansas, according to U.S. Army military records. Nearly 4,000 are in the Army Reserve.

There are more than 900 airmen from McConnell Air Force Base, including Guardsmen and Reservists assigned to the base, who are deployed to more than 30 locations around the world.

The majority of those deployed are in Southwest Asia providing support for Operations Enduring Freedom, New Dawn and Unified Protector, according to a public affairs officer at McConnell.

On Thursday, more than 50 airmen were redeployed to McConnell after deployment in Europe in support of Operation Unified Protector, part of the air campaign in Libya. More than 150 airmen are expected to return over the next two to three weeks from oversees operations.

“I think of the Air Force’s core values of ‘Service Before Self,’ ” said Tony Mullis, associate professor of military history for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

“This notion in my mind permeates many Kansans’ attitudes toward their community, their state and their nation.”

So what does it mean to be a veteran from Kansas?

“In America, we have heroes. But we don’t very often get to reach out and touch them,” said Lt. Col. Doug Jacobs, command historian of the Kansas National Guard Museum in Topeka. “To me, a hero is someone — a normal person — who serves their fellow man.

“I don’t make a lot of money like the star athletes or the Hollywood actors. But what I have done is sacrifice time away from my family, my home, in order that other people can be safe and do the things they want.”

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