|Navajo Code Talkers Receive Homage |
Navajo Code Talkers Receive Homage
By Master Sgt. Austin Carter, Air Force Space Command Public Affairs.
Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado -- March 27, 2001 (AFPN) -- In 1942, Navajos in the American Southwest heard the military's bugle call for volunteers after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They rushed to sign up for the fighting.
Capt. Henry Bake Jr. (left) and Private 1st Class George Kirk, were two Navajo Indians serving with a Marine signal unit. They were operating a portable radio set in a clearing in the dense jungle of Bougainville in December 1943.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps
Sixty years later, the Navajos heard that bugle once more. This time the music was not a call to war, but a homage to their war efforts.
The U.S. Air Force Band of the Rockies, stationed here, gave a performance to the Navajo Nation at Window Rock, Ariz., during their "Songs of Democracy" tour of the Southwest in early March. It was a special concert with newly composed music to honor the fabled Navajo Code Talkers.
The Code Talkers were Navajo men recruited by the Marines as radio operators during World War II. Because of the Japanese success in breaking the U.S. radio codes at the start of the war, early operations in the Pacific were being compromised.
Private 1st Class Carl Gorman, one of the original 29 Code Talkers, mans an observation post on a hill overlooking the city of Garapan as the Marines consolidated their positions on the island of Saipan in June 1944.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps
The Navajo people's language was complex, not recorded in books and unknown outside of the reservation. With a few adjustments to encompass military jargon, the language was perfect for transmitting secret and sensitive information. Navajo radiomen served throughout the Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945.
As Marines they were always in the forefront of the bloody island-hopping battles of the Pacific and saved thousands of lives with their secure communication.
Their code was never broken, but the project remained classified until the 1960s.
The Navajos of the Southwest have always known of the bravery of these men.
Now the United States is acknowledging it as well by giving Congressional Gold and Silver Medals to the members of this elite communications corps.
Gold medals will go to the original 29 Navajos who first volunteered and silver medals will go to those who followed. Those medals are expected to be given in Washington in July.
Congress gives the medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for achievements and contributions. Navajo Code Talkers will be in the company of previous recipients such as George Washington, John Paul Jones, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Jesse Owens and Mother Teresa.
"Awarding these medals will give our nation a chance to bestow an honor that is long overdue and to formally thank these brave men for their contributions," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), the sponsor of the bill.
"They're very patriotic and very much a Marine community," said band member Master Sgt. Mark Israel. "If you go by the cemetery, you see all the American flags flying by the headstones. This is a community that takes patriotism seriously."
Israel suggested the idea of holding a special concert for the community and its famous members during the band's tour, and convinced the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President to sponsor the event. Other community sponsors -- The Navajo Times, the Navajo-Hopi Observer, KTNN Radio and Channel 5 TV -- quickly joined in. "We didn't hesitate when the band proposed it; we wanted it to happen," said Merle Pete of the Navajo Nation's Office of the President and Vice President.
Simply playing for the Navajo and the Code Talkers veterans was not enough.
The band decided to play an original musical piece composed just for the occasion. The radio sponsor, KTNN, would broadcast it live from Mexico to Washington State.
"It's not every day you can honor Congressional Gold Medal recipients in their own hometown," Israel said.
The task of composing the music fell to Tech. Sgt. Joseph Spaniola, the staff composer/arranger. Master Sgt. John Bailey, the band's noncommissioned officer in charge of auditions and narration, grabbled with just the right words for the accompanying narration.
"Our first thought was, 'Wouldn't it be neat if we could pay tribute to these men?' So we read up on the Code Talkers in reference books and through the Internet," Bailey said. "Joe and I got together and listened to recordings of their speech patterns. It's slow but poignant. We set out to do two things, tell their story to the Navajos and tell their story to the rest of our audiences. I certainly didn't know their story before. It's not usually covered in any history curriculum. The thing we did not want to do was deliver something that would offend or be a cliche."
Spaniola was careful with the eight-minute piece of music as well.
"From the beginning, it was a matter of cultural differences," Spaniola said. "They sent me a CD of traditional Navajo music. I wanted to get it right and incorporate some of their folk songs into the music. I discovered they were sensitive about how and when their music was played. Even about what season of the year it could be played. I tried to incorporate their musical expression with their traditional pattern scale into the piece."
With just a week to compose the music, Spaniola delivered a composition that starts simply with spare notes on a flute and percussion to denote the Navajo life and rises in tempo at the end to echo the Marine Corps hymn. Code Talkers throughout the audience emotionally leapt to their feet when they heard the familiar strains of the hymn.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," Israel said. "After all, they were some of the best Marines."
"They were touched that we took the time to pay tribute to them and their culture," Spaniola said.
Samuel Billison, the president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, said the music brought back a flood of memories for the aging members of his organization.
"We had a double feeling when we heard it," he said. "We thought the music was great, but on the other hand we felt sorry that some of us who didn't make it back couldn't be there to hear it. It was an emotional time for us. It brought tears to our eyes."
The response from the Navajo audience of more than 300 people in attendance was so positive about the experience that they hope to repeat it, Pete said.
"Our veterans were visibly moved," he said. "We wouldn't hesitate to have (the band) back. We hope they will come back on a yearly basis."
Second Lt. Lawrence Yazzie, a Navajo who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in May, went with the band as liaison with community.
"A lot of people go away from home into the real world with heroes like Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth," he said. "My grandparents, my ancestors, and the Code Talkers are the heroes of my cultural heritage. At the academy I was up studying late at night or doing hundreds of push-ups and thought that I had it hard, but it's nothing to what my ancestors and the Code Talkers went through."
Academy sports fans will remember Yazzie from his high-scoring days on the basketball team.
"As a member of the Academy basketball team, I've been on ESPN, playing in front of 22,000 people in an auditorium, but I would never have made it there if not for my ancestors. I would be nothing. I was very fortunate to be part of the band's concert. I was grateful for the opportunity to come back to thank them all for their sacrifice."