This marvelous story has more than its share of ironies.
One of the guys, in uniform, was arrested when an army unit picked him up and sent a message to his Marine commander that they'd captured a Japanese dressed in Marine garb and carrying Marine IDs. An Marine officer was sent over. The Japanese guy was no wolf in sheep's clothing; he was one of their own. He was Navajo, a Code Talker.
Or how about this? Code Talkers used their own Navajo language, a language spoken only on the Reservation, to save American lives. At the very same time at reservation boarding schools, the Navajo language was forbidden. Kids were fined or locked up in a kind of solitary if they used it, because wild injuns had to learn English and become good American citizens. At once, the Navajo language was glorified and demonized.
Then again, lots of the nearly 400 Navajo men who were recruited for the code talker program encountered stares when they teamed up with their Marine buddies because most white soldiers, the bilaganna, as Navajos would say, had no idea who they were. They'd never heard of a Navajo, had no sense of their history or character, and only the vaguest sense of how they'd lived. Even today the spell checker of Microsoft Word doesn't recognize the word hogan. The role the Code Talkers played in World War II was central to its victories, yet most of us didn't know them.
This week the Code Talkers got some significant air time because Chester Nez, the last of the original 29 Marine recruits, died peacefully in his sleep in Albuquerque. The last of the first is now gone, but their story should not be forgotten.
I never met this man, Wilsie Bitsie, but I did meet his family. They are immensely proud. As a boy, he was taught to play the piano by the wife of a missionary doctor in Gallup, New Mexico; as a man he went to war, serving with 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions at Midway and Guam and elsewhere. He was a hero. He is a hero.
Maybe the most interesting irony is the the fact that Navajos participated at all. Today, there are no shortage of American flags standing in Navajo graveyards, or in any Native American cemetery. For a nation as ravaged by Anglos as they are, Native people have contributed immensely to American war efforts through the years. Grievances exist, after all. Injustice isn't just a chapter in tribal history, it is a major theme, oppression its central conflict. Still, when America called, they answered. And still do.
I'm proud that Rehoboth Christian School, Rehoboth, NM, has dedicated its middle school building to the Navajo Code Talkers, where their portraits line the walls. Even though very few of their white buddies knew anything about them, even though they were stupidly mistaken for the enemy, they're heroes.
Today is June 6, D-Day, a day of catastrophic loss on the beaches of Normandy, a day of honor, really, for all American World War II vets, including the Navajos, whose language carried batallions through endless South Pacific islands.
None of them should be forgotten. This morning's thanks is for them, what they did, what they gave to us all.