PAWHUSKA INDIAN VILLAGE, Okla. (AFNS) — During the early days of World War II, an Army Air Corps major general, who was an Oklahoma native, and member of the Osage Indian tribe, was named to lead the air effort in Hawaii following Pearl Harbor.
Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker managed to stay close to his tribe during his 30 plus years as a military aviator, and today, more than 70 years after his death, is still honored by that tribe.
Even after he became the Army’s highest ranking Native American, Tinker never lost his pride in his heritage, as he sometimes called home to his father George Edward Tinker, just to hear his native language.
Likewise, Tinker’s family and tribe never forgot him after his death in a mission over the Pacific in 1942 – from his descendants to the Osage Nation, who still sing and dance to a song written as a tribute to Tinker, one of their most honored heroes.
Each year, the Osage dance to the song during In-lon-shka, an annual four-day celebration that emphasizes the culture and values that date back to the 1880s, after they moved to their current reservation in Oklahoma. The Tinker family met this year in Pawhuska, as they do every year with most of the men participating in the dancing, including the grandson of 90-year-old George Edward Tinker III, the general’s nephew. Chris Tinker, the son of Tinker’s daughter Tanya Scholz, prepared his mind even as he dressed in Osage attire for the last day of In-lon-shka.
“The biggest emotion for me is humility because I know I could never do what he did,” he said. “When I go out there, I’m a little afraid because it’s bigger than me. It’s generations of people going all the way back, who helped him become who he was. It’s about this way of life. When you have that kind of unity and sense of responsibility, obligation and service to one another, you want to be a part of it, and you can lead. You have the kind of courage that comes from all of those ways and prayers that made you who you are. That’s what they say about this dance. You can become a man out here.”
Even though Tinker was only one-eighth Osage, he grew up on the reservation, and was often kept in line with tales of being sent to live with the white man if he misbehaved.
“When my children were growing up, I used to tell them that unless they behaved themselves, I would give them to the white man,” the senior Tinker said several months before his son’s death in an article in The Milwaukee Journal on Feb. 14, 1942. “They were more afraid of the white man than the white children were of Indians. Clarence gave us some trouble, especially when he served as a printer’s devil in the newspaper office, and I scared him into good behavior many times with the warning that the white man would get him.”
When his son assumed command of the 7th Air Force, his father reassured friends in the corner drugstore in Pawhuska, “You can go home and sleep peacefully now. The Tinkers have got the situation well in hand.”
While growing up in Pawhuska, and later in school in Kansas, Tinker and his friends idolized Osage military veterans like Indian scouts for the U.S. cavalry and Bonnycastle, chief of the Osages who earned his reputation in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, according to Dr. James Crowder in his book, “Osage General: Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker.”
After Tinker graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., in 1908, he was commissioned as a third lieutenant in the Philippine Constabulary. Four years later, he was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
During his early years, Tinker served with the 25th Infantry Division, originally in Spokane, Wash., and later moved with the division to Hawaii. In 1919, Tinker took an interest in flying, earned his pilot’s license and entered the Army Air Service in 1922. In 1927, Tinker was named the commandant of the Air Service Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, and later commanded several pursuit and bomber units. In 1940 he pinned on his first star and, after Pearl Harbor, was named commander of the Army Air Corps in Hawaii and promoted to major general. Before Dec. 7, 1941, Tinker warned that the Japanese were the biggest threat instead of Germany, and he also believed the Air Force would be the major factor during World War II. He also believed that a long-strike attack against Japan would be the key to war in the Pacific. He died on June 7, 1942, when his B-24 Liberator disappeared through a formation of clouds over the Pacific Ocean during a mission on Wake Island that he chose to personally lead. Neither the plane nor the eight crewmembers were ever found.
“I was visiting with the Osages in Holmes County and asked the question, ‘Why would he do that?’” said Crowder, Air Force Sustainment Center historian at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. “They said an Osage leader is never at the back of his band of warriors. All of the key documents from that time showed that he didn’t have to be on that mission. I think it was more of his Osage upbringing that led him to believe he should lead that flight more than anything the military taught him.”
Chief John D. Red Eagle remembers his father and World War II veteran Edward Red Eagle telling him about the Osages’ days around the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. His father told him how the Osages were mighty warriors, often growing to 7 feet in height. He also told him about Tinker.
“When they sing that song, it’s got words that are talking about (Tinker),” said Red Eagle, the principal chief of the Osage Nation. “It talks about how he’s gone on to fight in foreign lands. That was the interpretation my father gave me about that song.
“We have veteran dances that honor our soldiers. My father was a World War II veteran, and we honor him during that time, as well as other families who honor their soldiers. We talk about when they were in the war because they were very proud to be a part of the military. That’s the way they felt about General Tinker because of his service to the United States as a soldier. It’s a big honor to have a song in that dance.”
Anita West, an Osage who still lives in the village in Pawhuska, remembers her grandmother dressing her to dance. Her grandparents were Chief Fred Lookout, who was the principal Osage chief for three terms beginning in 1916, and Julia Mongrain Lookout, who had the song written for Tinker.
“We’d dance on individual songs, if we were related to them in any way,” she said. “She always told me to dance on the Tinker song. Later, I found out she was the one who had that song put in there. I don’t believe there was blood, but a closeness they had with the Tinker family because there was a bond between them.”
More than seven decades since his disappearance over the Pacific, there are still signs of Tinker’s legacy on the Oklahoma base that bears his name. A bust of the general greets visitors to the Air Force Sustainment Center headquarters, and there are several paintings and a display of his awards and medals in the Tinker Club, not to mention the olive footlocker in Crowder’s office. The locker contains the general’s personal papers and original decorations that his widow, Madeline Tinker McCormick, gave to the base before her death in 2000 at the age of 104. But Tinker is equally remembered in the Osage Nation, where his life began.
On the final day of In-lon-shka, all Osages under the Arbor stand to show their respect for their Osage general. Some say it’s the only family song the Osages sing that requires all to stand.