Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Comanche Code Talkers

Photograph from the article "Charles Chibitty: Comanche Code Talker"
posted on the U.S. Army website.
It never ceases to amaze me how much I don't know. I'm working as hard as I can to fix that, the not knowing part, but I'm afraid I'm going to run out of time. Whenever I run across some factoid that I'm not familiar with or I don't think was explained well enough, I have to run down some more information on it. Here's a perfect example from this morning: I ran across a newspaper article that caught my eye while doing an Internet search for something completely different (yep, that still happens). This article in the Lawton Constitution informed me (before I hit information cutoff and they demanded a subscription to read the rest of the article) that the annual Comanche Fair this year would be honoring the Comanche Code Talkers from World War II. In fact, if you can't make it to the fair, there is a museum exhibit dedicated to the Code Talkers that you can visit year-round at the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, in Lawton, Oklahoma.

I know what you're thinking, Comanche Code Talkers? I thought the Code Talkers were Navajo, like the movie, right? I had to do some quick research on this. Turns out, members of several tribes served as Code Talkers during both WWI and WWII. Code Talkers are soldiers who can use their native language in radio and telephone communications like a code, since to the enemy the language is so obscure they have virtually no hope of translating it. During WWI the Army started the practice using Native American soldiers of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Comanche tribes. They proved to be very effective. So much so that during the inter-war years, Adolf Hitler sent about thirty anthropologists to Oklahoma to try to learn Native American languages. They failed. The languages were too difficult and there were too many dialects.

During WWII the United States Marine Corps accelerated the program and recruited more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers. (The USMC also experimented with the Basque language, utilizing about 60 native speakers of that language.) The size of the Marines' Code Talker program and exposure in popular culture has resulted in most of us associating "Code Talkers" with the Navajo tribe. Because of Germany's attempt to learn Native American languages, the U.S. Army was hesitant to use Code Talkers in the European Theater. However, on a limited scale, the U.S. Army employed some Native American speakers against the Germans. That included recruiting from 27 Meskwaki (Fox) men from Iowa who joined the Army as a group. Eight of them eventually became Code Talkers and served in combat against the Germans in North Africa.

The United States Army also recruited seventeen Comanche Indians to serve as Code Talkers. As a further safety measure they developed a "code within a code" by coming up with over 100 code words within their own language. Fourteen of these men were assigned to the 4th Infantry Division and landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Two of the Code Talkers were assigned to each regiment in the division and the rest were assigned to division headquarters. Their unique skills were put to work on their first day in Normandy. Although several were wounded, all of the Comanche Code Talkers survived the war.

The last Comanche Code Talker passed away in 2005. However, a grateful nation does not stop honoring these men who through their special skill and service saved untold numbers of their fellow American soldiers.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book R & R: The Deserters

This Book Review and Recommendation is for "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II" by Charles Glass.

The United States put approximately sixteen million men and women in uniform during WWII. Only about ten percent of them actually saw combat as front line soldiers, marines, and sailors. If you have ever read even one book on the combat history of a unit, you will come to realize that most combat units during the Second World War, once initial training was complete and sent to a theater of operations, saw combat over and over, for weeks at a time. Units would participate in a campaign, then be sent to a rear area to receive and train replacements, before heading into combat again for the next campaign. It was not uncommon, like in the case of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, to see at the end of the war only a handful of men still remaining who had been with the unit from the start.

Of course we all now know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the affect it has on military personnel in every echelon. However, during WWII, "combat fatigue" was commonly believed to be something you could more or less cure in a few days with a little rest, recreation, and a hot meal. About 50,000 men deserted from the battlefields of Europe during the war. (There were negligible desertions in the Pacific, as the soldiers and marines really had no place to desert to.) According to author Charles Glass, many of these soldiers left the line as a result of "shell shock" or "battle fatigue," or what we now call PTSD. Others became disillusioned with the war, wondering what they were going to die for. Over seventy percent of deserters were from front line units, and they were judged harshly and treated quite unfairly by their rear echelon peers and commanders.

