Cheeseburgers And Code Talkers

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Japanese tourists heading to the Grand Canyon often pass through the Navajo Reservation town of Kayenta, Arizona, but when they stop at the local Burger King, it’s not just for food. A 75-foot message sign advertises the real attraction: NAVAJO CODE TALKER EXHIBIT (alternating with 99-CENT WHOPPER!).

 

Japanese tourists heading to the Grand Canyon often pass through the Navajo Reservation town of Kayenta, Arizona, but when they stop at the local Burger King, it’s not just for food. A 75-foot message sign advertises the real attraction: NAVAJO CODE TALKER EXHIBIT (alternating with 99-CENT WHOPPER!).

Inside are displays of Japanese guns, grenades, and flags retrieved from Pacific battlefields during World War II. Another wall is covered with photographs of a group of Navajo Indians who played a key role in defeating the Japanese. “The exhibit is even in Japanese tour books,” says the restaurant’s owner, Richard Mike. “They’ve told me they don’t have anything like this in their own country.” And no wonder.

Mike’s father, who died four years ago, was King Mike, one of some 400 Navajo “code talkers,” Marines who used the unwritten Navajo language to transmit sensitive military messages. Since Navajo follows an uncommon combination of linguistic rules and relies on the speaker’s inflection to convey much of its meaning, even the extremely sophisticated Japanese cryptologists could not decode it. Other Indian languages, such as Choctaw, had been used in military codes during World War I, but not on nearly so large a scale. Navajo code talkers participated in virtually every Pacific theater from late 1942 through the end of the war. King Mike brought many of the museum’s artifacts back from the Pacific himself, and World War II veterans who happened upon his son’s Burger King while vacationing have donated their own war souvenirs.

The code talkers were sworn to secrecy when they returned from the war, since the Pentagon thought the Navajo language might be needed in another conflict. Still, Teddy Draper, Jr., whose father was a code talker, credits their success with starting a revival of the language. In the 1940s, Navajo children in federal Indian schools who spoke their native language had gotten their mouths washed out with soap, but now they were a potentially valuable part of the nation’s defense. In 1968 the code was declassified, and recently interest in the story has revived. Two Hollywood studios currently have major motion pictures about the Navajo code talkers in the works.

—Bill Papich