Unbreakable Navajo Marines: WWII Code-Talkers

Do you ever have those moments where you suddenly realize what you have? You’re holding something in your hand or are looking out the window when a House-like epiphany reveals itself and you run to tell someone about the discovery. That exuberant rush of excitement at the realization you’ve got something that others would certainly be impressed with. In the history field, that moment occurs more than one would think especially since it’s in our nature as historians to find what’s been overlooked or connect the missing dots. Suddenly we find it right there; history in our hands. That’s what happened to me again recently (See Entombed But Never Truly Gone)

While responding to the normal queue of requests, a peculiar name appeared on a WWII-era Marine Corps record; ‘Adolph Nagurski’. Interesting name, yeah? German-Japanese? Sino-Polish? Being born in Arizona at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the possibilities are endless. I begin my standard operating procedure of assessing the record, extracting information, and all the rest. That is until I noticed something on the discharge paperwork. The primary occupation specialty was ‘code-talker’. That only meant one thing to me (and to all other WWII history buffs): a Navajo code-talker. Confirmation was swiftly needed to satiate my intellectual curiosity. The service record book was intact and after reviewing the enlistment contract, training courses, overseas deployment, battles, campaign participation, and that crowning moment: ‘Special Skills: Navajo language’. Right there in my hand was the service record of a U.S. Marine Navajo code-talker.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Peter Nahaidinae Joseph P Gatewood and Corporal Lloyd Oliver, June 1, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Now there are two versions of the Navajo code-talkers story. You could watch the 2002 film ‘Windtalkers’ and receive a heavily fictionalized accounting where the Navajo Marines are sidelined as secondary characters beneath the shadow of superstar Nicolas Cage. The second version is how Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who once lived on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, pitched the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that the Navajo language could be used to encrypt and transmit valuable intelligence throughout the Pacific Theater. Precedence existence for such a project; during WWI, the U.S. enlisted the aid of several Choctaw recruits who spoke their native language to relay radio messages on the Western Front in France (See Little Gun Shoot Fast). The complexity of Navajo grammar combined with its non-written feature made it ideal for transmitting encoded messages. The only drawback however was because of cultural suppression and Anglicization that there were relatively few native speakers of the Navajo language remaining.

First 29 Navajo US Marine Corps CodeTalker Recruits being Sworn in at Fort Wingate NM (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

By the spring of 1942 as the United States mobilized for war in the Pacific Theater, Marine Corps General Clayton Vogel recommended that Navajo Indians attend signals combat training. The military made a concerted effort to divert as many Native Americans with special language skills into these courses. The first batch of twenty-nine recruits arrived at Camp Pendleton in May 1942. This group paved the way for future code talkers as they developed the system for encoding messages. For weeks they learned how to operate radio equipment, memorize coded messages, survey terrain for enemy positions, and learn how to transmit and receive messages under fire. Each recruit was tested on how many messages they could translate during a firefight. If a recruit could successfully decode a three line message in under twenty seconds, they were ready for the front.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, January 21, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As any cryptologist will tell you, having a key to unlock encoded messages is the vital component of any secure communication. The uniqueness of the Navajo language (or any Native American language) was its oral tradition. Nothing in Native American languages are written. There also exists a vast array of dialects and accents within each language tree, creating overlapping layers of complexity. The code talkers utilized the spelling alphabet system designating certain words with letters and improvising when they didn’t exist in the Navajo language. Words like ‘airplane’ ‘torpedo’ and ‘submarine’ had no Navajo counterpart and so the code talkers improvised. A ‘shark’ was a destroyer vessel, ‘silver oak’ was a lieutenant colonel, ‘buzzard’ was a bomber plane, and ‘iron fish’ was a submarine. These are just some examples of the Navajo code that the talkers had to memorize. Codebooks were written to train each group of recruits, but the books wouldn’t be taken into the theater. Enemy codebreakers could potentially decipher the code, but fortunately for the code talkers, small nuances and changes in the dialect and tonal inflection could result in a entirely different translated message. Nearly four hundred Navajo Marines served as code talkers throughout the Pacific. Despite being an indispensable part of American forces, they faced racial prejudices from their fellow Marines. A handful of recorded instances depict them being mistaken for enemy Japanese soldiers; by 1943, code talkers were assigned personal bodyguards. After they reported to their units, code talkers were assigned in pairs. During battle, one operated the radio while the second relayed and received messages in Navajo and then translate them. Many code talkers also performed duties as runners. Their work was especially dangerous in the Pacific as Japanese soldiers deliberately targeted officers, medics, radiomen, and code talkers. Their survival rate was considerably lower when compared to a Marine Corps rifleman, machine gunner, or mortarman.

PFC Carl Gorman of Chinle Arizona an Indian Marine who Manned an Observation Post on a Hill Overlooking the City of Garapan while the Marines were Consolidating their Positions on the Island of Saipan, Marianas, June 27, 1944 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Navajo code talkers were highly commended for their meritorious service, communications skills, and bravery under fire. They served with distinction in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division credits the Navajo code talkers for being the reason behind the successful invasion of the island. Had they not been able to transmit and receive nearly 1,000 messages from the landings, the outcome could have been far more deadly.

Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.”

Major Howard Connor

As with any military practice involving a degree of secrecy, the Navajo code talkers were prevented from sharing details about their military service from their families or the public. The code talker program was classified from its beginning and remained so until 1968. Its declassification came at the height of the Vietnam War and with anti-war sentiment and public protests demanding more civil rights for Native American tribes, recognition for the code talkers was unfortunately sidelined. Many code talker veterans kept silent about their service. By the 1980s, stories about the code talkers began entering mainstream media as books and documentary interviews with surviving code talkers started to tell their stories. In 2001, the 106th Congress passed H.R. 4527 ‘Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act’ which bestowed its highest honor on each of the surviving twenty-nine first recruits; the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented medals to the survivors, honoring them for their achievements and contributions to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific.

