Of course, like all things heroic and mythic in nature, the story of these citizen-soldiers never ended; their tale and the vision that goes along bravely, unquestionably, continues advancing into the future, into infinity.
That certainly seemed the case on Tuesday, April 3, when Senator Martin Heinrich visited the New Mexico Veteran’s Memorial on the south side of town to honor code talker Adolph Nagurski and his family while reflecting on the true nature of loyalty, democracy and citizen involvement on a bright and beautiful springtime morning that happened right here in Burque.
Before we delve further into this timeworn yet tried and true narrative of dutiful decisions, you might do well to ask yourself—just like I did—“What the heck is a fella from Diné Bikéyah doing with a name like Adolph Nagurski, for crissakes?”
After that minor deviation from canon—I mean, what are the chances of a superhero being named after a super villian?—the rest, as the textbooks say, is history.
According to those well-sourced in the wartime activities of Nagurski, he was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal, posthumously—the medal was presented to his family at the ceremony’s close—for participating in vital communications missions during the invasion of South Pacific islands by allied forces in 1944 and 1945—victories that presaged the fall of Imperial Japan and the end of the war. Nagurski served in the most bloody and dehumanizing of these conflicts, at Iwo Jima, yet returned to a productive and fruitful life in California and Arizona after the war was over.
Nagurski and his comrades—like Wilfred E. Billey, the code talker we had lunch with back there in the aughts—developed and used a communications code based on their language, and more aptly, symbolic of their language, like a series of inside jokes or witticisms, that the Japanese were never able to crack. The decided advantage in communicating led to advantages on the battlefield and overwhelming success for the allies against a turgid and tenacious foe.
Though the military apparatus behind the code talkers remained top secret for 20 years after Admiral Halsey was asked to ride Hirohito’s white stallion through Tokyo, their heroic efforts in the jungles of the south of Japan and north of Australia became the stuff of legends. In 2000, silver medals were ordered and a movie starring Nicholas Cage was commissioned in 2002.
But Nagurski didn’t make the initial celebration in Washington. He was ill. Time went on and time ultimately carried Adolph away from this world. His medal went into storage, but his story was told over and over, until officials at Senator Martin Heinrich’s office became part of the loop.
Through the dedicated efforts of Nagurski’s family, the US Marine Corps and not to mention Senator Heinrich’s guidance, a plan to finally recognize Nagurski came into being and unfolded itself flag-like on April 3.
All that stuff sounds great as far as legends and myths and so forth go, but it’s cool to think about the purely human aspects of Nagurski’s narrative too. Colonized, denied his own culture by the large apparatus of the federal government, Nagurski nonetheless demonstrated loyalty and was dutiful when the time came; when the tide of fascism rose to unbearable levels in our world, he went out to meet it, using his own culture as a weapon.
And so he bore the horrors and suffering of war, so that freedom of the press, a universal middle class, rock and roll music and America itself could be passed on, when the time came. His son Benjamin told the gathered audience that in Nagurski’s world, the Navajo universe, one was either 100 percent at peace, or 100 percent at war. When Adolph came home to the rez, his son told those gathered, he was at peace.
The men and women, some military, some puro civilian, at today’s ceremony also seemed at peace, confident that the mechanisms in place to ensure and sustain democracy are lifted up each time we remember and then re-tell the tale of what really happened all those years ago on planet Earth.