GETTING TO KNOW THE...CODE TALKERS
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
Count them among the greatest of the Greatest Generation.
They are also America's newfound World War II heroes, the Navajo Indians who used their native tongue to mystify the Japanese.
Known as the "code talkers,'' these Marines used their native language as a code to help the United States win World War II.
Their code was not broken by the public last weekend but their story was.
The release of the war thriller "Windtalkers'' last weekend has pushed the code talkers into the national spotlight. "Windtalkers'' was the third-highest grossing movie in the nation last weekend.
Moviegoers are now asking, "What were the code talkers really like?''
For the answer look no further than Harold Blank, a retired Oregon State Police trooper from Cove. Blank did not know Navajo but he did know the code talkers.
Blank and 16 Navajo code talkers worked together for two years as members of the U.S. Marines' 1st Signal Battalion in the South Pacific.
Blank was responsible for maintaining the radio equipment for 16 Navajo code talkers.
"They were a good bunch. They were a nice bunch of easy-going guys,'' Blank said.
Blank, 89, was 10 years older than most of the Navajos.
"I was looked upon as a fatherly figure by them. Indians respect people for age,'' Blank said.
In "Windtalkers,'' the Navajos are often called the "code talkers.'' Blank said he had never heard this term used during the two years he worked with the Navajos.
"We would never have referred to them as code talkers because the Japanese were looking for code talkers,'' Blank said.
In "Windtalkers,'' the Navajos are shown on the front lines of combat scenes. Blank said the Navajos he worked with were never in combat.
"They were far too valuable to be put on the front lines,'' Blank said.
Blank was with the Navajos for about two years in the South Pacific, based first in New Caledonia, about 1,000 miles east of Australia.
Blank said he will never forget the first code test conducted in New Caledonia. Blank gave one of the Indians a copy of the Saturday Evening Post. A code talker then traveled 5 miles from the base and made radio contact. He then began reading a story from the Post in his language. A Navajo at the base received the radio transmission and instantly translated it into English. Blank was astounded by what he saw.
"I was dumbfounded, they were so accurate,'' Blank said.
Blank did not accompany the Navajo on their missions with the Navy. They would be gone for up to a month. It was an extremely covert operation.
"When they were shipped out they would never say anything. When they came back they didn't say anything. We didn't know how they operated. Nobody seemed to care. Everybody was busy doing their own job,'' Blank said.
Although the code talkers were never on the front lines they still had their share of close calls. Blank can remember several times when he and the Navajos narrowly avoided bombs dropped by enemy planes into their camp.
Blank said that all 16 of the code talkers in the 1st Signal Battalion survived World War II without a scratch.
"It is a miracle that they all came back,'' he said.
Blank is not surprised that the story of the code talkers was dramatized for the movie.
"I have lived in Hollywood. I know how they make a movie,'' Blank said.
Blank said that the Navajos in "Windtalkers'' are much taller than the ones he knew. The tallest of the 16 he worked with was about 5-foot-10.
Blank said that the code talkers were respected by everyone in the 1st Signal Battalion and he never detected racial prejudice. Still, all 16 of the code talkers in the 1st Signal Battalion were only privates initially. He knows of only one who was promoted to corporal.
The code talkers sometimes shared things about their lives with Blank. He recalled that one he knew best once told him about a girlfriend from Alaska who was an Eskimo. Once, the girl sent him smoked whale or walrus blubber as a gift while he was in the United States. Blank's friend did not know what to do with it.
Blank once had an Australian cowboy hat signed by all 16 of the Navajo he knew. Unfortunately, he lost it several years ago.
All but one of the code talkers Blank worked with have died. Blank said that it was hard to keep in contact with them over the years because they never attended any reunions. Blank was told that this is because most of the former code talkers were so poor they could not afford airline tickets.
The box office tally of last weekend's movies is sadly ironic moviegoiers paid $14.5 million to see "Windtalkers'' in its debut.