‘The people come first’ – WWII vet Beatrice Thayer (Paiute, Shoshone) reflects on military life and beyond
First Nation's Focus
A locomotive chugs to a stop, hissing steam, at the Reno train station. Thousands of flat cars line the tracks, strapped with military equipment of all sizes — guns, jeeps, trucks, cannons, tanks. Hundreds of railcars, meanwhile, are filled with uniformed U.S. Army soldiers. It’s 1941, two years into World War II, and a United States Armed Forces “troop train” is making one of its many railway stops dotted across the country as it mobilizes soldiers.
Reno-area residents look on as service men and women from Northern Nevada board the train. One of those onlookers in the crowd is 14-year-old Beatrice (Coffey) Thayer, a Native American with Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone heritage.
Along with her parents, Thayer is paying special attention to her fellow Native soldiers who are stepping into the railcars — soldiers who, the young Thayer recognizes, are preparing to fight not only for their country, but also for their tribes, their people.
Nearly four years later, in early 1945, with the war still raging on, a 17-year-old Thayer joined them.
“Since I was in school, not doing too good, and we were always hungry, I decided, well, maybe I can help a little bit,” Thayer, now 92, recalls. “I didn’t want to be a housekeeper the rest of my life, because that’s the only job I could get at that time.”
Thayer pauses, considering what else compelled her to enlist in the U.S. Army during WWII.
“I mainly did it because I remember the old people (who came before me) — they had a worse time than we did,” she adds.
The eldest elder of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Thayer is recounting her journey in the military while attending the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) 2019 Mid Year Conference in late June at the Nugget Casino in Sparks.
Her service as a Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Army Air Corps (1945-1948) and U.S. Air Force (1948-1958) — and later the Nevada Army National Guard (1973-1982) — took her everywhere from the Deep South to the East Coast to West Germany.
She saw the Berlin Wall go up; she jumped out of a malfunctioning helicopter as it was touching down; she taught herself how to type and earned a promotion; and she got married twice in one hour (more on that later).
Above all, as Thayer puts it, she “worked, worked and worked” — for her country, for her tribes and for her family.
“I was supporting my mother and father,” Thayer says during an interview from the Nugget with First Nation’s Focus. “I sent them money, whatever I could. I saved it up until I had two, three hundred (dollars) and I would send it home. I just kept what I needed.”
LIVING IN POVERTY, FACING RACISM
Raised on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Thayer, like many Natives, grew up in extreme poverty. Born in Camino, Calif., roughly 120 miles southwest of Reno, Thayer and her family migrated to Northern Nevada when she was about 4 years old.
“I just remember we didn’t have anything,” Thayer says with a shrug. “I was always hungry. I used to go to school and drink water to try to keep my stomach quiet for a few minutes.”
What’s more, she grew up during a time when racism toward American Indians was present everywhere she looked outside of the reservation — back when establishments in Reno hung “No Indians Allowed” signs right next to “No Dogs Allowed” signs, she recalls.
“At that time, we were not allowed in any of the restaurants or swimming pools or whatever they had in (Reno),” Thayer says. “We had to be out of town at 9 o’clock at night — otherwise they would pick you up and you’d get beat up or thrown back out to the colony.”
Little changed when Thayer entered the service. She’d feel hateful glares and hear racial slurs from fellow troops. On the rare times she took leave, the bigotry off the military base was worse. Thayer recalled a time when she went on leave with a friend who was visiting a priest. The priest, Thayer found, quickly revealed his prejudice toward Native Americans.
“He was not very pleasant to me,” Thayer remembers. “He called me ‘Minnehaha.’ … And I had to share a bed with my friend and he said to her, ‘Are you going to sleep with that?’
“It was very, very hard to be a Native in the service,” she continues. “It was real hard at times, and I put up with a lot. But, to me, they weren’t worth talking to. They thought we were wagon burners and we took their ranches away from them. But they didn’t know — they didn’t know anything.”
This ignorance was widespread despite the fact Thayer was one of more than 44,000 American Indians — out of a total Native population in the U.S. of less than 350,000 — who served with distinction between 1941 and 1945 in both European and Pacific theaters of WWII.
