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When President Trump mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” the other day, in a childish attempt to score cheap political points against an adversary, it was more embarrassing to him than her.
Trump came across as juvenile, bigoted, crass. The resulting outcry was all too predictable, almost scripted.
Warren is a formidable politician and can defend herself, and she did.
But the real disgrace was that Trump’s adolescent name-calling completely overshadowed the people he was ostensibly trying to honor at the White House: Native American Code Talkers.
By displaying his most natural talent — calling attention to himself — the president inevitably diverted attention away from genuine American heroes, the Navajos who saved the lives of countless Marines and sailors and pilots during World War II.
Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona where his missionary parents served, learned the language from his childhood playmates. After World War II broke out, he went to the Marines and suggested the language could become a secret weapon.
The Marines recruited the Navajos to thwart the ability of Japanese code breakers to electronically intercept US military messages in the Pacific. The first group of 29 Code Talkers proved so successful that the Marines recruited some 400 Navajos who created and memorized a coded language of 260 words used in messages the enemy could not decipher.
Nothing was written down. The Code Talkers’ most effective weapon was held in an impenetrable carrier: their heads. They went through the same grueling boot camp that was the hardest in the military. They were Marines.
Of those 400 Code Talkers, part of the Greatest Generation that saved the world from fascism, only 13 are still alive, all in their 90s. Three were at the White House.
One of them, Fleming Begaye, is 97. His landing craft was blown up during the Battle of Tarawa and he had to swim to shore to survive. He landed on Tinian in Saipan and suffered gunshot wounds that put him in a naval hospital for a year.
Thomas Begay, another of the Code Talkers at the White House, was 16 when he joined the Fifth Marine Division that landed on Iwo Jima. More than 6,000 Marines died and another 25,000 were wounded on Iwo Jima, and as hard as that is to fathom, the casualties would have been worse if not for Thomas Begay and the Code Talkers.
Begay transmitted hundreds of messages on Iwo Jima, and says two Code Talkers were killed and five others wounded during the battle.
Larry Kirby, a Marine from the North Shore who fought across Iwo Jima, told me the Code Talkers never seemed scared.
“It was as though they accepted life as it came at them,” he said. “They were cool.”
One of the surviving Code Talkers, Peter MacDonald, spoke at the White House.
“What we did truly represents who we are as Americans,” he said. “America, we know, is composed of diverse communities. We have different languages, different skills, different talents, and different religions. But when our way of life is threatened, like the freedom and liberty that we all cherish, we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible. We cannot be defeated.”
MacDonald’s words were striking in their simplicity and power. At one of the most divisive moments in American history, he explained why “e pluribus unum” remains this nation’s defining motto: Out of many, one. The words were even more poignant given the sometimes disgraceful treatment of native people by the same government they served.
President Trump said he was so moved by MacDonald’s words that he decided not to read his prepared remarks about the Code Talkers. Instead, he took a shot at a political rival, used the word Pocahontas, and the Code Talkers story got lost in the shuffle.
To his credit, Trump said he supports the effort to build a Code Talkers museum in Arizona.
That museum would honor the legacy of the Code Talkers a lot more than that wall he wants to build in the same region.
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