PFC Samuel Sandoval of Full Blooded Navajo Indian Extraction Relaxes under the Tori Gate in a Former Jap Park and Surveys the Scenic Beauties of Okinawa Shima, April 14, 1945 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration,)
President George W Bush Presents Medals to 21 Navajo Code Talkers at the US Capitol (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

So where does Adolph Nagurski fit into this story? As previously mentioned, the first twenty-nine code talkers weren’t the only ones in the entire war. As more Navajos entered the Marine Corps, their language skills were tested to see if they could perform as a code talker. Adolph Nagurski qualified following his induction in December 1943 in Flagstaff Arizona. He completed basic training in the following spring and in May 1944, he attended the Field Signal School at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. The class lasted four weeks where he and fourteen others learned every skill needed for a radio operator and memorizing the Navajo code. In December 1944, Nagurski left California for Guam, then Saipan, and Guadalcanal. On April 1, 1945, he took part in the landings on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He fought on Okinawa for the full duration of the battle; over two months of some of the worst fighting in the entire Pacific war. Thousands of Marines, Army, and enemy troops were killed every week while many more Okinawan civilians were caught in crossfires. When the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, Nagurski sailed for China where he witnessed Japanese forces formally surrender at Tsingtao that following October. There he fulfilled occupation duties with the 6th Marine Division for six months until he finally returned to the U.S. in May 1946. He passed away in 2013, but he never received the full honors for his code talker service. A stipulation in the legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal to the first group of code talkers was that the Congressional Silver Medal was granted to every Navajo code talker who served after the initial recruits. Nagurski was unable to participate in a subsequent ceremony for the silver medal recipients and passed away in 2011 before ever receiving it. The situation came to the attention of Senator Martin Henrich in 2018 when the Nagurski family petitioned to have this oversight resolved. In April 2018, Pvt. Adolph Nagurski was posthumously honored with the Congressional Silver Medal accepted on behalf of his surviving son, Benjamin. In the award speech by Senator Martin, he describes the harsh conditions and battlefield horrors endured by Nagurski and the other code talkers. With their indispensable role as transmitters of important messages and intelligence, the Navajo code talkers made their mark in history. The Navajo code remains unbroken and its secrecy lives now in the memories of those who ran the Pacific gauntlet into victory.

USMC Corporal Adolph Nagurski, Code Talker
(USMC awards for Adolph Nagurski, from left to right, top to bottom: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, China Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ bronze service star, World War II Victory Medal)

‘The Hard Life of Mac Smolley’

A science fiction short story by Thomas Richardson

The heart monitor beeped in a corner of the dimly lit room. A nearly depleted saline bag hung by the monitor. A wristband labeled ‘934TXS’ quivered on a hairy wrist. 934TXS laid on his back clutching a blanket. The hands, though large and strong, shook violently. Biceps, pectorals, quadriceps, hamstrings and other muscles bulged across his body, but were of no functional use. Bouts of tension and electric shocks surged in waves, causing him to flail without warning.

Another subject across the room also clutched his blanket, but in quiet stillness. Instead of bulging muscles, an EEG connected wires running from the machine to electric nodes covering his head. Gamma and Beta wave measurements were off the chart. An adjoining clipboard read: ESTIMATED IQ EXCEEDS 99TH PERCENTILE, SUBJECT 737MX8 EXCEEDS STANDARD IQ RATINGS. Despite this intelligence, he never flinched. He had succumbed to a catatonic state. Immeasurable brain power, but unable to voice it aloud.

A nurse in faded scrubs sauntered into the room with a clipboard. She stood in front of the EEG taking notes. 934TXS looked at her intently.

‘Why are you monitoring him, but not me? I need a new IV bag.’

‘Your condition is being monitored. I have instructions to care for you both.’

‘Care? This pain is like getting shocked with a cattle prod.’

‘I’m sorry. Pain medications would interfere with the data.’

‘Forget your sorry. This experiment is a farce. Pills to trigger genetic mutations? Make us stronger, faster, smarter? Sounds like something out of a comic book.’

‘I cannot discuss the procedures of a clinical trial.’

‘You think I’m naïve? They explained the purpose of this study and anyone could see through the doctor’s veneer. Non-steroid muscular enhancement? Modification of the human genome? I only studied medicine for a year, but I remember enough medical jargon.’

‘Unfortunately, I can’t discuss it any further sir.’

‘So, the fact that my pectoralis major, biceps brachii, rectus abdominis, deltoid, trapezius, and other major muscle groups have increased in mass size 416%, but my peripheral nervous system is degrading means nothing?’

‘All pertinent medical data is important.’

‘Is it pertinent though?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Stop lying. I’ve been through enough. I’m a mutant, but that’s a far as evolution will go in this room.’

‘We’re not discussing evolution sir.’

‘Pills to trigger genetic mutations. That is evolution, only on pre-determined schedule.’

‘Sir, the results of the trial will be discussed with you once results have been analyzed.’

‘Or your bosses can walk down here and see for themselves. It’s not like either he or I are going somewhere soon.’

An espresso machine vibrated as the coffee grinder worked through another filling of beans. Dark liquid poured from the spout into two white demitasse cups. Thick foam bubbled from the milk frother and was gently poured. The cups and accompanying saucers were carried to a beautifully lacquered pink ivory wood conference table. Men and women in stark white lab coats with a red identification badge were seated in front of their leather binders. Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with paper sat on handcarts, each with different labels reading ‘Orthopedic Labs’, ‘Neurology Reports’, and ‘Chemical Enhancements’. All of them sported large red letters: ‘PROPERTY OF LAMBDA CORP.’ A silver haired man wearing a bold Prussian blue tie with a matching pocket square and cufflinks flipped open his binder and began thumbing through the documents.

‘…Research showed that subjects who received dose AL9 experienced heightened auditory capacities; some capable of hearing sounds over 150 decibels in a restrictive environment. However, the same subjects also suffered from acute muscular dystrophy. Recommended drug treatment is golodirsen to counteract side effects…’

The room filled with murmurs while one slammed her binder shut.

‘This is the twelfth incident of malformations following administration of AL9. Shouldn’t this signal that we need to revert the formula back to R&D?’

‘AL9 underwent R&D for five years. We have acceptable levels of risk with each participant and identified genetic markers that could potentially interfere with the product.’

‘Such as?’

‘FLT3, NPM1, and PTPN11.’

‘Acute myeloid leukemia? Did we intentionally choose those with a history of cancers?’

‘Absolutely not. We are trying to establish a correlation though.’

‘What about S0D1? Do those with genetic markers for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis experience drawbacks?’

‘We are still acquiring data.’

‘Nine years of data isn’t enough?’

‘The Lambda Corporation invested significantly in AL9 and is ensuring that it goes through intensive scientific review. Their board believes that with any drug, accompanying side effects are expected and will not submit for a peer review.’

‘This isn’t a headache or nausea. These are lethal consequences that outweigh any benefit of AL9. Do you also expect people to research their own genome to ensure they aren’t at risk of dying?’

‘Again, the Lambda Corporation believes that when properly managed, AL9 can rapidly improve the quality of life and potential of the human body and mind.’

The murmurs subsided, but many appeared apprehensive.

‘No one here is willing to disagree with the board? The scientific evidence this committee has obtained should demonstrate the fact that AL9 is too dangerous to be made publicly available in its current form.’

