A Native American Hero Among The Band of Brothers
101st Airborne veteran Earl Ervin McClung is remembered as an American Indian whose service during World War II was heroic, brave, and memorable. As a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, McClung jumped into battle on D-Day, and landed behind enemy lines amidst gunfire both in the air and on the ground.
McClung was born in 1923 on the Colville Indian Reservation in Northern Washington. He grew up on the reservation with his father Jesse McClung, mother Irene McClung, sisters Viola Pauline and Barbara Loraine, and younger brother Gary Duwayne. The family-owned a farm in Inchelium, the northeastern part of the reservation in Ferry County. McClung and his siblings attended local schools there.
Growing up on the reservation during the Great Depression, McClung learned to help around the farm and support his family from an early age. He and his dad would hunt and fish often on the reservation. The lessons he learned during this time spent with his dad would prove beneficial during his service. During high school, he worked for the CCC-ID. The Civilian Conservation Corps- Indian Division (CCC-ID) was a program on federally recognized reservations during the 1930s that helped to employ thousands of Native Americans. That program was created as a part of the New Deal and is a division of the more well-known Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed millions of young men on various environmental projects during the Great Depression. The struggle of the Great Depression hit Native Americans living on reservations particularly hard. Years of repression and failed government policies have left reservations with extremely limited opportunities for economic growth. The Great Depression was classified by a sustained unemployment rate of 15%. And if using that statistic, the Great Depression started in the 1800s for American Indian communities. Unemployment rates on the reservations worsened even further during the economic downturn but were mitigated by CCC-ID projects led by tribal leaders to build dams, roads, trails, fences, wells, telephone lines, and more. The CCC-ID allowed many Native Americans, including McClung, to find work on the reservation until the program’s completion at the start of World War II.
In the summer of 1942, McClung registered for the draft and, a few months later, in February 1943, he entered the military service at age 19. He had to leave his last year of high school early to do so but could graduate early to serve his country. McClung joined the Army and began basic training at Fort Walters in Texas. He volunteered for the paratroopers and was then transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia. It was here that he met Marjorie Jean Williams, a Private First Class for the Army, who would become McClung’s wife. Marjorie was a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and served in Georgia during World War II as well. McClung was then sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he joined Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the 101st Airborne Division. Easy Company was shipped overseas to Europe, where they joined thousands of other American troops preparing for the invasion of Europe.
As a paratrooper, McClung was expected to be the best of the best of an elite force. The objective of airborne forces was to have the ability to drop soldiers behind enemy lines. The Germans were the first to use this strategy leading up to World War II. Seeing their success, the British followed suit, and the United States formed their respective airborne divisions shortly after. A paratrooper was expected to drop out of an airplane during battle, land behind enemy lines, and continue the fighting from within. Given the danger of these missions, they, therefore, had to undergo intense training before entering the war. When asked about the airborne training experience in an interview with Sheridan Marrott for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, McClung said that "It’s pretty rugged." Airborne training is a little more rugged than infantry training. " The intense training was necessary, however, to prepare them not only for the "jump," but for the fighting that followed once they reached the ground.
McClung and the rest of Easy Company made their first combat jump into Normandy on June 6, 1944, in Operation Overlord, the night before D-Day. Over 13,000 paratroopers were flown in from the Allied forces. It was the largest use of airborne troops up to that time. To provide backup, parachute troops had to perform a night jump five hours before any of the coastal landings were to occur. In the early hours of D-Day, the 101st Airborne Division, along with the 82nd, was dropped over Utah Beach. Many were killed or injured in the jump, and the company was scattered throughout the area. Dodging fire amid jumping out of a plane, McClung eventually landed in the town square of Ste Mere Eglise, France, along with two other Easy Company members. He explained why they could not find Easy Company at first: "I was with the 82nd Airborne for about nine days—I and Paul Rogers and Jim Alley because we were separated from our unit by about thirty miles from where we were supposed to be. So we fought with the 82nd Airborne for about nine days, found out where our unit was and made our way back to our outfit right before they went into Kerrington."
