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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Navajo Code Talkers--but not Nicholas Cage version, thank goodness!

Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code TalkersNavajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers by Sally McClain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the books I picked up on my latest visit to Navajoland. My father told me about the Navajo code talkers years ago and I'm not sure if it was before the declassification of the code or before. I only know that I'd heard of them when I was much younger but it wasn't until a visit to Window Rock, Az several years ago that my memory of them was revived. During various trips to places on the Navajo Nation I'd chatted a bit with some of the Dine about their language and this inevitably led to at least a short discussion of them. There is a beautiful memorial statue to them beneath the actual Window Rock and somewhere, but not sure where, I had occasion to view pictures and documents about them, perhaps in the museum in Gallup, NM. Yet, for all that, I never bothered to pick up a book about these remarkable Marines and their story. I think because there are several volumes available in the various historic places in the Nation and I just never was able to decide which to read.
This year, my sister, on her first trip to Hubbell Trading Post purchased a Code Talker memoir. This got me looking more closely at the offerings and, finally, I made my choice, two books by Sally McClain. I've already reviewed what I consider her introductory volume, a slim book describing her research methods and experiences in gathering the information that she would then organize and weave into this volume.

The format of the book is very inviting and begins with the story of the Long Walk, the Navajo's displacement to Bosque Redondo in the north eastern portion of New Mexico. A terribly inhospitable place for those who survived the enforced march to attempt to survive. If one has not read her first book about the search for the talkers, the significance of this chapter is lost on the reader. Yet, in almost every interview she held with a Code Talker the first thing they spoke of was the Long Walk--an event so important to the individual Navajo that there is a sense of immediacy rather than historic revelation on the part of the narrator. This is something each of the Dine feel in their beings as having been experienced personally.

The second chapter is just as significant to the story for it tells of the conditions as they developed in Japan in the years between the world wars. Natural disasters, economic collapse and disease had reduced the country to one of starvation and homelessness. The military convinced the Emperor that only through the annexation of vast territories around the Pacific Ocean could the natural resources and food and labor needed for survival be obtained. And so, the Japanese set out to conquer the whole of the Pacific while the European powers were preoccupied with defeating Hitler and Mussolini. They also felt that their greatest obstacle to their plan was the United States Navy and so it was decided to annihilate it as soon as possible.

With those two chapters, Ms McClain defined the character and motivation of the major players in her book--the Japanese who, at all costs, including individual deaths, were determined to control a major part of the Earth and the Navajo Americans, who, through their devotion to Mother Earth and her protection, would become a major weapon of the USMC to prevent that from happening.

Step by step, battle by battle, the reader is carried along with the Marines and their Navajo Code Talkers through the Pacific campaign. I'm not a great military history buff and avoid reading many books on the subject because the minutia of the battle plan confuses me and gives me headaches. I just don't get into reading the maps and analyzing the dotted and solid lines of military movement or the arrows and colored zones ect. Yet, though the battles are described with some detail it is not overwhelming and throughout the narrative there are comments and recollections of the Code Talkers, their bodyguards and their other fellow Marines in the trenches as well as officers. These help to personalize and humanize the action and keeps the reader engrossed.

The conditions of places such as Guadalcanal, Iwo and Okinawa are described so vividly; the determination and stubbornness of the Japanese defenders bring home the difficulty facing the Marine invaders and their overwhelming steadfastness in achieving the goal of securing these islands for the eventual staging areas of a full bore invasion of mainland Japan is remarkably vivid. All through it, the amazing speed of the Navajo sending messages using the alphabet and vocabulary they developed without needing to code and decode is shown to be one of the major reasons any of these assaults were successful and shown to have been incredibly responsible for saving untold number of lives.

In the end, Ms McClain shows that these men returned home without any fanfare, carried on with thei lives without any special recognition and obeyed the order to refrain from revealing anything about their wartime experiences for over 25 years! Through her efforts, finally, as old age and in some cases,death, claimed these men, their remarkable contributions have been lauded and revealed.

Having read these volumes, my appetite for more information has been whetted and on my return to the Navajo Nation, several more of the books on these men will be added to my library. Too bad, in some ways we declassified the code, perhaps it would have come in handy in the various military actions we have engrossed ourselves in since 1945. On the other hand, had that been the case, a story about men, mistreated by their government, without the right to vote at the time, decided that Mother Earth needed protection, that Navajo Land is part of America and therefore America's call had to be answered, no matter the history of past relations.

May the Navajo Nation endure for all time to come!

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  1. Enjoyed your blog today. Would it be OK if I sent you an ebook of my new novel so you could review it here and at Shelfari?
    Let me know by my email, dmd311@cshore.com
    Thanks, Mike

    1. Hello Michael--I hope you are doing well. Although I'd love to read your book and review it, I'm afraid ebooks and I don't work. I just cannot read looking at a screen of any sort. The only thing worse is trying to listen to books on tape--my mind wanders so much--all of a sudden I hear something and say, how did that happen, and have to go back to the last conscious hearing, which can be many "pages" ago. I hope you understand, I'm just a hard copy kind of girl. LOL Katherine