‘The Lambda Corporation wants a return on investment. Potential sales have estimated to range between $570 to $900 million in the first year.’

‘I want it on record that I formally disagree with the board’s decision to continue with AL9’s development.’

‘Noted.’

The meeting concluded two hours later. She moved nonchalantly towards the espresso machine in the now empty room. She reached behind the machine and dislodged a small plastic item. The bright red ‘Record’ light was still shining. She was worried that the batteries might die during the meeting. She hit ‘Stop’ on the recorder and slid it into a manila envelope marked ‘To the Financial Times.’

Reporting on “Dogfaces”: A Review of ‘Brave Men’ by Ernie Pyle

People risk their lives for a number of reasons: it’s in their job description, they’re in a medical crisis, or they’re protecting someone or something important. Without those trials, we wouldn’t come away with a better understanding of who we are or what we’re doing. Bravery sculpts us into stronger people. It also makes us capable of accomplishments we didn’t think possible.

Military life isn’t exactly a safe occupation, especially if your MOS (military occupational specialty) is a combat role. There are non-combatant roles that can, however, place one in the line of fire. War correspondents insert themselves right the heat of battle in order to report what happens to the home front. There was certainly no shortage during the Second World War. Dozens of journalists from publishing and news companies around the world risked life and limb to relay actions and human stories to their readers. Amongst the correspondents and reporters, many point to one man who outranks all others. Someone who defined the role of the common soldier and made him, and not the generals, the true heroes: Ernie Pyle. Covering both the European and Pacific theater until he was killed in action on April 18, 1945 on Ie Shima, his dispatches, interviews, and grassroots style of hometown journalism were highly regarded by service members of every rank. A posthumous Purple Heart was awarded to his family, an extremely rare honor for a civilian. His reporting even directly impacted the lives of service members by reporting on the conduct of the war and the sufferings endured by those who were maimed or traumatized. He knew what they were going through because he traveled right alongside them.

Columnist Ernie Pyle rests on the roadside with a Marine patrol. 1st Marine Division‘ – Ernie Pyle is seated at left with a cigarette and without a helmet (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

In 1944, following his frontline journey in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, Pyle returned to the U.S. for recovery after spending over two years overseas. Everything he chronicled in hundreds of news columns and dispatches were compiled into a handful of books. One of them, ‘Brave Men‘, published in 1944, highlights the different types of combat roles in the European theater. Pyle spent most of his time with infantry units, but he also saw action with engineers, tanks, artillery, aerial bombers, and naval vessels. Pyle’s well-known folksy style is evident in every snippet. He talks to his interviewees, asks about their civilian lives, their hopes, passions, families, hobbies, and why they’re fighting. He slept on cots in tents, on the ground in foxholes, and could talk his way into any jeep, truck, tank, or boat to wherever the action was. ‘Brave Men‘ isn’t a history book in the academic sense that there’s a thesis, central argument, supporting evidence, and endless citations. The book instead is a chronicle of how soldiers experience war differently. The bombardier and rifleman face different dangers from the truck driver or stevedore. Pyle doesn’t glorify one soldier over another because each have their role in the great enterprise. The soldier is there because he wants to make a difference. His livelihood depends on making a split second decision on whether to adjust the range on a mortar or to round a corner into a dark room. There’s a profound sense of loneliness, but also belonging in military life. Pyle doesn’t make these soldiers out to be supermen, but ordinary guys making their way through an extraordinary situation. They’re from Omaha, Nebraska, Columbus, Ohio, Sacramento, California, Danville, Virginia, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thousands of miles from home and willing to battle a tough enemy.

Brave Men‘, despite its age, retains great relevance with our contemporaries. The stories of many of those Pyle interviewed resonant with U.S. servicemen and women today. They learn to deal with impossible situations through their own coping mechanisms. Soldiers also explore ways to remind themselves of home and why they’re serving. Pyle’s brand of journalism kept millions of people grounded to the war effort and taught them just how important their bravery was in such a cataclysmic time. He landed with the thousands who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day and captured the historic moment with his eloquence:

The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many.

Ernie Pyle – June 6, 1944

‘Brave Men’ is highly recommended for those who want to read about the Second World War, but from a grassroots perspective. We can always check out books examining the war’s causes, political backgrounds, economic impacts, military technology, and many other topical intersections, but this looks at it from those who are fighting the war itself. Everything metaphysical and intangible as geopolitics are far removed from the soldier who’s trying to make it out alive from this foxhole on the Western Front. That was Ernie Pyle’s war.

Some day I’d like to cover a war in a country as ugly as war itself.

-Ernie Pyle, 1944
This is a photo of Ernie Pyle, famous war correspondent. Fifth Army, Anzio Beachhead area, Italy. 163rd Signal Photo Co. (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Carthago Delenda Est: A Review of ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ by Richard Miles

In the early 2000s, I was obsessed with the ‘Age of Empires’ videogame franchise; a historical, real-time strategy game featuring numerous ancient civilizations. Players could choose to fight in a sandbox scenario style or relive various campaigns built around real historical events. In the ‘Rise of Rome’ expansion pack, there were Punic War missions featuring Hannibal’s iconic crossing of the Alps and the Roman triumph in the First Punic War. Beyond those interactions, my knowledge of Carthage was limited to the technology tree available to the Carthaginian civilization within the game. The history of Carthage is difficult to discuss in comparison to civilizations such as Rome, Sparta, Egypt, etc., but that legacy can be attributed to Rome shaping the contemporary historical narrative, which impacted today’s historiography. Knowledge on Carthage itself was also limited when covering lessons on ancient Rome when I was an undergrad student. The standard narrative was that Carthage was founded around the same time as Rome and was settled by merchants from Phoenicia.

Then I received a copy of Richard Miles’ book, ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ and it vastly impacted my understanding on ancient Mediterranean history. Carthage did not emerge as a regional super power in the same mold as Rome, but arose from the networking of commerce and democratic, egalitarian ideals. Carthage was more or less the result of trading centers spreading around the Mediterranean with its physical geography catapulting it to destiny. Miles incorporates a staggering amount of new archaeological findings that reveal how widespread Carthaginian influence was at the height of its power. Simultaneously, Miles delivers a comprehensive review of the struggles that Carthage endured (Rome notwithstanding) and chronicles its rise and fall. Interspersed between the historical analyses are critical looks at the Greco-Roman mythologies that formed the basis for both Rome’s and Carthage’s mythical origins, which Miles argues was an intangible factor leading up to the Punic Wars. Miles’ book goes beyond the normal historical manuscript of regurgitating dates, names, places, facts, battlefields, and economic statistics. ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ recounts just how this Roman arch-nemesis came into existence and then captivated Rome for the remainder of its life.

