Lionel Pinn – A Native American Goes to War

This article is based upon Pinn’s memoir Hear the Bugles Calling:  My Three Wars as a Combat Infantryman withFrank Sikora, available in Ridgway Hall at USAHEC (call number DS559.5 .P56 2001).

Lionel Pinn with one of his infamous cigars, date and location unknown.

Lionel Francis Pinn, Sr. (August 2, 1923 – August 7, 1999) was born in Newton, Massachusetts on August 2, 1923, the eldest of the twelve children of career Army Master Sergeant Carl T. Pinn and Lucy Charles Pinn. Both of Lionel’s parents were Native Americans, his father was Osage and Douge (Doeg), his mother was Mi’kmaq (Pinn used the former spelling “Micmac” in his writing).

Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Lionel expected to become a Catholic priest to serve Native American communities in New York and Maine. His father, however, had other plans, and said:

“You’re not the biggest guy in the world, I’ll grant you that. But there is nothing wrong with your trigger finger. Boy, you need to go into the Army and grow up a bit. It’ll be good for you. Three or four years there won’t hurt. Besides they’ll draft you anyway. We’ll probably be in another war soon.”

A few days later, Pinn enlisted. It was the summer of 1940. He attended Basic Training at Fort Banks, Massachusetts. “After six weeks of training, I was assigned to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and made a messenger with Company G, 18th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.”

Soon, however, Pinn received a transfer to the cook’s school at Camp Lee, Virginia. The move was supposed to be a punishment for crashing an Army motorcycle while on duty, but Pinn enjoyed the free time that came with the job. He used the time to take up boxing.

Lionel was then sent to Camp Sheridan, Illinois, to await orders for a permanent assignment. There he got into a fight with another Soldier in his barracks. Although the other Soldier hit him first, Pinn was the one who got punished. He was given thirty days in the stockade. “It was an unusually stern sentence for hitting another private who had hit me first,” Pinn wrote in his memoirs. “I felt that I was the victim of unjust punishment because of my Indian blood.” His anger over the unfairness of his sentence grew, and when he was finally released he immediately found the other Soldier and knocked him out of a window.

This second altercation resulted in Lionel being sentenced to a year of hard labor at Camp Ellis, Illinois. This period of confinement changed Pinn, causing him to recognize how deeply disappointed his father was of him. Lionel planned to do what he could to rectify his tarnished image, “It would be the beginning of a long and arduous trail in which I would try to live up to his expectation, not that I ever thought I would be able to manage it.”

Completing his sentence, in early November 1941, he was reassigned to Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Not long thereafter, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on Sunday December 7, 1941:

“The world changed then. The Army I had known ceased to exist; all the brass polishing and shoe shining and scrubbing of floors took a back seat. Everything began to move at a rapid pace.”

Pinn spent 1941 assigned to kitchen duty and 1942 as a bayonet instructor. Lionel finally received orders in July 1943 transferring him to New Guinea, where he would be placed in the infantry replacement pool fighting the Japanese. He went through training and indoctrination, and then he was assigned to patrol duty:

Lionel Pinn at the base of what appears to be a rappelling tower at Fort Benning, date unknown. Pinn is armed with a Thompson submachine gun. This photo was appears to have been taken at Fort Benning.

“I was armed with a Thompson submachine gun, commonly known as a Tommy gun. I preferred it to the Garand M-1 rifle, which was a semi-automatic weapon. The M-1 was accurate, but it fired only eight rounds before you had to reload. The Tommy gun was automatic, firing 10 rounds in a second; it held fifty bullets, but could hold a larger drum that held 90.”

His first combat experience was while on patrol looking for a downed American pilot. First, the patrol was attacked on the way out from camp, leaving one soldier wounded. Upon return to camp, they were attacked again. A Japanese soldier burst out of the jungle near Pinn and aimed at him. Pinn shouted a warning to his fellow soldiers:

“At the same time I raised the Tommy gun with my right hand and fired blindly, without aiming. It was a simple reflex reaction. But the burst hit the guy right in the chest… I gazed down at him, now feeling somewhat stunned by the suddenness of it. In a split second he was dead. It could have just as easily been me… I had wanted to fight them with a passion at one time. Now there was just an empty feeling.”

While on another patrol, Pinn was captured by the Japanese after being incapacitated by a grenade blast. Lionel was taken back to camp and tortured, however he was saved by the camp captain who recognized his Boston accent. The captain had studied at Harvard and felt sympathy for Pinn and ultimately took him to the river and said to Lionel, “Go now, see you in Boston.” Pinn swam two days downriver, back to an American base.

Not long after his escape, he was offered an opportunity to volunteer for a new elite unit within the 6th Army known as the “Alamo Scouts.” “The group was the brain child of General Krueger, who wanted a commando-like unit to obtain intelligence information first hand.” Pinn volunteered, and was taken to Fergusson Island for six weeks of training. Upon the completion of his training, he was assigned to a demolition unit where he received training on blowing up bridges and houses.

He returned to regular duty, and on one particular patrol they encountered a strong Japanese machine gun nest. Running out of ammunition for his Thompson, he picked up a Japanese rifle with attached bayonet and engaged in hand to hand combat with three Japanese soldiers, killing two and driving off the third. In the process, Lionel was wounded in both of his forearms. “Sometime later, I was put in for a medal of some kind but the paperwork got lost in the shuffle. I never heard anything further about it.”

As 1944 came to a close, the fighting on New Guinea was ending, and he was reassigned to the Philippines. “On January 9, 1945, I went ashore assigned to the 596th Quartermaster Company.” Not long after landing, Pinn responded to a call for volunteers to go with the 6th Ranger Battalion and Alamo Scouts to liberate American prisoners of war held at Cabanatuan. During the daring night raid on January 30, 1945, Pinn was assigned to a Filipino unit tasked with blowing up a bridge north of the camp to eliminate the possibility of reinforcement. The mission was a stellar success, with 513 POWs being rescued with only a few casualties for the Americans.

He was reassigned to be a scout for a platoon in Company B of the 152nd Regiment of the 38th Infantry Division in March 1945. Fighting north of Manila and along Highway 7, known as the “Zig-Zag Trail,” Pinn received the Combat Infantryman Badge in June 1945. Not long after, he was wounded in both eyes by shrapnel from an exploding grenade.

Pinn was treated, told his sight would probably return, and put on a ship back to California. He was discharged from the Army in March of 1946, and given a 52/20 disability.


Note:  Records indicate Lionel Pinn enlisted on November 18, 1941 . This does not reflect the time he spent in the Army before his yearlong incarceration in the stockade as told in his autobiography Hear the Bugles Calling: My Three Wars as a Combat Infantryman. It is possible that he was discharged and reenlisted before his service in WWII and records of his first enlistment have been lost or expunged.

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