A Native American Story You’ve Probably Never Heard

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a perfect time to share a story that you won’t read in any school textbook.

You’ve likely heard about the Navajo Code Talkers, US Marines of Navajo descent who used their native tongue to baffle Japanese code breakers during World War II. Their work is credited with helping end the war years earlier than predicted. Despite their unique skills and heroic efforts, they were subject to racism and discrimination and were treated poorly to put it mildly.

Their work was top secret. Most Americans (including their fellow soldiers) didn’t realize there were native people serving in the military and didn’t know about their significant contributions to the war effort until years later.

Here’s the story you likely haven’t heard.

A chance encounter brought together a photographer and one of these Code Talkers in the mid-seventies.

The Code Talker was a man named Carl Gorman who picked up a hitchhiking photographer near Window Rock, Arizona. They became acquainted and the photographer showed interest in the culture and history of the Code Talkers.

He was invited to a Navajo Code Talkers Association meeting and was welcomed into the group. The photographer began following the Code Talkers to parades and other functions where they appeared, eventually becaming their official association photographer.

That photographer was a Japanese man whose father was a surviving Kamikaze pilot from World War II.

You read that correctly.

The Navajo Code Talkers welcomed to their tight knit community a stranger who descended from the very people they had worked so hard to defeat only a few decades earlier.

Eventually, photographer Kenji Kawano began a new project, photographing Code Talkers in their own environments – in their homes and workplaces.

Some proudly wore their uniforms. Others posed with portraits of their young selves. Some saluted for the camera, a few posed with their spouses. Kenji reached some too late – they were already deceased – so he photographed their families or their military portraits.

Some of these portraits were compiled in a book along with a quote from each man. This is how I learned the story.

I actually picked up the book “Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers” at the Crazy Horse Memorial this summer, thinking that it was just a nice book of photos to peruse on the plane. I had no idea that it would be such a moving experience to learn about the Code Talkers and the unlikely friend who would tell their story.

One of them spoke of how he was captured by U.S. Army soldiers who mistook his Navajo features as Japanese – a common problem for many of the Code Talkers.

Another spoke of how he continued to question why he had to kill and spoke of the psychological impact it had on him.

Another said that he joined up because there were no jobs on the Reservation.

The stories they tell often are only a sentence or two, sometimes a paragraph, making it an easy but significant read.

If you aren’t a reader but enjoy photography and want to know more about this topic, this book is the way to go. You’ll learn a lot and be moved. You’ll also walk away with a number of questions and perhaps even with a new world view. It certainly worked for me.

It gives me hope to think of the kindness the Code Talkers showed this young photographer. They didn’t have to invite him to their meetings or allow him to stick around for pictures. They certainly didn’t have to welcome this son of their one-time enemy into their homes.

Kenji said that it was a bit awkward at first. I imagine this is an understatement. But if this unlikely friendship could develop and flourish, there’s hope for us all. In this divided world we live in today where we have so little tolerance for people who hold different views than us, we can use all the hope we can get.

Read the book if you can. I promise you won’t regret it.

The Right Place at the Right Time

Occasionally, you find yourself standing in exactly the right place at precisely the right moment and with a camera in your hand.

That’s what happened to me the day I made this picture which I happen to really like.

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The picture was made at Wright Patterson Air Force Base the day I visited with my dad to see the Memphis Belle. Torrential rain had really dampened most of the planned outdoor activities but a few hearty souls were out with their planes, Jeeps and food trucks between showers.

I wanted to see the bombers but dad and I had stopped to look at this Jeep when this reenactor came into view in the mirror.

It was like seeing a ghost in the mirror.

Here’s the full Jeep in case you’re interested.

fb3Want to read more about that day? I’ll write more about the museum this winter but you can read about seeing the Memphis Belle by clicking here.

Honoring the Memphis Belle

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Dad and I with the Memphis Belle. Notice that I’m wearing my Rosie the Riveter shirt? Yes, I am a nerd!

As a student of history, I was over the moon last year when the Memphis Belle was installed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. They had a big weekend that included World War II reenactors, big band music and all sorts of other things.

My dad is a history buff too – he’s actually where I caught the bug from – so I dragged him along for a little father-daughter quality time. This was sort of a big deal because we don’t often get to do things on our own. Growing up, it was always me with my mother or all of us as a family but never dad and I alone.

Turns out the weather was horrible and rainy, ruining most of the outdoor fun but we had a nice time anyway.

If you’ve never been to this museum, it’s a great way to pass a day and it’s free. It’s packed full of planes and stories that you won’t read in most history books.

a crew.jpgThe Memphis Belle exhibit does a nice job telling the story of this plane and crew. The B-17 was vital to the war effort, having flown in every combat zone during World War II. The Memphis Belle was important because it completed 25 missions over Europe, a dangerous proposition and unheard of when it happened in 1942 and 1943.

The crew became symbols of the war effort, personifying all the young men who were doing their part to fight evil overseas. They ranged in age from 19 to 26 and came from across this nation. These were very young men, likely with little life experience, who were sent to hell and back 25 times.

I can’t imagine the terror they faced. I mean, can you imagine climbing into a plane time after time, knowing that you likely wouldn’t live through the day? And it wasn’t just the Memphis Belle crew – these guys beat very long odds to survive – but sixteen million Americans served in this war, asked every day to face the unthinkable.

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Many of these planes were lost to time following the war. But the Memphis Belle dodged that bullet, so to speak. It was sent to Memphis where it sat out in the elements for decades. Damaged by weather, vandals and looters, it was in pretty bad shape. But it was acquired by the museum and sent to Dayton for restoration several years ago. We were lucky to be there for the festivities when the plane was installed in Dayton in time for the 75th anniversary of the planes’ 25th mission.

Displays feature each of the crew members and there are some artifacts on display in addition to the plane itself. I especially loved this stained glass window.

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Want to visit the Memphis Belle at the Air Force Museum? Click here. I’ll write more about the museum another day.