Ruins of ancient Carthage in modern day Tunisia

Firstly, there is an obsession with the story of Hercules and Melqart (the chief Phoenician deity of Tyre and Carthage) that flows like an undercurrent in the story of Carthage’s founding. Mythical foundations tracing back to the Trojan prince Aeneas also illustrate the city’s legendary beginnings. Despite what these pseudo-historical sources claim, Miles asserts that Carthage emerged from the enterprising Phoenicians based in the Levant along the eastern Mediterranean, now modern day Lebanon. Mercantile connections with the Greek city-states resulted in westward progression. Carthaginians no doubt were spurred by their religious convictions that stemmed from being the descendants of Hercules or Melqart. Miles takes point on the unique Carthaginian spiritual beliefs that seemed barbaric by modern comparisons; stories of human sacrifice that regularly included children. However, Miles argues that this narrative persists because of Roman propaganda proliferated around the Mediterranean to demonize the Carthaginians, which would turn off their commercial partners. ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ spends a significant amount of time discussing the religious and spiritual motivations and connections between Carthage and Rome. This can be tedious at some points, but it highlights a feature of ancient civilizations who made important decisions based on the perceived will of the gods.

Miles’ strongest points in his text center on the Barcids; a noble Carthaginian family that consisted of notable figures such as Hasdrubal, Hamilcar, and Hannibal, who became legends in the ancient world. Carthaginian governance was carried out by a popular assembly and Senate-like organization, but political parties were centered on individual families, much like Rome. The Barcids resisted Roman encroachment and according to Miles, were pivotal in pushing Carthage to war with Rome. The Roman Republic expanded through military conquest or alliances with Italian fiefdoms that received protection from Rome, whereas Carthaginian influence followed wherever commercial interests led them. Miles makes a salient point that even though Carthage maintained friendly diplomatic and economic ties with Rome, confrontation was inevitable due to expanding ambitions on control of the Mediterranean.

Miles’ analysis of the Punic Wars are quite in-depth and by examining them from the Carthaginian perspective, we gain a better appreciation of how power in the ancient world was shifting. From the outset, Carthage had significant advantages with an immense maritime force and the ability to muster a cosmopolitan army of mercenaries and local militia. Rome, with its seasoned infantry from years of Italian conquest, had absolutely no navy worth challenging them. In a classic ‘elephant and the whale’ scenario, progress in the First Punic War swung back and forth between Rome and Carthage, until the Romans gained the upper hand by salvaging a wrecked Carthaginian ship and adapting it to their style of warfare. Meanwhile, battles across Sicily ravaged the land and people to the point of them resenting the Carthaginians for ever having taken their grievances to Rome. Moving onto Carthaginian expansion in Spain and the Second Punic War with Hannibal, Miles draws new historical information that elevates the war and people beyond the Roman legends.

Hannibal’s Army Crossing the Rhone, Henri Motte, 1878

Hannibal was a master propagandist and was as skilled as his was a military commander. Miles cites Hannibal’s constant reference to the legend of Hercules, Melqart, and other deities for rallying Rome’s enemies to his banner. Predictably, the Roman Republic was alarmed at this allegations and had good reason to fear Hannibal’s charisma as his army crossed the Rhone, the Alps, and finally entered the Po Valley without hardly meeting any resistance. Seventeen years of terrorizing Italy and guerrilla tactics by Fabius Maximus dealt a severe blow to Roman pride. However, Hannibal could not fully capitalize on his victories by taking Rome itself. Armies under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio eventually drew Hannibal out of Italy through attacks on Carthaginian colonies in Spain and Carthage itself in North Africa. After being defeated at Zama, Hannibal realistically posed no significant threat to Rome. He bounced around royal courts in the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor for a few years before he committed suicide upon hearing that his hosts in Bithnyia betrayed him to Roman officials. He knew the fate that awaited him like all defeated enemies of Rome; a triumph showcasing the victor’s spoils and the humiliated vanquished. Roman pride needed Hannibal’s death, but he denied them that complete feeling by taking his own life. The Third Punic War was almost entirely avoidable according to Miller; a fabricated reason for invading North Africa would result in the complete destruction of Carthage and a new Roman version built upon it. The old Carthage soon became a memory whose narrative was completely controlled by Rome and therefore, painted themselves as the noble conquerors and Carthage as the barbarous, weak-willed people who hired mercenaries and sacrificed babies.

Miles’ entire thesis is aimed at debunking much of the Roman propagandized historiography. Such a purpose is massively important as we gain a new understanding of an ancient civilization that fostered some of the greatest cultural exchanges until the Age of Exploration over a thousand years later. Carthage traded in both commodities and intellectual ideas which undoubtedly impacted countless societies in Africa and Europe. In many ways Miles argues that Carthage had as much an impact on the Western world as Rome did; only Rome had the benefit of still standing as an empire, built on the foundations of others. Of course that follows a great Roman tradition of borrowing from other civilizations and adapting it to their own. What would Rome be without Carthage? Well there certainly wouldn’t be any Punic War campaigns in the Age of Empires videogame franchise.

Entombed, But Never Truly Gone: The USS Oklahoma

One of the great perks of my job with the National Personnel Records Center is working with records for those who took part in major historical events. Earlier at the office, I received a request for records on a World War II U.S. Navy veteran. Pretty standard operating procedure for me since they are a routine request. While glancing at the veteran’s information, I paused: Date of Death – 12/7/1941. A Navy veteran dying on December 7th? My mind instantly assumed this veteran was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. I cracked open the ‘brick’ [named for the small brown service jacket holding the documents] and slowly absorbed the mountain of historical information. My assumption was proved correct as I found several Naval speed letters and telegrams from the War Department informing the family that he had been killed in the attack. At least that was the assumption in 1941 since he last duty station was the battleship USS Oklahoma. The family didn’t receive official confirmation until February 1942 as he was still unaccounted for after three months. He was one among the nearly four hundred unidentified sailors recovered from the ship. His fate was not uncommon with many Pearl Harbor casualties, especially if they were trapped inside vessels. Between December 1941 and June 1944, the Navy recovered hundreds of remains from the USS Oklahoma and other ships and interred them in Hawaii. Colleagues came by my desk looking at the record and were astonished at the story. The veteran re-enlisted on the USS Oklahoma in 1940 where it was moored on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. What a twist of fate for him and hundreds more as they were the first target in the infamous attack. On top of asking for his service record, they requested all his awards as well, which were many given any veteran who died at Pearl Harbor automatically qualifies for several awards, including the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal. You receive a unique sense of satisfaction when handling something like this. It’s hard to describe; intrigue, humility, astonishment, sadness? Me personally, it’s all the above.

