The exemplary reputation of U.S. Marine Corps’ Navajo “code talkers” during World War II is well documented, and I was saddened to learn about the death of one of those legendary American Indians who served their country with valor and distinction in the Pacific.
David Patterson Sr., 94, who was one of the few remaining code talkers, died two months ago at his home in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, from complications of pneumonia and a fall.
“He was brave until the very end, but he just was not strong enough to overcome the battle,” according to his son, Pat Patterson, one of his seven children. “This nation is indebted to David Patterson for his service,” said U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) upon learning of his death.
David Patterson, a USMC enlistee who served in combat on the Marshall Islands and Iwo Jima from 1943 until his honorable discharge at war’s end, was one of the 250-plus code talkers who used their native language to confuse and bewilder the Japanese enemy which was unable to translate the Indians’ language during combat operations against the U.S. and its allies on the Pacific islands. Although Patterson and the others were generally referred to as “Navajo code talkers” because most of them were Navajos, some were members of other tribes, such as the Comanche, Choctaw, Cheyenne and Lakota, who also used their tribal languages to confound Japanese intelligence agencies which had managed to tap into the Marines’ communication networks.
Patterson’s responsibility as a code talker, like that of his fellow code talkers, was to translate secret tactical messages from English into their respective native languages and then transmit them from the field to higher echelons. Upon receiving the messages, code talkers at the other end would re-translate them into English.
Adam Fortunate Eagle, a nationally known American Indian historian, author, artist and activist, who lives with his family on the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation at Stillwater east of Fallon, told me this week that he has met several of the code talkers, and “they must be praised by all of us as true American heroes.”
“They were prohibited from speaking about their wartime role until government secrecy about the code talkers was ended in 1968, 23 years after the end of World War II.” David Patterson and the others were finally acknowledged by the government in 2001, when they were presented with special Congressional medals. Patterson also was one of several code talkers who were honored during a half-time ceremony at the Major League baseball All-Star Game in New York City in 2013, he added.
“More than 39,000 Native Americans served in uniform during World War II. Four of them were my older brothers,” noted Fortunate Eagle, 89, who was born in Minnesota and is a member of the Red Lake Band of American Indians.
Ironically, just a month after Patterson’s death, President Donald Trump presided over a Nov. 28 White House ceremony that honored three of the 13 still-living code talkers along with their families and several officers of American Indian groups.
Although Trump praised the code talkers as “very special people” who “were here before any of us were here,” he was roundly criticized for using an alleged racial slur during the ceremony when he referred to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas,” a description of Warren he has often used in the past.
Although Warren has been unable to document her claim that she is of Native American heritage, representatives of at least a dozen leading U.S. Indian organizations have condemned Trump’s “Pocahontas” remark as, for example, “insensitive,” “demeaning,” “mocking” and a “disparaging, mean-spirited slight to our people.”
The young American Indian woman Pocahontas, the daughter of a high chief, who was kidnapped by British settlers in Virginia in the early 1600s and was forced to marry one of them who took her to England, where she later died, is often used by racists and bigots as a vulgar stereotype and “is an example of systemic, deep-seated ignorance” about Native Americans, said Amber Kanazbath Crotty, an officer of the Navajo National Council.
Native American Indian leader Marty Thompson, whose great uncle was a Marine Corps code talker, said he spoke for himself and many other Native Americans in demanding that Trump issue an official apology. So far, Trump has refused to do so.
Fallon’s Adam Fortunate Eagle told me that Trump’s Pocahontas reference was “insulting, crude and malicious” toward all Native Americans.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Eagle-Standard.