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Pictures that speak

HISTORY | A Japanese photographer’s images captured the Navajo code talkers of WWII

Navajo code talker Merril L. Sandoval and his grandson in Tuba City, Ariz., in 2005 Kenji Kawano Photography

Pictures that speak
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At a photo exhibit at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz., photographer Kenji Kawano stops at a showcase displaying an old Nikon camera alongside a ­companion canister of Kodak 400TX. He’s surrounded by 16-by-20 images of Navajo Indians. Specifically, photos of history-making code talkers who played a pivotal role in World War II.

It’s Kawano’s Nikon, and he took the photos. At 74, he stresses he’s not averse to digital cameras. But for his important ­projects—this project—it’s all film, the product of a 35 mm lens and long hours in the darkroom.

In this town, Kawano stands out as much as the black-and-white images lining the walls. He’s a Japanese man on an Indian ­reservation. Yet he’s made it his life’s work to capture images of his native country’s former enemies.

The subjects of these pictures held a key to some American successes in the war’s Pacific theater. The code talkers’ secret weapons were their tongues, rapidly firing words in their native dialect. The Japanese found the strange, gurgling sounds coming through their headsets impossible to decipher.

The Navajo language had no written form at that time. Even today, few non-­Navajos can speak it. One person who could was Philip Johnston, a military veteran who had grown up on the Navajo reservation while his parents served there as missionaries. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnston learned the military was attempting to develop an unbreakable code using Native American languages. He suggested Navajo.

Kenji Kawano (right) with Navajo code talker John Kinsel Sr.

Kenji Kawano (right) with Navajo code talker John Kinsel Sr. Bazhnibah

Around 400 Navajos went on to participate in the code talker program, transmitting tactical information over telephone and radio, and sometimes by foot. During the invasion of Iwo Jima, six Navajos worked tirelessly to send more than 800 messages. All of the messages transmitted without error, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Signal officer Maj. Howard Connor later said without the Navajos the Marines could not have taken the island.

Even so, the code that stymied the Japanese was developed by people who looked remarkably similar to them. American soldiers sometimes mistakenly identified Navajo Marines as Japanese.

Those similar facial features made Kawano feel comfortable when he arrived at the Navajo reservation in 1974. That was six years after the declassification of the Navajo code talkers operation, and reservation residents were still learning about the important work the Navajo platoons had done.

Kawano got to know one of the code talkers, Carl Gorman, during a hitchhiking experience. “He introduced me to his company of men,” Kawano remembers. “They each wore the Navajo code talker’s uniform—a turquoise-­colored hat, a gold Navajo shirt, well-pressed khakis. I decided to take photographs of them.”

Over time, Kawano became the official photographer for the code ­talkers association. His portraits of the aging men were published in 1990 as a coffee table book, now in its 20th printing. Most pages include a 5-by-7 of a code talker in his home setting, along with a quote. Many shots contain Marine memorabilia or items collected during the war. Johnnie Tabaha is pictured leaning against an old pickup truck. Merril Sandoval chose the desert. Bill Henry Toledo’s quote recounts a sniper’s attempt to shoot him as he ran to deliver a message to the front line in Guam.

Kawano’s striking photographs brought the code talkers recognition.

Kawano’s striking photographs brought the code talkers recognition. His exhibit traveled to 50 sites in the United States, as well as to Germany and Japan. In Japan, he says, some visitors questioned why a Japanese man would pursue the images of American war heroes.

Kawano admits he questioned that himself, especially when his father, who served in the Japanese military, came for a visit in 1991. When he introduced him to Carl Gorman, his code talker friend, he says Gorman told them, “Yes, we had the war with Japan. But the war is between governments, not person to person. So I don’t think of you as an enemy.”

Philip Johnston, the missionary kid who lived on the reservation, wasn’t just responsible for introducing the Navajo language to the military. He was also responsible, in a way, for Kawano’s work. After Johnston made public his code talkers–related papers, interest in the code talkers grew. Reunion plans hatched.

It was at those reunions that Kawano got to know the code talkers well enough to ask to take their photographs. For decades, he has been careful to handcraft their gelatin-silver portraits on long-lasting archival paper. That’s important, because the reunions have ceased. Only three code talkers—Thomas H. Begay, John Kinsel Sr., and Peter MacDonald—are still living.

Even so, Kawano believes their pictures still speak. “Through them, many Americans have gotten to know about the code talkers. I’m very happy,” he says. “That was my goal.”

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.



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