In September 1944, Easy Company traveled to the Netherlands and took part in Operation Market Garden. During this operation, Easy Company secured a series of bridges near the town of Eindhoven for an upcoming Allied advance. This planned advance, unfortunately, failed, however, when the airborne divisions failed to take the city of Helmond and were beaten back by the German army. Easy Company then assisted in the emergency evacuation of British forces there. McClung was wounded during this operation but was not out of combat for long. In December of that year, McClung and his company fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium. McClung said of Bastogne that "… the weather was the worst. There were mornings we’d wish we'd gotten killed to get out of the misery of the cold and stuff. "
During his time in Europe, Earl served as a first scout. This meant that he was always on the front line. In his interview with the Veterans History Project, Earl explained that his background as a Native American might have had something to do with this assignment. He said, "Being an Indian and from a reservation, you were automatically the first scout." He then added, "They’ve been trying to kill us for two hundred years, so why change it?" His time hunting with his father on the reservation proved helpful in combat, however. McClung was known as Easy Company’s best marksman. This was highly likely a result of his time hunting on the reservation, working hard to provide for his family.
When the war was over in 1945, McClung and his fellow servicemen returned home, receiving honorable discharges. Going from combat to civilian life proved difficult for McClung. When asked what he did after the war in his interview, McClung candidly said, "Got in trouble. Drank. Got crazy. Had to reenlist to keep from going to jail." McClung reenlisted just two months after returning home. On October 5, 1946, he married Marjorie in Alabama. Earl served with the Panama Canal Department and was with them for two years until his first child, Larry E. McClung, was born and he was discharged.
Once he returned home to Washington to be with his family, McClung began working for the Deer Park Lumber Company. He worked there for about half a year and then, because of a shortage of housing in the area, left that job and began working for the Avery Bros Sawmill in Kettle Falls, Washington, where he worked as a log loader until the family moved to Marjorie’s home state of Colorado in 1948. Earl worked as an apprentice mechanic for Lloyd Van Dyke in Cañon City. In 1950, he applied to work at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation in Pueblo. He later moved to Denver, where he worked as a mail carrier for 17 years.
Earl and Marjorie had two other children, Tempe Jean and Mary McClung. The children attended Iver C. Ranum High School in Westminster. Their first son, Larry, followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military after graduating from high school in July 1966. Larry served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as a radioman seaman. He was stationed at Qui Non, South Vietnam, when he was killed in action on December 11, 1967, at 20 years old. His family buried him at Fort Logan National Cemetery alongside his mother and father.
In 1988, Earl retired, and he and his wife moved back to Washington, where he worked as a gatekeeper on the reservation that he grew up on. In the latter years of his life, the couple moved back to Pueblo, Colorado. McClung continued to serve his country until the day he died, often visiting and speaking with schoolchildren about his experience. When asked what he would want future generations to know about his time in the war, McClung explained, "I want future generations to know that war is something they better not have. I tell the school kids I talk to, and I’ve talked to quite a few of them, that war is terrible. It’s not something they want. Find another way to settle it because war is bad. War is dirty." McClung spent his life serving his country and community. He died on November 27, 2013, and his wife died a year later, in November 2014. They are buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery.
During his time in service, McClung received two bronze stars and a Purple Heart. McClung and his fellow Easy Company members are truly American heroes whose bravery and sacrifice will not be forgotten. McClung said of the men that he served with that they were "closer than your own family because they were your only family." The bond that McClung had with these men was incredibly important to him throughout his life. Recently, McClung and the rest of Easy Company have gained a lot of recognition through the book Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagles Nest by Stephen Ambrose. This book was turned into a miniseries on HBO produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The series sheds light on what McClung and the men of Easy Company endured during their service, as well as their heroic actions and success as a company.
McClung modestly explained the praise received by Easy Company, following the successful HBO series, could have easily been based on many other airborne companies. "They all went through the same things we did," McClung said. "This was supposed to have what these men and companies went through. We didn’t go through any more than anyone else went through. Many people went through the same things, except we got the notoriety of it."