Mathew B. Juan – Native American Hero of World War I
Curiousity Aroused by Soldier's Name on a Monument in a Park
Sitting in the center of the dusty little Arizona town of Sacaton is a small park with a monument to its war dead. Little parks with monuments to those from the town who gave their lives in past wars are not uncommon in the small towns of rural America.
As one approaches the park, the large, bold letters on the monument makes it clear that this park is a memorial to those who fought and gave their lives for us. However the name, Matthew B. Juan - Ira H. Hayes Veterans Memorial Park, immediately raises the question of who was Matthew B. Juan?
Many people recognize, especially since the movie Flags of Our Fathers and book of the same name, the name Ira Hayes as belonging to one of the six U.S. Marines and sailors who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II. However, the name Matthew B. Juan rings no bell in the minds of most people.
A Simple Plaque on a Stone Monument
Looking at the plaque on the simple stone monument that stands a few feet away from the much larger monument commemorating Ira Hayes and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, one reads the following:
to the Memory of
MATHEW B. JUAN
Co, K 28th Infantry
Killed in the
Battle of Cantingy
May 28, 1918
Department of Arizona
the plaque tells us how Matthew Juan came to rate a monument in this
little town, space prevents it from telling his story and thus letting
know Matthew Juan the man rather than simply Matthew Juan the battle
Question of Birth Date Plays a Big Role in the Mystery in this Hero's Life
Mathew* B. Juan was a Native American born into the Pima tribe on the Gila River Indian Community reservation. The Gila River Indian Community is made up of two related tribes, the Pima (Akimel O'odham) and Maricopa (Pee-Posh).
According to his military Draft Registration Card , Mathew Juan was born on April 22, 1892, while other accounts of his life list him as having been born in 1895 or 1896.
As will be seen below, the question as to when Matthew Juan was born is at the center of a mystery that, to this day, still surrounds Matthew Juan's life story. Since the Arizona Territory (Arizona did not become a state until February 14, 1912) did not require the civil registration of births, there is no known public record of the date of his birth.
Matthew Juan was born in or near Sacaton, Arizona and grew up in that town with his parents, Joseph and Mary Juan. He appears to have had at least two brothers and a sister.
The brothers were Antone who had the honor of unveiling the monument to Matthew in Sacaton on Memorial Day 1928 and Siply (or Sibley) who, along with their mother Mary, appears to have died in an auto accident in January 1928.
Grave records indicate that Sibley was born in 1886 which means that Matthew would have been a younger or possibly the youngest child in the family. Interestingly, their mother, Mary's, middle initial was B and Mathew and his two brothers had B for their middle initial.
When he signed his Draft Registration Card, Mathew wrote his middle name as Ben, however, since he was using the assumed surname of Rivers it is difficult to tell whether the B in his name stood for Ben or Benjamin or whether that was made up as well.
Park Honoring Mathew B. Juan in Sacaton, AZ
Location of the park in the center of the town of Sacaton, Arizona in which the Memorial Marker honoring Mathew B. Juan is located.
Mathew Juan's Early Life and Education
At some point in his young life, Mathew moved to Riverside, California where he was enrolled in the Sherman Institute.
The Sherman Institute opened as a high school for California Indians in 1902. Like its predecessor institution, the Perris Indian School, it was a boarding school run by the Federal Government for Indians.
Since it is a high school specializing in agricultural studies some sources, like WikiPedia,appear to have assumed that Mathew attended and graduated high school at the Institute.
However, in an article on page 14 of the May 2008 issue of the Gila River Indian News (to go directly to Mr. Gall's article rather than the entire issue, click here) author Gerald Gall claims that Mathew studied agriculture at the Sherman Institute and then returned to the reservation in Arizona and worked in their experimental farm for the next three years with no mention of his having graduated from the Institute.
Since the Perris Indian School had children as young as five and as old as twenty it is possible that the Sherman Institute, as the successor school, also taught younger grades and that Mathew attended for part of grade school as well as possibly a year or so of high school.