In fact, American Indians have served in the U.S. Armed Forces in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In all, there are more than 190,000 Native American military veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Looking back, Thayer says she didn’t let the hate speech deter and distract her from her objective: She was an American Indian warrior helping defend her homeland and provide for her family.
“I didn’t have time to think of that stuff because … duty first,” she said. “And I had to take care of my mother and father.”
Thayer was a Medical Corpsman during her first two years in service, working at various military base hospitals. She remembers working in the 3rd Air Force Base hospital in Gulfport, Miss., on the day Japan surrendered to bring WWII to a close.
“Everybody was celebrating, but I had duty at 11 o’clock at night,” she remembers. “I worked. I couldn’t leave.”
While in the service, showing a tireless work ethic, Thayer was motivated to learn new skills and take on more responsibility, even if she had to teach herself.
As a chaplain’s assistant in South Carolina at the Greenville Air Force Base, for example, Thayer taught herself to play the piano, organ and accordion. She sang, too. Later, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, she taught herself how to type.
“I was a medic and wanted to do something else,” she says. “So I taught myself how to type when I was working nights. They had a typewriter in the orderly room, so when I had night duty, I just typed and typed and typed. So I got pretty good and somehow somebody found out about it.”
FOUR YEARS IN GERMANY
This led to Thayer’s first experience overseas. In 1952, she was promoted and transferred to the 12th Air Force Base in Wiesbaden, West Germany, to serve as a senior clerk.
She proved to be an incredibly valuable asset. In fact, documents Thayer shared with First Nation’s Focus stated the following:
“SSGT Thayer had various clerical duties and delivered important war correspondence to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Forces in Europe.”
While serving in Germany, Thayer was even selected to attend the Inter-Allied Moral Leadership Conference for Women in Uniform hosted by the Netherlands Royal Air Force. In her downtime, she did things like explore museums in Holland and watch professional skiing in Austria.
She also met her eventual husband, who she exchanged vows with twice in one hour — first by the Burgomaster in Wiesbaden, then by the chaplain at the base. They were married for seven years and had two sons, Daniel and David.
Thayer returned to the states in 1956. Two years later, she was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force in October 1958.
Thayer’s time in the service, however, proved to be far from over.
BACK AFTER 15-YEAR GAP
In 1973, 15 years after leaving the Air Force, Thayer, at age 48, reenlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard. This came on the heels of trying to join the Air National Guard but being told she had been out too long and would have to take basic training all over again.
“So I went over to the Army (National) Guard and they were happy to get me, I couldn’t believe it,” Thayer says with a laugh.
Holding the rank of Specialist Five, Thayer was a state recruiter who was assigned to the Army Guard’s Communication Center in Carson City.
Additionally, she joined the 20th Army Band, playing the French horn and clarinet in many formal functions, including the Nevada Day Parade held in downtown Carson City.
Nine years later, in 1982, Thayer officially finished her military career after 22 years of service.
During that span, she was awarded with the following: U.S. Army Good Conduct Medal (with 5 knots); Army National Guard Achievement Medal; Women’s Army Corps Medal; American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; Germany Occupation Medal; National Defense Service Medal; and the Nevada Army National Guard Meritorious Service Ribbon.
Prideful of his mother’s life of service, wisdom and strength, Daniel Thayer said he “takes her everywhere,” adding: “I tell people to learn from her while she’s here … just learn from her.”
‘THE PEOPLE COME FIRST’
Yet, when asked if she takes great pride in her own military achievements, and all the injustices she’s survived throughout her life, Bea Thayer quickly shakes her head “no.”
“I’m not worthy. As a sun dancer, I’m below the people. The people come first,” notes Thayer, who started sun dancing at age 52.
She said sun dancing, which she did into her ’80s, strengthened her connection to her roots and religion.
“It brought me closer spiritually,” Thayer says. “It helped me because they (spirits) are always with me. I talk to them everyday.”
And here is when Thayer’s voice jumps an octave and a smile spreads across her face. Because being among her people in a religious ceremony — singing, dancing, drumming — is when Thayer is reminded why she stepped onto a troop train over 70 years ago.
She did it for her homeland; she did it for her people.
“It’s really something, because once you make a spiritual connection, there’s no other feeling like it at all,” she says. “Nothing compares to that connection when you connect with a spirit.