The Chief was just an American Sergeant who hailed from the Sioux reservation near Poplar, Montana. But to 600 Kurd tribesmen, he was sort of a patron saint who had the magic of healing in his hands. A rare saga of GI life in a remote part of the world, that shows what happens when a guy sets out to help his friends.

By Cpl. James P. O’Neill

YANK Staff Correspondent

Northern Iran—There’s a Persian Gulf Command rest camp perched on top of a mountain here—a sort of poor man’s version of a spot in the Adirondacks. But it’s cool and it was picked as a place to give relief to dusty, sun-drunk truckers and railroaders and longshoremen who come up from the 175-degree weather below.

Not far from the camp is a village of about 600 Kurd tribesmen. They are a quiet, suspicious bunch of people, caught in the backwash of civilization and living now as their people have done for centuries. The Kurds have little use for the outside world, let alone for the wild gang of GIs who ride hell-for-leather through their village on Arabian ponies. But there was on GI at the rest camp whom the Kurds came to consider as a sort of patron saint.

This GI was Sgt. Julian Smith, an Indian from the Sioux reservation near Poplar, Mont. Like almost every other Indian in the Army, he was known as Chief. He was riding master at the camp, with 10 Arabian ponies under his care.

The Chief stabled his horses in a dingy barn on the outskirts of the village. His caretaker was an old man of the Kurd tribe who spoke a little English. For a long while he was the only tribesman Smith knew, and in time they became friends.

The old man had trachoma, a bad case of it, and his nearly blind eyes were rheumy and almost hidden by layers of crusty scabs. One morning the Chief brought his first-aid kit to the stable. It was a standard company medical kit used to patch up the inevitable cuts that happened when a GI and his pony didn’t quite agree.

Sgt. Smith took out a few cotton swabs, some mercuric acid and a bottle of argyrols. He pointed to the old man’s eyes and said, “Come here.” The Kurd put up an argument but—possibly because he was afraid he might lose his job—gave in.

The Chief washed out the eyes with argyrols and flushed them with mercuric acid. In a week the eyes were visible behind the scabs and after three weeks of bathing the scabs were gone.

One day the caretaker arrived with two other villagers. He pointed to their eyes, also infected by trachoma. The Chief treated them.

A little later there came a villager with his daughter and her 8-year-old child. The kid’s legs had been badly scaled and now the left one was covered with jellylike scabs a quarter-inch thick. Some dirty substance had been rubbed over them.indian chief kurdish tribesmen iran wwii

“What did you put on her legs?” the Chief asked the mother, using the old man as an interpreter. She said she had taken her child to a village healer known only as the Woman, who had “treated” the legs first.

In earthy Montana English, the Chief spent five minutes cursing. Then he went to work, peeling off the scabs and massaging the raw flesh with tannic acid jelly. He had the mother bring the child back two days later, and then he spread 10-percent sulfa powder over the legs. The girl had developed a fever.

The Chief went back to camp, bought some fruit juice from the PX and stole a can opener. He gave the fruit juice and some aspirin to the mother and then spoke to the old man.

“Tell her not to give the kid anything but a can of this fruit juice, three aspirin and a pint of water every day. Tell her to bring the child back in three days.”

In three days the fever was gone and the child’s legs were better. The Chief kept sprinkling them with sulfa powder. In three weeks they were healed.

Then came the avalanche. The story of the child had been whispered around the village, and soon the Chief had a line in front of his stable as long as the one before a battalion dispensary on the eve of maneuvers. He treated them all.

He chiseled condensed milk from a cook in exchange for an extra ride on one of the ponies and fed the mild to kids with stomachs bound up from an indigestible diet. He requisitioned so much medical stuff from the dispensary that the docs began to think the vacationing GIs were riding dragons instead of horses.

By this time the Chief was beginning to pick up a few words of the Kurd language but, as he puts it, “I really didn’t need much of it. The people in that village were like my own people back on the Fort Peck reservation. They had the same ailments, suspicions, simplicity and poverty. Seems all poor people talk the same language.

Sgt. Smith was born on a Sioux reservation. He went to Chemawa, a boarding school for destitute Indians, and played a lot of football there. Later he an athletic scholarship to Willamette University at Salem, Oreg., where he majored in English and played varsity football and baseball.

In his junior year his father died. Smith quit school. His family needed money much more than an educated son. He went back to the reservation and found that his father

S death could have been easily forestalled; he had refused medical aid.

“Same old story as with these Kurds. He was afraid of something new.”

But the tribesmen were becoming less and less afraid of something new. When the long lines began to form in front of the Chief’s stable, opposition developed. The Woman started raising hell and the head tribesman, one Mamat Bey, was ready to kick the Chief off the premises.

Just about that time the Chief and a bunch of GIs were riding through the hills one day when they found an unconscious native kid on the side of the road; a pony stood nearby. The kid was bleeding from a jagged hole an inch wide on the left side of his nose, and a bloody branch of a tree was jutting from the hole.

They carried the kid back to the stable and the Chief, after removing the branch, found that it had speared through to the child’s mouth. He bathed the wound with hot water and packed it with sulfa powder. The old man informed him that the child was a nephew of Mamat Bey. When the kid became conscious, the Chief carried him home.

Next morning Mamat Bey, with the boy, was at the head of the stable dispensary line. He said nothing, but grinned while the Chief dressed his little nephew’s wound.

Two days later Mamat Bey paid an official visit with his tribal council. He talked too fast for the Chief to understand, but when all the speech making was finished they escorted the Chief to a vineyard. “It’s all yours,” said the old caretaker. The Chief grinned and said “Thanks”. Mamat Bey grinned and said “Okay, Johnee.” It was the only English he knew.

When the Chief had to leave the ret camp for good a little later, he gave back the vineyard with the practical comment: “Can’t take it with me in a B-bag.”

Sgt. Smith’s popularity with the Kurds had reached the attention of headquarters, and he had been ordered to Teheran as athletic adviser to the Iran Military Academy, the Persian West Point.

The day before his departure he was invited to Mamat Bey’s house. A dinner was given in his honor and Persian music was played on an ancient Victrola. Then the Chief was led outside where most of the village was gathered. They took off their hats and faced Mecca. The Chief took off his fatigue hat and faced Mecca.

As the villagers prayed, the old caretaker translated: “May Allah take you safely on your journey in the thundering wagon. May Allah always be your friend and may He someday bring you back to your friends in this village.

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  • Bill Getz says:

    A great story. What is missing is a tie to WWII as most of the world news is about Iran and the Kurds in the context of current wars. For one, I did not know we had troops in Iran during WWII.

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