Mathew also must have either shown some real promise or his family must have had some connection to California tribes for him to be sent to a school that billed itself as a school for children from California Indian tribes.
The Sherman Institute itself continues to this day as a highly regarded Native American boarding school.
Mathew Joins the Circus then Takes a New Name and Joins the War
Gerald Gall, in the article cited above, states that upon his return from California, Mathew spent the next three years working at the experimental farm on the reservation as well as making a name for himself in local sports including rodeo.
In September of 1917 he attended the Ringling Brothers Circus which was performing in Phoenix. Infatuated with the performance, he immediately sought out the manager and got a job with the circus. When the show left Phoenix, Mathew was one of the workers who left with it.
A little over two months later in Wichita County, Texas, on November 26, 1917 Mathew registered for the Draft and this is where mystery enters his life
According to WikiPedia, Mathew left the circus and joined the Army in San Antonio Texas, which is located in Bexar county in the southern part of the state, while, according to Gerald Gall's article, he was traveling with the circus somewhere in Texas when he left to join the Army.
However, according to his Draft Registration Card he registered for the Draft in Wichita County which is on the northern border of Texas some 380 or more miles from San Antonio. Further, he indicated on the registration that he was an unemployed laborer.
Of course, the big question on his draft registration was his last name, which he gave as Rivers rather than Juan.
Mystery of Mathew Juan's Name Change
All accounts that I have found state that Mathew Juan used Rivers as his last name because he was too young to join the military at that time. This may be true and his reason for using a different last name and stating that he was unemployed may have been to prevent the authorities from checking his age with his employer.
The Gerald Gall article, which is the most complete secondary source that I have found to date, states that Matthew attended the Sherman Institute where he studied agriculture and then returned home where he worked for three years on the reservation's experimental farm.
During this three year period, according to Gall, he was active in sports, including rodeo events, and won honors and prizes in all of these sports. He was more than likely close to or over eighteen at the time he joined the Army.
Further, on his Draft Registration Card he gave his age as 25 which was seven years older than the minimum age for enlistment. Given the sparse information requested on the Draft Registration Card, the military's need to fill the ranks quickly, and the lack of good public records there was not much chance that he would have been caught by giving his correct last name.
There was probably a greater chance of raising suspicions by exaggerating his age by seven or more years than by giving his correct last name and, if he looked 25 years old, he probably was not under eighteen.
Also, according to Gerald Gall, right after enlisting, Mathew sent a postcard to his family announcing that he had joined the Army. The normal assumption for using an assumed name in this case would be to prevent one's parents from finding out about the enlistment and contacting the authorities to have the young man discharged and sent home.
But Mathew not only told them that he had enlisted but they probably also knew that he used the name Rivers when joining, otherwise how else would they have been able to 1) know that he had been killed, and 2) after the war to request that the authorities exhume the body of their son Mathew B. Rivers so he could be laid to rest on his home soil?
The World War I Military Draft
Some of the confusion here may be due to the fact that the Selective Service Act that was passed on May 18, 1917 called for the draft to be done in three stages with the first stage requiring all men between 21 and 31 years of age as of June 5, 1917 to register.
The second stage, which started on June 5, 1918 required all men who attained the age of 21 after June 5, 1917 to register.
It was not until the third stage, which started on September 12, 1918, that all men between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to register. I
t should be noted that registering for the draft and being called to duty in the military were two different things. This was a Selective Service System, as opposed to a Universal Service, System. Registering merely made one available to be selected.
This information about ages and dates for the draft is easy to find on the Internet. What is not easy, is finding the minimum age for voluntary enlistment. In fact the closest I came to finding 18 years of age as being the minimum was a copy of a 1917 U.S. Army Recruiting poster calling for young men between the ages of 18 and 21 to volunteer to join the Army.
It should be noted that, regardless of his age, Matthew B. Juan was more than likely exempt from both registering for the draft and from serving in the military. Because he was a Native American, he was probably exempt from military duty (there were some tribes whose members were not exempt but these tribes appear to be located mostly in the East and Midwest).
