The effort required an 11-hour drive, three-years of discussion and seven decades of history, but Iowa’s connection to WW II grew a bit Saturday.
A family with members and roots in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico made the trip to the Welcome Home Soldier memorial in Albia. The monument honors active duty military and veterans. It featured crosses, a recognition wall and a flag from every state but one: New Mexico.
On Saturday, the veteran’s site in Monroe County dedicated the New Mexico flagpole and flag, to a US Marine from New Mexico. The late Wilford Buck served in WW II. He spent time at Pearl Harbor and in Saipan, as well as occupied Japan. Like his family visiting Albia Saturday, Buck represented the Navajo tribe. In fact, after eight weeks of boot camp, he became a Navajo code talker with the second wave of secret assets in the 1940s.
“It’s a very hard language to learn,” said Gloria Anderson, one of Buck’s daughters. “I tried to teach it to my own children.”
The code talkers, whose secret project was not declassified until the 1980s, didn’t just speak their native language over the radio. They spoke in code — which used Navajo as its base. And the native American ancestors had never had to come up with some modern warfare terms. The Navajo came up with their own terms: The Navajo words “iron fish,” sent encrypted, was used to mean “submarine.”
The Japanese, known as efficient codebreakers, never cracked this one, according to a documentary recommended by another Buck offspring, Theresa Savilla of Window Rock, Arizona.
“That’s the capital of the Navajo nation,” she said. “My father enlisted at 17. He was a corporal, Second Marine Division, at age 19. Otherwise, he lived all his life in New Mexico.”
She said there are only 14 living code talkers now. There had never been more than 1,000 of them.
“I heard about this Welcome Home Soldier [place] through my sister’s daughter Malaina [Anderson of Colorado. She was out here [in Iowa] with friends for a four-wheeling competition. One friend was in the military, and wanted to see this monument.”
The friend was part of the suicide awareness team in the race. He’d heard about the monument and wanted to visit. The friends spent a lot of time walking amongst the flags and flowers, crosses and engravings. That was nearly three years ago.
“I met Jim Keller while we were here, and told him my grandfather was a code talker,” said Malaina, Buck’s granddaughter. “He seemed interested right away.”
She kept up an occasional dialog with Jim — and her family. The mothers, grandmothers and children decided they would wait until most members could make the full day trip — 11 houra — to Albia.
The bright yellow flag is the last of the state flags dedicated. The decoration on he boot is a stylized sun.
“It’s a Zia Pueblo design,” said Savilla.
“We’re honored,” added Anderson, “to have my grandfather’s name on this flagpole.”
For those interested in code talking or Navajo customs, the family recommended an online resource, navajocodetalkers.org. Reporter Mark Newman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @couriermark.
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