“I guess I find it especially poignant what the Five Tribes endured most graphically in the Trail of Tears that here’s this Indian that gave his life for his country after what his forbearers endured.” –WWII/Korea veteran Ernest St. Johns
Jessica McBride/Managing Editor
Muscogee (Creek) veteran honored with plaque
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — Around January 1944, Ernest St. Johns enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 17.
He met Muscogee (Creek) citizen Kenneth Factor, who was about six months older than him, on a Marine detachment of the U.S.S. Langley. Factor was Field Music First Class and played the bugle.
“In those days we weren’t politically correct,” St. Johns said. “When Sgt. Dillon discovered that Ken was an Indian he started calling him Chief Eagle Feathers… thereafter he was always the Chief.”
St. Johns said Factor took the nickname in stride.
“I guess it was kind of natural that Ken and I hit it off right away because the way I was raised,” he said. “You didn’t see those differences.”
The two best friends would go on liberty leave together.
In August 1945, St. Johns’ detachment was making their way to Japan.
“We had been back to the States for repairs… Two days out of San Francisco on the way to Pearl (Harbor), at about 0200 the comms officer came…” he said.
The officer had a message for the captain and encouraged St. Johns to wake him.
“I started reading about the bomb that had been dropped and he came flying out in his skivvies and grabbed it out of my hand and read it,” St. Johns said.
American forces were planning to invade the main Japanese islands where the military estimated half-a-million Americans would die in the campaign.
“We would have made that landing had it not been for Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bomb (on Hiroshima),” St. Johns said.
The detachment was sent back to the homeport of Philadelphia by way of Panama, where the ship was decommissioned.
“Ken still had part of an enlistment and I was there for the duration of the war… he had time to serve and I didn’t,” he said.
Factor wanted to continue his enlistment on the U.S.S. Fargo and was trying to convince St. Johns to join him.
“He went to the sergeant major and put my name down,” St. Johns said.
The two hopped on the Fargo and went to Guantanamo, Cuba, where they were for two months.
St. Johns told a story about one of the liberty leaves in Guantanamo where they went to the slot shoots at the marine barracks. Factor overheard a sergeant say they needed to hose the place down.
“So I was waiting for him at the liberty launch to go back to the ship and he’s had a few drinks by this time… so here he comes walking back with a roll of hose on his shoulder,” he laughed.
St. Johns convinced him not to take the hose back to the ship.
“He was a fun guy,” he said. “He always had a grin on his face, kind of a practical joker sometimes.”
After they were discharged, Factor went to the University of Oklahoma.
“He and I were both called back to active duty for the Korean War and by this time he was commissioned and he was a 2nd lieutenant,” St. Johns said.
They met up in Washington, D.C., and Factor brought along some other officers because they did not have another place to go.
The group went to an officer’s club where Factor introduced him as Lt. St. Johns. The next club he was introduced as Capt. St. Johns and the third Major St. Johns.
Factor flew an artillery spotter plane for the 1st Marine Regiment during the Korean War.
St. Johns did not hear from his friend for years after that.
“I sent a letter to Kenneth Factor… and said we would be going through there on my way to Albuquerque and I want to see you… but he wasn’t the Ken Factor I was looking for,” he said.
During a reunion of sea-going marines around 2000, St. Johns learned Factor was killed in action during the Korean War.
Factor’s plane was shot down July 18, 1952 over enemy territory. His body was never recovered.
St. Johns said he was shattered.
“I guess I always entertained the idea that some place along the line that he and I would get together because between the two wars he and I would connect by letter periodically,” he said. “So it was always in the back of my mind, ‘well, some day I’ll see him.”
St. Johns said he is memorialized at the Punch Bowl in Hawaii.
“When I learned he was KIA then I really began to miss him,” he said. “And I still miss him to this day.”
St. Johns said during the time he knew Factor, he was unaware of the Trail of Tears and the tragic history of the Five Civilized Tribes.
“And so it was one of my great disappointments that years later I read the Trail of Tears and realized what his forbearers had gone through,” he said.
Through some additional research, St. Johns learned Factor was listed as “white” on some of the military paperwork.
He contacted Muscogee (Creek) Nation Veterans Affairs Services Office Director Ken Davis to make sure the Nation recognized Factor as a Muscogee (Creek) veteran.
Davis said within a short amount of time, he was able to confirm Factor’s citizenship, “with the ever dependable Alicia Burnside of the Citizenship Office,” and completed the work to have him recognized with a plaque as a Muscogee (Creek) veteran killed-in-action.
St. Johns said he was proud to know Factor.
“I guess I find it especially poignant what the Five Tribes endured most graphically in the Trail of Tears that here’s this Indian that gave his life for his country after what his forbearers endured.
“And I guess I also think that given the number of deaths on the Trail of Tears that he might not ever have lived. His forbearers might have died. But somehow or another his forbearers survived that. And so we have Ken Factor,” he said.
St. Johns is 91. He said if Factor were alive today he would be about 92.