This exemption from military duty was not due to any special treatment for Native Americans, but rather the refusal of Congress and the American people to recognize most of the native Indian population as American citizens.
It wasn't until June 2, 1924, six years after Mathew Juan died on foreign soil fighting for the United States, that Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act which granted full citizenship rights to Native Americans (since voting was regulated by the states, many Native Americans were not allowed to vote until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which guaranteed all citizens the right to vote).
Mathew and/or the person registering him for the draft were apparently not aware that Indians were not citizens as, on line 4 of the registration, he is listed as being a natural-born citizen (a term used at the time to indicate citizenship by birth rather than through naturalization) and then in line 10 of the registration card he listed his race as Indian.
Of course citizenship has never been a requirement for military service (other than officers) and the World War I registration cards provided options to be listed as an alien as well as be listed as one intending to register for citizenship (even today, serving in the Armed Forces of the United States can be a short cut to citizenship).
Mathew Survives the Sinking of his Troopship the SS Tuscania
Whatever his reasons for assuming the name Rivers, Mathew Juan soon joined the Army and was assigned to either Camp Travis Texas or Fort Sill in Oklahoma (accounts differ) for his basic training.
Following his training, he and his unit shipped out to Hoboken, New Jersey where, they boarded the British Cunard Liner the SS Tuscania, a pre-War ocean liner that had been pressed into service as a troop ship for the war, at Pier 54.
Pier 54 was the same berth from which the RMS Lusitania had departed less than three years before on a voyage that ended with her being sunk by a German torpedo. Since there were many Americans on board, the sinking of the Lusitania became a factor, along with the Zimmerman Telegram, in our entering the War in 1917.
On January 24, 1918 the SS Tuscania departed for Halifax, Nova Scotia where it joined up with the British Cruiser the HMS Cochrane, an oil tanker and nine other merchant ships that were now being used as troop ships to form a convoy that would traverse the North Atlantic together trying to avoid German U Boats, lurking beneath the surface.
The destination was Le Harve, France where the troops planned to disembark and join the war that was raging on the European Continent.
The Atlantic crossing was successful and on the morning of February 4th as they approached the west coast of Ireland the HMS Cochrane was joined by eight sister Royal Navy Cruisers who would help escort the convoy through the U Boat infested waters surrounding the British Isles.
In the evening of February 5th at 5:42 p.m., while sailing between Ireland and Scotland, a torpedo, fired at close range, from German U Boat UB-77 hit the Tuscania.
As the rest of the convoy beat a hasty retreat from the area as per standing orders, the crew of the Tuscania began dropping lifeboats and evacuating the 2,179 troops and crew while a couple of the British warships began picking them up as they fled the ship.
Killed by Machine Gun Fire at the Battle of Cantigny
Along with most of his fellow soldiers, Mathew Rivers/Juan survived unscathed and soon resumed the journey to Le Harve.
In Le Harve he was assigned to the 28th Infantry of the U.S. Army's First Division, The Big Red One.
The unit was organized in 1917 and nicknamed The Big Red One because of the red "1" on the unit's shoulder patch - The Big Red One is also the name of a 1980 war film which stared Lee Marvin and was about the First Division.
American troops had been in France providing fighting support to our British and French allies since their arrival following the U.S. entry into the war.
However, it wasn't until May 28, 1918 that the U.S. Army launched its first major offensive in the war by attacking and capturing the French village of Cantigny which had been occupied and fortified by the Germans.
This battle was a victory for the American Army. I
It was also during this battle that Private Mathew Rivers/Juan was fatally struck by machine gun fire causing him to exit this life and enter into the history books as the first Native American and first Arizona casualty of the war.
He was buried in France following the battle.
A Hero's Burial for Mathew Rivers Followed by a Monument for Mathew Juan
Following the war the U.S. government gave the families of those who had given their lives while fighting in Europe the choice of leaving their sons and husbands to rest in American military cemeteries in Europe where they had fallen, or having them exhumed and brought home for burial in the United States. Mathew Juan's family, like thousands of others, opted to have their son brought home for burial in Sacaton.