“Sailors mill about on the rolling deck of USS Oklahoma during heavy seas” (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command and the USS Oklahoma Association)

The story of the USS Oklahoma begins on October 26, 1912 when the keel was laid down in Camden, New Jersey. It was the first of a new class of battleships, coded Nevada-class. It was quickly pressed into service following its commission on May 2, 1916 as World War I ravaged Europe. At first it patrolled the Eastern Seaboard, but in August 1918, it joined Battleship Division Six in protecting shipping convoys across the Atlantic. The USS Oklahoma never saw combat action in the Atlantic; the only casualties were six sailors who died from the Spanish flu pandemic. Between 1918 and 1941, the USS Oklahoma jumped from training exercises, remodeling, and state visits in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it evacuated stranded U.S. and European refugees off the coast of Bilbao in northern Spain. A series of structural and engineering accidents in the late 1930s brought it to Pearl Harbor where it would remain permanently moored until all upgrades and repairs were made. By then though, the decision was made the retire the battleship by the spring of 1942.

The U.S. Navy battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) passing Alcatraz prison, San Francisco Bay, California (USA), during the 1930s (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The USS Oklahoma was one of eight battleships hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Torpedo bombers from the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi and Kaga hit the ship three times, almost rupturing the hull. Sailors scrambled to the main decks to return fire, but ammunition was locked in the armory. Boiler rooms and the aft bulkhead were then destroyed. This resulted in the ship capsizing. Two more torpedoes hit the ship as it continued to sink into the harbor. The ship’s large masts prevented it from completely exposing the keel. As the attack progressed, hundreds of sailors desperately tried to escape the capsizing ship. Sailors and officers like John C. England, James R. Ward, and Francis C. Flaherty helped get men to safety at the expense of their lives from the USS Oklahoma. They were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor with the exception of England who only received a Purple Heart. Another sailor, John A. Austin received a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions rescuing fifteen sailors. While reading the story of the USS Oklahoma, I’m trying to picture the veteran whose record I read struggling to survive and make it off the sinking battleship. What was going through his mind we’ll never know, but he probably offered up a sundry of prayers and let his survival instincts take over as the sounds of explosions and the buzz of warplanes was deafening. A fire broke out from the boiler rooms and engulfed the ship’s stern undoubtedly killing more sailors.

Fast forward months later, the clean-up of Pearl Harbor was still in progress. Navy officials determined that the USS Oklahoma was salvageable and began work in July 1942. The capsized ship was a navigational hazard and it required twenty-one derricks to parbuckle the ship and through it all a Navy crew was tasked with pulling out human remains. Many of the bodies decomposed after months in saltwater and were unidentifiable based on forensic techniques at the time. The unidentified bodies were turned over to the American Graves Registration Service and buried in Hawaii. By November 1942, basic repairs to the hull were completed and its armaments and guns were removed. in September 1944, the decision was made to de-commission the USS Oklahoma and in 1946, the hull was sold at auction to the Moore Drydock Company in California. It was here that the ultimate fate of the battleship came to fruition. A storm on May 17, 1947 finally sank the USS Oklahoma as it was being tugged from Hawaii to California. The wreck has not been located and the USS Oklahoma remains lost to this day. The crew that served on the ship though are not lost to time and their remains continue to be identified.

Salvage operations, USS Oklahoma (BB-37), sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack. A piece of structural wreckage, cut away by divers at about frame #70 port side, is hoisted out of the water (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ever since the end of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government has carried out numerous programs aimed at identifying the missing and dead servicemembers. In the nine years since Pearl Harbor, only a few dozen sailors from the USS Oklahoma were positively identified. The remaining were interred in unmarked graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began utilizing DNA analysis to identify the unknown remains. By the time the program ended in September 2021, 396 sailors and Marines were positively identified from the USS Oklahoma, with the remaining reinterred in Hawaii. Programs such as this help to not only bring closure to families who lost someone in the attack, but to honor those who died in the the country’s momentous entry into the Second World War. Some are lost forever, but their memories are kept alive by the historical research and forensic work carried out by the Armed Forces, historians, and survivors’ families.

For the sailor whose record landed on my desk, Fireman 1st Class Andrew Schmitz was accounted for on September 18, 2019 and returned home to Amelia Court House, Virginia.

U.S. Navy Fireman 1st Class, Andrew Schmitz (Image courtesy of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency)

Opinion: What I Learned in 8th Grade Social Studies

Social studies was not eagerly looked forward to amongst my classmates at Cherokee Middle School. Not because the teacher was boring or the right clique of students were assembled in the same place. The reason was because they found history to not be a stimulating topic of discussion. Every week our teacher (whose name escapes me now, making me feel terrible) would host a ‘whiteboard quiz’; we grouped together with a handheld whiteboard and dry-erase markers. From there it was test of speed to who could correctly answer with the fastest response. I wasn’t socially adept in 8th grade, but strangely, everyone wanted to be in my group at whiteboard quiz time. Although I was the only student who ever wrote down answers because not surprisingly, I actually read the textbook and remembered the material. While walking the hallways, I picked up some chatter by the lockers and heard students say that they don’t understand why they should learn history, or that it’s boring, or how does it help them get into better schools. Fast forward nearly seventeen years and those same frustrations still exists, only now they’re being used to guide decisions larger than responses on a whiteboard quiz.

I’ve talked about the importance of studying history on here before, but it extends beyond the notion of learning about the past to make better decisions on future policy. Every time I check Twitter, hundreds of tweets from accounts with questionable or cringeworthy statements are flying around.