Charles Glass is the former Chief Middle East Correspondent for ABC News, and has authored other highly praised narrative histories with a World War II theme like "Americans in Paris." In "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II" he examines the reality of what it cost in terms of human sacrifice to win the Second World War. To accomplish this Glass tells us the stories of three soldiers, one British and two American, who ran afoul of the system's treatment of those soldiers who deserted as a reaction to "battle fatigue" (PTSD). It is well researched and engagingly written. Along the way you will learn about the incompetence of the medical evaluation of these men and the cruelty of the military justice system. You will read how the military handled executions, (for crimes other than desertion, Private Eddie Slovak was the only soldier executed during WWII for that offense), and learn about criminal gangs of deserters in Paris and London who were actually slowing the war effort because of their theft of Allied military supplies for sale on the black market. If you are like me, "The Deserters" will expose a facet of the war in Europe that you have never considered.

Here's an anecdote for you: During my masters program, I took a class on the Civil War. On the first night of class the professor stated clearly that "in this class we will never read or discuss anything having to do with anyone pointing a gun at another person." He meant that the class was about the results and reactions to the war, not the tactics and strategy of it. We read and discussed books about the literature of the war, the medical and burial systems during the war, the home front during the war, and so on. We read, wrote a paper on, and passionately discussed (some might say argued) thirteen books in thirteen weeks and it was one of the best classes on military history I've ever had, a real eye-opener.

If you wish to have a well informed, thorough understanding of war, and particularly WWII, then I cannot urge you strongly enough to read this book. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

MACV and How To Fix History

MACV Shoulder Patch
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with the history of military units. To date I've written forty-two summary histories of military units that have been posted on the Military Vet Shop website. I think of them as "the story behind the shoulder patch," and as such, most of them are about army units. However, I've done a few marine and navy articles as well. Yesterday we put up a history of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which is more commonly referred to as MACV (pronounced "mac-vee" for those who haven't heard the term before).

If you like, and I would be grateful, you can read this short article at this link: MACV History. But if you're pressed for time, I'll give you the gist of it. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was the equivalent to the theater headquarters for the Vietnam War. Although it was dominated by the Army and commanded by a succession of Army generals, it was a joint services command that was responsible for any and all army, navy, marine, and air force assets that were "boots on the ground" in Vietnam. In existence from 1962 to 1973, MACV was commanded by a succession of only four generals, two of which were quite famous in their association with the United States Army's involvement in Vietnam: William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams. (Okay, I can't help it, I have to throw in that "it's a small world thing": Westmoreland was my dad's regimental commander in Korea - 187th Airborne, and Abrams' son John was my regimental commander in Germany - 11th ACR) Since MACV was created before regular combat forces arrived in South Vietnam, and was disbanded not quite sixty days after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the history behind the MACV shoulder patch is in a way the history of the Vietnam War.

Now, why did I title this post How To Fix History? I have an acquaintance that writes for a regional newspaper and occasionally does a feature on an area veteran. As part of that he writes a short history of the combat events that the veteran was involved in. My friend shared with me an email he received in response to one of his articles that was, quite frankly, a flamer. The point of contention was the impact a particular event had for the course of military history, not that it really matters, because this individual was so incredibly rude, not to mention incoherent. I told my friend, "Hey! I get those too!" And there I was prior to this thinking I was the only one. So I thought I'd address this phenomenon here.

Napoleon supposedly said that "history is a set of lies agreed upon." Well, sometimes we don't agree and we need to debate the issues a bit. I get that. Sometimes writers make mistakes. Sometimes the references that writers use are in conflict with other references. Sometimes you were there and just know it didn't happen that way. But why do so many fans of history, passionate they may be, just run into the ring and start swinging? There's rules in polite society, don't you know? Are you drunk emailing? Here's what I'm asking you to do: 

By all means if you dispute a fact in one of my histories, then send me an email. If you want to be taken seriously and have any action considered you must be civil, you need to identify yourself, state what the issue is, and give me a reference for your correction. Easy, right? If you will do that, I will reply to you and I will sincerely consider your argument. Crazy, ranting, angry emails get deleted, no action taken. By the same token, if you have a positive comment to make on a blog posting, then please feel free to leave a comment. Positive doesn't mean that you can't disagree with me. But hateful comments or gibberish gets removed immediately.

There, I feel better already. Don't you?

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