Saturday’s ceremony to unveil 300 new commemorative bricks on the Havasu Memorial Walkway—including 33 to honor the Navajo Code Talkers—had the pageantry of a Fourth of July Parade.
The Havasu Freedom Foundation’s Memorial Walkway is a commemorative brick path that begins at the London Bridge and extends alongside the Bridgewater Channel. The Walkway also includes a series of bricks which contain short essays on the history of freedom in America. Anyone can sponsor a brick to honor a veteran, a special occasion, a family member, or an organization. The proceeds are used to fund scholarships and support veterans.
Gary Meyers has been involved with the Walkway from its inception in 2007
currently the vice president of the Freedom Foundation. He introduced the dignitaries, shared a little about the Walkway, and served as the day’s emcee.
The Marine Corps League’s color guard presented the colors, Mayor Cal Sheehy gave a proclamation before Laura Tohe and Zonnie Gorman, both daughters of code talkers, treated everyone to a history lesson about the Navajo Code Talkers.
About 45 family members of the original code talkers journeyed long distances to Lake Havasu for the ceremony. The program concluded with the children of code talker families reading the names of the original code talkers. When a name was read, the family members of that code talker stood up to applause.
After the mournful 24 notes of Taps, played flawlessly by Dante Marinelli, the Navajo families led the way to the unveiling of the bricks and the ribbon cutting by the Chamber of Commerce.
There were 29 original Navajo Code Talkers who created a verbal code for radio operators in battles with the Japanese. The code kept communications secure, which saved lives and hid strategies and troop movements.
At the war’s end, the code talkers were told not to talk about what they did in the war. The military wanted to be able to use the code if America went to fight again. The confidentiality may have also been motivated by a desire to protect the code talkers and their families. However, the secrecy also meant that the code talkers exploits went unrecognized until the program was de-classified in 1968. They finally could receive the honors they richly deserved.
Ronald Thompson’s dad, Nelson, one of the original 29 and he didn’t want to talk about the war. Ronald has had to research the code talkers on his own. About a dozen of the Thompson family came, and they arrived early so they could sit in the front row. His mother Marlene is the last surviving spouse of the original code talkers.
Kermit Palmer’s dad, Balmer Slow Talker, told him, “I did my duty. I didn’t do anything anyone else didn’t do.” Although his dad wasn’t happy with the way the Navajos were treated, he said, “When the U.S. was attacked, we were attacked.” The last order his dad received from the Marines was, “Don’t talk about it.”
Guest Speaker Laura Tohe, a well-known author, poet and ASU professor, wrote Code Talker Stories. She shared some history and moved the audience with a stirring poem she wrote from the point of view of the Navajo Code Talker, which included Navajo phrases.
Keynote Speaker Zonnie Gorman, daughter of Carl N. Gorman, one of the original 29, is a recognized historian of the Navajo Code Talkers. “I knew my father was a code talker, but I didn’t know what they did. He always told funny stories, so I grew up thinking war was funny.”
She said Navajos were recruited from reservations with the idea of creating a pilot program of about 30 men. They didn’t know why they were recruited until after graduating from Marine Corps boot camp when they were assigned to communications school and asked to invent a secret communications code using the Navajo language for combat radio operators.
In April 1942, the first 29 went through boot camp together. It was later learned that an additional four men ended up with the initial group bringing the total to 33.
“The initial code was around 200 terms,” she said. “There was no written code that has ever come to light.” The code eventually expanded to about 700 words and the Japanese cryptologists were never able to crack it.
“A lot of people don’t understand that it was an evolutionary program,” Gorman noted. “They started to use them only as battlefield radio operators and then expanded their use to other forms of communication. In Iwo Jima, they used the code talkers to coordinate the landings and the movement of the ships. The Marine Corps really utilized them and saw the potential.”
Mark Partida, Ken Bobee and John Walter from the Lake Havasu Public Works Department laid most of the 300 bricks. Gary Meyers even chipped in to help, offering a little hands-on management.
“Donating a brick is a great way to honor anyone who has fought for our freedoms,” he said. “The commemorative bricks beautify the path along the channel, creating a memorial that can be studied and enjoyed by visitors as well as residents.”
Meyers estimates about 1,800 bricks have been laid to date. “We have room for thousands more. All the funds except the cost of the bricks become charitable donations. We know the money goes to good causes and we’re honoring our veterans in the process. Get on the path and be a part of history.”
The sponsorships range from $85 or $175 depending on the size of the brick. The Freedom Foundation gives half of the proceeds to the Marine Corps League Detachment #757 who contributes them to important veterans programs. The London Bridge Rotary club funds its various scholarships with the rest.
To order an engraved memorial brick online go to www.havasu memorialwalkway.org or by calling 1-866-929-5250.