  • THE SOUTH WAS FIGHTING FOR STATES RIGHTS
  • YOU’RE CLEARLY JUST A STUDENT SO YOU DON’T KNOW THE REAL HISTORY
  • YOU’RE VERSION OF HISTORY IS WOKE, READ FROM BOTH SIDES
  • HOLOCAUSTS AGAINST JEWS DIDN’T HAPPEN IN THE 12TH CENTURY. THE CHURCH HAD COMPLETE CONTROL.
  • Y’all realize the Black Death spread all over Europe because the rich people wanted their imported goods. Trade must go on! (Saw this gem just now)

(Side note: don’t respond with all caps, that just makes you look like a jerk)

I don’t know where to begin when I see these statements. How can someone ignore the role of slavery in the American Civil War? How does someone gloss over the Holocaust as a footnote? To briefly play devil’s advocate, there really is just a lot of content to read and internalize, especially if the subject occurs in the more modern time period. This can be daunting for many people who encounter the amount of reference material and are turned off at the prospect of spending a great deal of time getting through the content. I had those feelings myself. My history teacher from my freshman year of high school assigned a 400-page essay on the origins of the American Revolution and I thought ‘how the hell am I supposed to read and write a commentary about this in two weeks??’ I think historians, archivists, history communicators, curators, and teachers need to be patient people by nature because it’s crucial to invest time to really read and analyze sources. Some simply don’t have that patience. They would rather spend time doing something else. This is especially true with society today as we place a different value on our times and schedules are crammed full of appointments, meetings, activities, and more. This leaves them open to something worse; historical narratives warped to fit their worldview. History is interpretative by nature; it’s the basis for debates, dissertations, research papers, articles, and books. What shocks me today is how easy people can be swayed by fallacious historical arguments and flawed narratives.

I learned something valuable in the 8th grade; we mustn’t take for granted that what we hear is always a factual truth. We need to have the critical thinking skills to determine what makes a sound argument. Yes, history is an important academic subject, but how we gain an understanding of the source material is just as crucial. I could have easily told my classmates completely false answers on the whiteboard quizzes and they would have written them without a second thought. They always saw me with the history textbook and raising my hand in class so the natural assumption was that my answers were always correct. The same happens today with historical information on social media. People post what they think is their version of history and people take it at face value. This is dangerous. What can we do but be horrified at whatever people post online as grossly inaccurate, even harmful seditious content, but masked as historical information? This masquerade causes severe harm and division.

I have one simple request for the public: please check the sources for yourself. Don’t take whatever is told to you at face value. You can quickly become the unwilling participant in a misinformation mass-production machine. If I believed everything that people told me about the American Civil War, I would have shifted from learning in school that it had roots in the institution of slavery to believing far right figures that immaculate, white, God-fearing angels of salvation like Robert E. Lee were fighting for his nation’s independence. Civil War Twitter is a harsh landscape for anyone who attempts to validate their post-truth arguments about the Confederacy. There are historians just waiting to tear them down like a statue (yeah, I went there).

I don’t profess to be a perfect expert on every historical subject. In fact, I don’t think anyone is because that would require having perfect recall and an almost infinite memory. The network of historians and historical educators is immense and therefore we rely on one another for trustworthy information. I do know that whenever it comes to having a sound historical debate, it needs to be done in an informed way; not with a Twitter-bot who’s sole target is degrading historical narratives. Even at this very moment (8:39 PM CST) I check my Twitter feed and misinformation arguments about the Black Death are flying around. I’m not sure how social media picks its targets to argue, but it’s not surprising at how frustrated historians, librarians, teachers, archivists, and history communicators are these days. No wonder so many of us drink after we log out of Twitter for the evening.

Reporting from Vietnam: A Review of ‘The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam’ by Daniel Hallin

News reports can sometimes be the most depressing things we see and hear on a daily basis. So much information is pumped out and consumed by the general public. The advent of social media and constant sharing of facts and misinformation has made communication among the people a harsh landscape. Stories and images shape our perception of the world and its people so we must be careful of what we internalize. Fifty years ago, news stories that occupied major time blocks prominently featured the Vietnam War. Given the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, many have argued that media and news outlets played a prominent role in the United States’ negative outcome. The high amount of reporting on stalemates, low troop morale, and coverage of the anti-war movement fostered conditions where the American public killed any support and led to the collapse of South Vietnam. This attitude amongst historians, journalists, and veterans has altered over the years, but there will likely never be a definitive answer. One historian, Daniel Hallin, made it the point of his dissertation-turned-book ‘The Uncensored War’ to analyze the finer details of news media coverage on the Vietnam War. This includes not only social and political investigation, but down to the minute analysis of news metrics.

Walter Cronkite in the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive. Cronkite’s reporting on the Vietnam War was followed by millions of Americans and many believed his statements following the Tet Offensive impacted American morale on the war (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army)

The point of this review is not to confirm or deny the role of the U.S. media in the Vietnam War, but to look at how journalists and news anchors walk a fine line between reporting events and the interpretation as such. Hallin’s book demarcates into two sections; newsprint and television. In each section he emphasizes the conduct by U.S. Presidents, State and Defense Department sources, and military field commanders on controlling the narrative on unfolding events. The progression of the Cold War created two sources of information for reporters; the official press releases from the White House, and leaked sources that commonly ran contrary to the approved narrative. Bitter behind the scenes debates amongst multiple White House administrations had a tremendous impact on how news reports were presented. According to Hallin, from as early as 1963, the reporting began to have a polarizing effect on U.S. domestic readers. A polarization that would eventually lead to the U.S. leaving South Vietnam in 1975. The press corps in Saigon was another realm entirely. South Vietnam’s Diem regime was routinely the subject of news coverage and often framed in the context of the Cold War. A lone country supported by the U.S. against the Communist onslaught. Despite such images, stories about the regime’s reluctance to fair, democratic representation began to overshadow its role in geopolitics. Hallin doesn’t dissuade from this notion and in fact, places it as a crucial factor in shaping how the country’s perception of South Vietnam gradually changed over the years. Looking at the war from a socio-political lens is crucial when discussing the impact of the news media because as coverage changes, so does public support and sentiment towards the government. Perhaps this is why many have referred to the press as the unofficial fourth branch of government.

CBS reporter Morley Safer delivered multiple stories on South Vietnam, the most notable of which was on the village of Cam Ne showing the burning of homes and attempted to show more realistic depiction of what was happening in Southeast Asia. Many in the U.S. military did not condone with his approach (Image courtesy of CBS)

Hallin’s examination of media metrics puts factual data behind many of his arguments in ‘The Uncensored War‘. The models show changes on reporting methods and news content typically around election years or dramatic in-country events in South Vietnam. The classic example is the Tet Offensive in January 1968 when thousands of NLF and PAVN troops attacked U.S. and RVN installations throughout South Vietnam. As news of the Tet Offensive was released, more and more media outlets and journalists began questioning official sources and obtaining information themselves. The depiction of South Vietnamese government were also increasingly depicted in a negative light, which Hallin can attribute to which news organization leaned towards politically. Hallin goes to great lengths obtaining such data and while it would be foolish to recount every detail in a short review, the summary is that a clear trend emerges when the United States began openly questioning its resolve in Southeast Asia. This goes without saying that the Pentagon Papers had their own impact on journalism during the Vietnam War. Hallin doesn’t spend an enormous amount of time covering the Pentagon Papers, but its relative absence is telling in its own right because Hallin shows that optimistic reporting on the war was already declining by then.

