Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

True American Heroes

              From the time I was a kid I would occasionally hear talk of a special breed of warrior that always made me feel proud. Now, other than the fact that these men were Americans, I can’t tell you why I felt the way I did other than these men were Marines.

My step father (everyone called him “Pop”) had served as a Marine in the South Pacific during World War Two. I remember how I couldn’t wait until I had grown sufficiently to be able to wear his “rough-out” boots, made specifically for the rigors of coral and beach landings. The term “rough-out” is a precise description of these boots. The rough side of the leather was on the outside of the boot. I also had a black-and-white 8”X10” portrait photo of him in his Marine green “Alphas” sporting his corporal chevrons. Pop also gave me his metal Marine emblems from that uniform. So you can see how I might gravitate to all-things Marine!

With the advent of the telephone (Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell!) virtually instant communication revolutionized the way everything was done in daily life. The military was one of the earliest users of the telegraph wire and its cousin, the telephone. Little wonder then that speaking to someone who is removed by miles through this electronic device was exciting, to say the least. Bell and his assistant, Watson, held the first transcontinental conversation in 1915. Bell was in New York and Watson was in San Francisco.

Two years later the United States would find itself immersed in World War One. The telegraph was still in use, but now there was also the telephone. Because electric wires could be tapped, messages could be intercepted requiring special means of communicating so the enemy could not figure out what was being said. This is where the Code Talkers come in. The most famous of these special warriors are the Navajo Code Talkers from WWII.
The first Code Talkers were the Choctaw and Cherokee who were used in WWI by the U.S. Army. An American Army officer overheard some of his men speaking in Choctaw. He surveyed his command and discovered he had eight men from the Choctaw tribe. Six more were brought in from other commands to form the first trained unit for combat. These men were so effective in communicating critical information on the front lines in the midst of hellish combat that they were credited with saving the day. “They helped the American Expeditionary Forces win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, during the final big German push of the war. Within 24 hours after the Choctaw language was pressed into service, the tide of the battle had turned. In less than 72 hours the Germans were retreating and the Allies were in full attack.”

Following the success of Native American languages in WWI, several tribes were called upon to provide code talkers for WWII. In the European Theater the use of code talkers by American forces was stifled because leading up to the war Hitler had sent a gaggle of anthropologists to the United States to study the various Indian languages. It proved too difficult, and so the project was scrapped. However, the United States did not know this to be true, so they adopted a non-use approach. The one highly effective exception was during the Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. Fourteen Comanche code talkers took part in the Invasion of Normandy, and continued to serve in the 4th Infantry Battalion during further European operations. Comanches of the 4th Signal Company compiled a vocabulary of over 100 code terms using words or phrases in their own language. Using a substitution method similar to the Navajo, the Comanche code word for tank was ‘turtle’, bomber was ‘pregnant airplane’, machine gun was ‘sewing machine’ and Adolf Hitler became ‘crazy white man.’”

Perhaps the best known were the Navajo code talkers. “Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II. Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajos, and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently.” A 2002 movie, Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater, focuses in on the Navajo code talkers during the numerous battles in the Pacific. The Navajo Code, as it was known, was a code based on two parts: 1) the Navajo language (notoriously difficult to learn or to understand); and 2) a code embedded in the language, meaning that even native speakers would be confused by it. Supposedly, this code was close to unbreakable, but so difficult only a few people could actually learn it.” It has been reported that throughout the war, the Navajo Code was never broken. Also, Navajo was an unwritten language at the outbreak of WWII, and fewer than 30 non-Navajos could understand the language.  
 A missionary kid (MK) was responsible for the formation and implementation of the amazing Navajo Code Talkers.

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