Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The language that became a mighty weapon

Smithsonian exhibition honors World War II Native American code talkers

Navajo code talkers Corporal Henry Bahe Jr., left, and Private First Class George H. Kirk on the island of Bougainville, South Pacific, December 1943.

National Archives

Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 2:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 2:34 p.m.

Many stories from World War II have become legend, such as the Doolittle Raid and the battle of Iwo Jima. Some stories are still waiting to be told. The Smithsonian exhibit “Native Words, Native Warriors” examines one of the most intriguing collaborations to take place in the history of the U.S. military.


Native Words, Native warriors

What: Petaluma Museum present the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit honoring World War II code talkers.
When: April 21 through July 1
Where: Petaluma Museum, 20 Fourth St.

Admission: $5 general, $3 seniors and children under 12. Admission is free for kids under 5. Admission for veterans will be free on Memorial Day, May 28.

Information: 778-4398 or visit www.petalu

Developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, “Native Words, Native Warriors” shares the stories of the code talkers, U.S. military soldiers who came from more than a dozen Native American tribes. The exhibit opens April 21 and continues through July 1. The Petaluma Museum was selected to be the exclusive California exhibitor.

“We are extremely proud to be hosting an exhibition from such a prestigious institution,” said Joe Noriel, museum president. “The code talkers received little recognition for their service after the war, even though their efforts were instrumental in the victory in the Pacific. We are honored to tell the story of these unsung heroes.”

During World War II, the Japanese monitored American military communications to their advantage, but the U.S. came up with an interesting solution, the use of Native Americans and their language. The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Native American dialect. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S Army and Air Corps they could never crack the Native American codes used by the Marines. The Native American languages became a valuable weapon.

“The exhibit includes rare native American artifacts, World War II artifacts, including code talker phones, uniforms and even World War II era motorcyles and memorabilia,” said Noriel. “Also, a great collection of Japanese military artifacts on loan from the Petaluma Military Museum.”

The exhibit also examines the sharp turnaround many of the Native Americans experienced as they transitioned from Indian boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their Native language to using it as their call to duty for their country.

Noriel said that the U.S. military first enlisted American Indians to relay messages in their Native languages during World War I, even though the United States did not consider American Indians citizens until 1924. These encoded messages proved undecipherable by the enemy and helped the United States achieve victory.

The involvement of the code talkers expanded during World War II. Soldiers from the Comanche, Meskwaki, Sioux, Crow, Hopi and Cree nations, among others, took part in the effort. The best known of these projects is the formerly classified Navajo Code Talker Program, established by the U.S. Marine Corps in September 1942. The encoded messages proved to be a fast, accurate and indecipherable-to-the-enemy alternative, which suited the demands of the battlefield better than the painfully slow military devices that had been standard.

“It’s almost certain that America would not have been able to win the war without the code talkers,” said Noriel. “It’s hard to estimate the number of American lives that they saved. It’s an amazing story that every American should know.”

Twenty-three years after the end of World War II, the U.S. government declassified the Navajo and Comanche code talker programs and revealed America’s unsung heroes. In 1999 the U.S. Army presented the last surviving Comanche code talker with a the Knowlton award for outstanding intelligence work, and in 2001 President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to four of the five living veterans of the original 29 Navajo code talkers.

In addition to the “Native Words, Native Warriors” exhibit, there will also be a guest speaker series.

Larry Yepez a Native American who served in Vietnam, will speak at 3 p.m. May 12. Yepez is currently participating in an upcoming Smithsonian exhibition on Native American soldiers serving in Vietnam.

At 3 p.m. on June 2, the museum and the United States Congress will present a program promoting the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey will be promoting the project and World War II veterans will be on hand to speak about their experiences.

Admission is $5 general, $3 seniors and children under 12 years. Children under 5 are free. The museum will offer free admission to veterans on Memorial Day, May 28.

For more information, call the Petaluma Museum at 778-4398 or visit the website at www.petaluma

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