The body of Mathew Rivers/Juan crossed the Atlantic a second time, on this trip leaving France and sailing to Hoboken, New Jersey and then overland to the Fisher Funeral Home in Casa Grande, the county seat of Pinal County and just a few miles from Sacaton.
On Saturday April 9, 1921 an honor guard from a Casa Grande American Legion Post escorted the body to Sacaton. The Rev. D.A. Lay of the Cook Memorial Presbyterian Church along with six native pall bearers and a church chorus went out from Sacaton, met the procession part way and joined it.
Over 1,000 people from all over the reservation came to pay their respects and Governor Thomas Campbell of Arizona sent the Adjunct General of the National Guard to attend as his personal representative (other business prevented him from attending) along with a letter to be read on his behalf for the family.
The war was over and Mathew Juan was dead, however, nowhere in the Friday April 15, 1921 issue of the Casa Grande Valley Dispatch (the local weekly newspaper published in nearby Casa Grande) is there any mention of Mathew Juan or any of his family members by name. He is referred to as Mathew Rivers and his family as the family of Mathew Rivers.
However, by 1928 both accounts in the Casa Grande Valley Dispatch of the unveiling of the monument to Mathew B. Juan, make no mention of Juan having served under the name of Rivers and make no mention of the name Rivers at all.
In the 1928 accounts the Reverend Dirk Lay, the same Rev. D.A. Lay who presided over Juan's 1921 funeral in Sacaton, is referred to as an intimate friend of Mathew Juan, who will recount the life and biography of the war hero.
There is also no mention of Mathew Juan having joined the circus or of having been underage when he joined the Army. They just state that he was in Texas when he joined.
The fact that there appears to be some mystery and unanswered questions surrounding the circumstances of Mathew Juan's entry into the military in no way detracts from the fact that he served his country courageously in time of war and gave his life defending the cause for which America was fighting.
His actions are even more admirable given the fact that his country did not legally recognize him as one of its citizens and therefore did not expect or require him to fight. Thus, despite his secrets, he is a genuine hero and deserving of the honors he has received posthumously and it is hoped that even though nine decades have elapsed since he received that fatal wound on the battlefield in France that we will be able to remember more about him than the few lines that appear on a monument in a park in his hometown of Sacaton, Arizona.
*NOTE: as is common with names that have more than one spelling, the spelling of Mathew Juan's first name is spelled in some records with two tees and other with one tee. In fact, if you look closely at the pictures of the plaque on his monument and the name of the park you will see that the plaque refers to him as Mathew (one t) B. Juan while a few feet away the name of the park is Matthew (two t's) presented as B. Juan - Ira Hayes Veterans Memorial Park. A close examination of the digital copy of his Military Draft Registration Card has his name spelled as Matthew (two tees) on the name line at the top but where he signed at the bottom his name appears as Mathew (one t) indicating that he and his family may have spelled it with one t while others used the more common spelling with two tees.
Links for More Information
- Last surviving World War I veteran by country - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
WikiPedia article listing, by country, all surviving veterans of World War I. This is a rather short list and contains the name of only one American Veteran.
- Last surviving U.S. World War I vet honored by president - CNN.com
Frank Woodruff Buckles was just 15 years old when he joined the U.S. Army. Soon, he was deployed to war and headed overseas on the Carpathia -- the same ship used in the rescue mission of the Titanic.
- First World War.com - Battles - The Battle of Cantigny, 1918
First World War.com - Battles - The Battle of Cantigny, 1918
- World War I Recruiting Posters in Library of Congress
Hundreds of World War I recruiting posters, mostly from the U.S. but some foreign as well at the U.S. Library of Congress Online site.
- Today in History: June 2 - Indian Citizenship Act
Each day an event from American history is illustrated by digitized items from the Library of Congress American Memory historic collections.
- Mathew B. Juan, World War I Warrior
Excellent article on Mathew Juan by Mr. Gerald Gall that first appeared in the May 28, 2008 issue of the Gila River Indian News,
- Arizona Military Museum
Home Page of Arizona Military Museum in Phoenix.
© 2008 Chuck Nugent