“The Specter” Doughboy: Thomas Rogers

By Carole Barrett and Calvin Grinnell

 (Seventh in our series commemorating the Centennial of the end of World War I)  

Thomas Rogers was born into a prominent Arikara family in 1890 or 1891.  As a youth, he was also known by his Arikara name, Katanuta.  After distinguished service in World War I, Arikara elders gave him the name Skanatunawinag, Charges Alone, to reflect his courage and bravery on the battlefield.  Among his fellow soldiers, Rogers was nicknamed “The Specter” in recognition of his extraordinary prowess as a night raider and sniper.

Weeks after the United States declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917, Congress found it necessary to pass a bill to create a national army of conscripted soldiers.  In North Dakota, many American Indian men volunteered even though most were non-citizens and so were not obligated to serve.  Like Thomas Rogers, many of these men were the sons and grandsons of warriors and scouts from an earlier era and had been raised with stories that memorialized the warrior tradition.  More than 200 American Indian men from North Dakota served in the U.S. military during World War I.

Many joined Company I of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the North Dakota National Guard, commanded by Captain A.B. Welch of Mandan.  Welch had deep connections to the tribal communities in North Dakota, especially at Standing Rock and Fort Berthold, so many men from these reservations enlisted in the 2nd Regiment.  For a time, Welch and others sought to form a full company of American Indian soldiers, but, ultimately, the Secretary of the Army did not approve of segregating Native enlistees.

On August 1, 1917, Rogers came to Bismarck and enlisted.  In December, he sailed for Europe and on New Year’s Day 1918 arrived in France and was assigned to Company A of the 18th Infantry, 1st Division.  He served along with Albert Grass, Richard Blue Earth, and Joe Jordan, all of Standing Rock, as well as Joseph Young Hawk, an Arikara, from Fort Berthold.

While in France, Rogers was assigned to the Intelligence Section and served as a battalion runner and sniper.  It was here he earned his reputation as “The Specter.”  Battalion runners served on scouting details at night. The objectives were to determine enemy positions and to capture German soldiers serving as sentries guarding the trenches.  If an enemy soldier refused surrender, Rogers would kill them and bring back their uniform blouse.  Stealth was paramount during these night raids and Rogers was not armed.  He used his bare hands to overwhelm the enemy.

He is credited with killing or taking prisoner 33 Germans on 30 consecutive nights. During the daytime, Rogers served as a sniper and would be stationed in front of his own lines, hidden in brush or weeds. When a German soldier poked his head above the sandbags, he became a target.  Rogers was an expert marksman with the reputation for shooting the enemy between the eyes.

Thomas Rogers was honored by the United States military for his deeds on the battlefield.  He received a citation for bravery in the attack on Cantigny (May 28, 1918) and for his work as a battalion runner. He was recognized as a “non-commissioned officer of great courage, initiative and intelligence…a soldier of the highest type” who always volunteered for the most dangerous missions.  After the Battle of Soissons (July 18-19, 1918), Rogers was cited for bravery “capturing at night barehanded and alone, many sentinels who were taken back to the American camp for questions.”

Rogers returned to the United States in September 1918 and served until the end of the war as an instructor in weaponry and sharpshooting.  Among his trainees at Camp Lewis, WA, were Robert Dancing Bull and Mark Necklace from Fort Berthold.  After the war ended, Rogers returned home to Elbowoods and married Lucy Coffee.

In 1926, he received a presidential citation from President Calvin Coolidge for “the valor and very extraordinary meritorious served performed by him” during the war.   He was granted a position as a mail carrier in Mandan, a post he filled from 1926-1932.  Rogers eventually moved back to Fort Berthold where he was a government school employee, active in the Little Shell American Legion, and a member of the Arikara Dead Grass Society.  He died in a car accident in 1965 along with his son, Bryan.

Although heralded for his many brave deeds in France during World War I, Thomas Rogers was a quiet man and would not talk about the war.  He was known as humble and unassuming, qualities admired in an Arikara warrior.

 (Carole Barrett, PhD, is professor emerita of American Indian Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck. Calvin Grinnell is a historian for the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in ND. He is a member and past president of the board of the State Historical Society of ND.

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