Friday, September 11, 2015

Exceptional American of the day: Chief Bearskin

We tend to think of the men who won World War II as ghosts. Their numbers are fading and the deeds of daring are interred with their bones. But some do bear witness. David Saporta recalled a flight on April 24, 1944: "We were assigned Big Chief (after Leaford Bearskin) on a mission from Nadzab to Hollandia. As we were about to reach lift-off, the left tire blew, causing the left gear to break and the plane to lurch to the left. The # 1 propeller snapped and came flying toward the rear of the aircraft and embedded itself into the left rudder. With 8x1,000 lb. bombs on board, every crew member and many ground crew men got as far away as they could with utmost haste."

It was not the first time Captain Bearskin saved his men aboard the Big Chief -- a B-24 Liberator bomber. On an earlier flight, a shell flew back through the open bombing bay and damaged the top fuselage. Bearskin showed calm and courage, and landed the plane. Bearskin received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts in the war, and received medals for his work in the Berlin Airlift, and in the Korean War.

I am supposed to make a big deal about his being an American Indian. And that is the reason for this profile. But he was not a token. He earned his place in Valhalla. But his military career -- he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1960 -- was his service to his nation. As chief of his Wyandotte tribe in Oklahoma, he served his people.

Born on September 11, 1921, in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, to John and Myrtle Bearskin, Leaford Bearskin was one of 13 children raised on the family's land on what had once been the Wyandotte reservation. He wanted to fly at an early age. Upon graduation from high school in 1939, he joined the Army Air Corps. The military sent him to Alaska as a crew member. He took a flying cadet course and became a pilot. They sent him to New Guinea as part of the 90th Bombardment Group, also known as the Jolly Rogers. His commander gave him a crew, gave him a B-24, and gave him a mission -- 46 in all.

“There was one particular mission over Wewak in December of ’43,” Bearskin told biographer David Ray Skinner years later, “Not only did we lose planes and crews, the flak was so thick, that I felt like I could just get out and walk on it.”

Then he turned 24. His post-war career included 29 missions in the Berlin Airlift. After that, he participated in the first flight of jet fighters across the Pacific. He served as a squadron commander in the Korean War.

Upon retirement at age 39, he began a second career as a civilian chief of vehicle and aerospace ground equipment in the First Strategic Aerospace Division at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. His responsibilities included maintaining the equipment used for testing and analyzing the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missile weapons systems.

In 1979, he had his second retirement, this time as a civil servant. He went back to Oklahoma and immersed himself in tribal affairs, winning election as chief in 1983, an office he served for 28 years until he retired at 90 in 2011.

As tribal leader, he secured $5.7 million from the federal government to settle a debt that dated back to 1842. built a casino to generate money for the tribe, built health care facilities, and made life better for the Wyandottes. He worked on reviving the old language and customs of hiss tribe.

Upon Bearskins's death at 91 on November 9, 2012, his successor, Billy Friend, told the Tulsa World that without Leaford Bearskin, “We’d be at least 15 years behind where we are now, governmentally, economically — in everything,”

Friend also said, “The chief lived more in one lifetime than we could in 10.”

Chief Bearskin fought for his country, and worked for his people. He once said, “I have seen many countries but I will say it again, and again, and again, we have the best country in the world.”

It's the best because of people like Leaford Bearskin.


I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1.

Which is better? "Exceptional Americans 1" or the new book, "Exceptional Americans 2"?

Buy both and tell me.


  1. Another great one I'd not heard of.

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  3. Here's the link to the article I wrote about the "Big Chief" that was referenced above: Also included in the article is the link to the song I wrote for and about Chief Bearskin after I interviewed him.

    David Ray Skinner