‘The Uncensored War’ has its own particular charms if one enjoys reading statistics combined with succinct historical narrative. Are other Vietnam War history books engaging on an emotional level? Yes, there are, but as the war was measured by statistics, we can’t help but analyze it in such a capacity. Whether that’s counting the number of news reports with positive spins on South Vietnam or dodging the issue of escalation, Hallin’s research shows how powerful journalism can be on how we learn about our world. Without it, democracies cannot exist and certainly wars cannot be fought without purpose.

Westward They Go to God: The Handcart Pioneers

If you’ve ever had computer classes while attending elementary schools in the mid-1990s, then you’ve more than likely played the original survival game, The Oregon Trail, on your Apple II computer. You start in Independence, Missouri with your team of oxen, wagon supplies, ammunition, and pray that at least one member of the company makes it to the Willamette Valley. The dangers faced in the game were no less real than in true life; venomous snakes, disease, harsh weather, accidents, and drowning were all endured by those who braved the Oregon Trail. Simultaneously, another group of pioneers moving west encountered the same struggles, but they were more motivated by a religious calling to build a new Zion in the American West. The same group also traveled overland by handcarts rather than the larger, more expensive Conestoga wagon. They were the Mormon Pioneers and they prevailed through hardships more unforgiving than anyone could imagine.

Church pioneers making their way west. The Willie and Martin handcart companies were two of ten companies that would eventually make it to Salt Lake City via handcart (Image courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

In 1847, Brigham Young and a vanguard company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley and decreed that a new home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was to be built in the valley. Discussions amongst the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and local church leaders declared that Saints should make their way to the Salt Lake Valley by whatever means necessary. Between 1848 and 1890, large companies of pioneers were established and made their way across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Before railroads ventured into the Utah territory, the Church made a distinctive choice with their method of travel; handcarts. Only ten percent of pioneers made the long trek by handcarts, they have become an iconic symbol of the pioneer resilience, determination, and sheer strength in their journey to the newly established Zion.

The year 1856 saw the trek of arguably the two most famous handcart companies in church history, the Willie and Martin companies. Three prior companies departed Iowa City in June 1856 (Ellsworth, McArthur, and Bunker), but due to the long trans-Atlantic communication lines, word did not reach Iowa City that the Willie and Martin companies were still planning to travel that summer. They had not even left England yet. By the time they arrived in Iowa City, church members frantically assembled handcarts from whatever leftover materials were available and gathered as many provisions as possible. Many urged that the two companies settle down in Winter Quarters, Nebraska that winter because they were ill-equipped and too far behind schedule to safely make it through the mountains. Church members were limited by the amount of weight they could carry on each cart; food, blankets, and protective gear were all they could carry. Despite the shortcomings, the two companies agreed to strike out for the Salt Lake Valley in July 1856, one month later than planned. What ensued were harsh trials challenging their fortitude, faith, and future in the West.

The Handcart (Mormon) Trail from Iowa City to Salt Lake City (Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an important commandment is keeping a faithful record of the church and its people. Since the early days of Joseph Smith’s ministering work, he wrote about received revelations, religious experience, doctrine, contemporary events, and correspondence with a large number of people. Keeping a journal is a common practice in the church and during the course of the westward migration, the pioneers also kept a record. These journal entries recount everyday activities, births, deaths, landmarks, and other events that occurred in the handcart companies. They provide a glimpse into what the pioneers felt about their excursion and how they overcame their obstacles with the help of other company members and their religious conviction. Of course, what one can expect when reading these entries as the company enters the mountains and the bitter cold winter, the optimism declines and the desperation shows.

The companies made their way across the long stretches of Nebraska, battling the harsh summer heat and attacks by wildlife. People rejoiced at the sights of significant trail landmarks used by other pioneers such as Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Fort Laramie. William Southwell of the Martin Company writes this account when they arrived in sight of Chimney Rock:

“…This was an ideal place. Plenty of grass, plenty of wood, and all the requisites of a good camp. We were now on the side where the formed Chimney Rock stands. It was a great sight. A sight that once seen is never forgotten. It stands on the Laramie Plains and is visible one hundred miles.”

John William Southwell, Martin Company, 1856

However, the prejudices faced by the Saints back east followed them west. Other pioneers harassed them for food, livestock, weapons, and military outposts meant to have stockpiles of supplies were either sold out or refused to sell the the impoverished companies of Saints. The first wave of snowstorms hit the Saints when they ventured into Wyoming crossing the Platte River for the final time:

“…We have scarcely crossed the river when we were visited with a tremendous storm of snow, hail, sand, and fierce winds. It was a terrible storms from which both the people and teams suffered. After crossing the river, my husband was put on a handcart and hauled into camp; and indeed after that time he was unable to walk, and consequently provision had to be made for him to ride in a wagon…From this time my worst experience commenced.”

Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, Martin Company, October 19, 1856

Church historians will tell you that the lowest point in the Saints westward migration was when they came to Martin’s Cove in the winter of 1856. By this stage many members of the company were starving and racked with illness. Their daily rations were reduced to only a handful of flour and many substituted by chewing on leather or tree bark. Winter had come with a vengeance in the mountains and claimed many lives of the Saints. John Kirkman of the Martin Company aptly summarizes the Martin’s Cove experience:

“Death had taken a heavy tool; the ravine was like an overcrowded tomb; no mortal pen could described the suffering.”

John Kirkman, Martin Company, 1856
Members of the Martin Handcart Company burying the dead. The ground was frozen so hard that they could only be buried a couple feet down, enough to keep wild animals from digging up the graves (Image courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

Despite the hardships, the companies were not completely without hope. Church President Brigham Young dispatched a network of scouts carrying supplies to reach pioneers within a few days reach of Salt Lake City. Wagon trains filled with rations, blankets, and other items were sent out for the struggling companies and they were godsends for sure. Not only did they bring material relief, but they shepherded spiritual relief also and a sign that their journey was coming to an end.

“As we were resting for a short time at noon, a light wagon was driven into our camp from the west. Its occupants were Joseph A. Young and Stephen Taylor. They informed us that a train of supplies was on the way, and we might expect to meet it in a day or two. More welcome messengers never came from the courts of glory than these two young men were to us. They lost no time after encouraging us all they could to press forward, but sped on further east to convey their glad news to Edward Martin and the fifth handcart company who left Florence about two weeks after us, and who it was feared were even worse off than we were. As they went from our view, many a hearty ‘God bless you’ followed them.”

