Cuban Missile Crisis Vet: We Were in Imminent Danger
American Indian U.S. Army veteran Thomas Lewis is the Chief of the Meherrin Tribe; a state recognized tribe located in Hertford County, North Carolina. Drafted into the U.S. Army in December of 1961 at the highpoint of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lewis was a Radio Teletype Team Chief for the Old Ironsides 13th Striped Armor Division, HQ 2nd Battalion.
Born in Princess Ann County Virginia in 1942, Thomas Lewis lived on a dairy farm with his Mother, Father and two brothers until he was six years old. Lewis’ father served as a guard of the German prisoners of war held in Virginia in U.S. encampments at the height of World War II.
In 1948, Lewis and his family moved to a small American Indian community in North Carolina called Pleasant Plains and Lewis began attending the community Pleasant Plains Indian School. Because the school was community owned and finances were slim, the school fell into disrepair. “I attended the Indian School until the floor collapsed. They didn’t have the money to repair it and were forced to close the school. I then attended CS Brown in Winton, North Carolina.”
Though Lewis was ridiculed by students as an American Indian, his mother ensured Lewis and his brothers had a freshly ironed shirt. Lewis lived his adolescence on a 60-acre family farm that grew tobacco, corn and cotton and was plowed and harvested with two mules. He graduated high school in 1961.
Soon after high school, after attempting to join the Army but his friends didn’t pass the test, Lewis was later drafted into the U.S. Army to become a Radio Teletype Team Chief, learning Morse code, message coding and decoding.
After training, Lewis found himself on his way to the Cuban coastline along with the Old Ironsides. In 1962, as a newly recruited young soldier, armed and ready off the coast of Cuba, Lewis remembers being put on alert several times and the threat of nuclear war as a genuine consideration.
“I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our country was at a critical juncture and that we really were in imminent danger,” he said. “Having been on the front lines, I have never been able to forget that. After the crisis passed we came back to Georgia. President Kennedy came and personally reviewed our unit.”
After Lewis served his time with the U.S. Army, he went through the normal channels to be discharged. When arriving in Fort Bragg, Lewis received shocking news. “When we got off the plane, we were told that the President had been shot. Later and after we signed in we found out that he had just died. It was a very sad time for all of us.”
When Lewis returned to Pleasant Plains, he met a Meherrin woman and they later married. Because she had a fair complexion, some members of the community were hostile. As a man of color living in the south, not all neighbors were gracious. “The KKK burned a cross in front of my house because they thought I had married a white girl.”
In 1985 Lewis became actively involved with the tribe, and played a key role in achieving state recognition for the tribe. He served on the council for 10 years, as chairman and then acting chief for four years. In 2004 he was elected chief and has served in that capacity ever since.
“I served as a delegate for the tribe four times in Washington and met with President Clinton,” he said.
In addition to his involvement with the Meherrin tribe, Lewis served two years on the Indian Cultural Board of North Carolina, has worked as Arena Director and Head Dancer for Pow Wows and is a member of the Red Crooked Sky Dance Troupe that has traveled in the U.S. and Canada on behalf of the Virginia Tourism Board and the Governor of Virginia. “We performed at the Bicentennial Celebration of Hampton Virginia for President Bush.” He was also the first non-white in the Ahoskie National Guard and the first American Indian Police Officer.
Today he looks to the future. “As chief of the Meherrin Tribe I hope to have the honor of seeing our tribe achieve Federal Recognition,” he says. “I hope to see the day when all Indian people are recognized for who we are and honored for all we have done and worked so hard for.”