John Chislett, Willie Company, 1856

I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can ever be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal, was enough to touch the stoutest heart…When I saw the terrible condition of the immigrants on first entering their camp, my heart almost melted within me. I rose up in my saddle and tried to speak cheering and comforting words to them. I told them also that they should all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City, as more teams were coming.

Ephraim K. Hanks, Rescuer, 1856

On November 30, 1856, the last of the Willie and Martin handcart companies made it into Salt Lake City. Over two hundred people died en-route to the valley and many more arrived half-starved with nothing more than their handcarts and the clothes they were wearing. They were warmly welcomed by the Saints and had their stories recorded for posterity for the church. Five more companies would traverse the plains by 1860 before the outbreak of the Civil War when guerrilla warfare ravaged the West. With the completion of the first Trans-continental railroad in 1869, the era of wagons and handcarts ended. Historians and church leaders still debate on the fundamental planning and policies of the handcart companies; whether or not they were truly prepared and if more deaths could have been avoided. What remains strong though is the resilient spirit and fortitude of the pioneers who pushed their way to a new homeland beyond the mountains and made a new Zion on Earth. American West historian Wallace Stegner memorializes their convictions by stating:

“Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did. … But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.”

The White House Bullpen: Ceremonial First Pitches by U.S. Presidents

We’re barely a month away from the 2021 World Series! Set your smart TVs for Tuesday, October 26th as two yet to-to-be-determined teams face off for the chance at a prestigious title. For baseball fans, this is a period of intense euphoria if your team dominated their league and face their rival league counterparts. New York Yankee fans look forward to stomping all over their opponents (especially if they’re the Red Sox Nation). Sportswriters and athletes have called baseball the ‘national pastime’ and a person can see why when they enter the stadium. The Stars and Stripes fly from stadium rafters, choristers and musical guests belt out the national anthem (Roseanne Barr being a notable exception with her spitting and crotch-scratching performance), and patriotic performances showcasing dedication to the U.S. Armed Forces. The game retains a long history of traditions, curses, follies, epic achievements, and statistics that judges every modern athlete against their predecessors. Pitchers are measured against Cy Young and Christ Mathewson as are batters against Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. One famous traditions is the ceremonial first pitch officially opening the new season or game. Typically these first pitches are thrown by notable celebrities or dignitaries, but there is one person that can eclipse many: the President of the United States.

Like with many stories surrounding baseball traditions, there is no definitive starting point, but rather a gradual compilation from a variety of sources. Most sportswriters and historians have attributed the notion of a ceremonial first pitch to William McKinley in 1892 during his time as Governor of Ohio. On the day of the first season game between cross-state rivals Toledo and Columbus, McKinley threw the ball into the diamond from the bleachers. Journalists later described this as McKinley who ‘started it.’ Does this credit him with the starting a new baseball tradition? Probably not, but it’s a great example of Americana in sports history. The inaugural ceremonial first pitch thrown by a U.S. President was William Howard Taft. On April 14, 1910 he threw the first pitch on Opening Day between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics. According to some White House sources, Taft had no intentions of attending a baseball game that day, but after an arduous meeting with women’s suffrage leaders, aides said he decided to whisk away from the White House to get some fresh air. While out walking he heard the sounds of nearby Griffith Stadium and decided to watch the season opener. Washington Senators and fans were jubilant that the President attended and what Taft began was the tradition of sitting Presidents throwing first pitches at Washington games.

President Taft threw two ceremonial first pitches while in the White House. He was scheduled to throw out the 1912 season opening pitch, but the sinking of the RMS Titanic forced him to cancel (Image courtesy of William Howard Taft National Historic Site)

Entering the 20th century, the popularity of baseball increased exponentially and more Presidents took part in the national pastime. Attendance grew, games were held more frequently, and baseball fanatics, known as ‘fans’, were following their teams doggedly. The commercial availability of the radio made it possible to bring baseball game action into American homes. Radio commentators gave the play-by-play and turned many living rooms into mini-stadiums. The development of industrial lighting gave way to the first night games in the 1930s and baseball could now go late into the night long after sunset. As the national pastime grew in popularity, so did the number of presidents who frequented games. With the beginning of Taft’s ceremonial pitching, every president since then has thrown at least one pitch at an opening day game or World Series game. Here are some of these presidential pitches:

Baseball has always existed at this special crossroads between American identity and its pastoral background. Its humble origins have rocketed skywards and on that trajectory, garnered attention from all walks of life. Everyone from the blue-collar worker to the financial and political power brokers can be impacted by this phenomenal sport. Maybe the ceremonial first pitch isn’t just about starting a new baseball season, but about transition by keeping alive the traditions that were birthed in the roots of our nation. U.S. Presidents send out that first pitch with the prospects of new hopes and dreams. But maybe also the hope of being scouted by a MLB team and landing a three year, multi-million dollar contract that pays way more than their current salary (we’re looking at you Babe Ruth).

Untamable Tigers: A Review of ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ by Michael Booth

For the majority of 2020, China dominated mainstream media. News stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, travel bans, and subsequent blame placed for the outbreak of the disease led the nightly news and filled our social media timelines. China’s economy was growing at a blistering pace, but the export of a deadly contagion was not expected by many. Neighboring countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan quickly implemented their own quarantines and placed restrictions on Chinese products, resulting in seismic disruptions in the global supply chain. Distrust between the nations reached an all-time high. This distrust, however, was not a novel feeling. There has been animosity and suspicion between China, the Koreas, and Japan for generations. The history is long, complicated, and would take too many articles to completely deconstruct.

Despite the historical density, Michael Booth’s book, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ chronicles his personal journey of trying to understand these animosities. He travels between the nations, visiting historic landmarks, and gains a grassroots interpretation of a volatile geopolitical landscape. Apart from other history books, Booth doesn’t constantly throw specific dates or statistics at the reader. Instead he takes a tourist approach at the complex relationships, asking basic questions that many should ask themselves: Why have the three countries economies changed so drastically? What are the implications of a united Korean peninsula? Why are some offended by the Yasukuni shrine, but others revere its significance? Should we be worried if Japan is able to militarize again? Will China extinguish democratic sovereignty in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan? Booth’s opening phrase, taken from a Chinese proverb, ‘Two tigers cannot share the same mountain’ is a succinct opening to this international dilemma.

The Tree pruning incident of 1976 at the Joint Security Area within the Demilitarized Zone separating North Korea and South Korea. In this incident, two UNC guard officers were hacked to death by a gang of more than thirty North Korean Security Guards. Some of the North Korean Guards got axes that workmen were using to prune the tree and used them on the UNC Guards which resulted in the deaths of the two US Army Officers. Booth referenced this incident in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ as an example of the constant tension between the two Koreas. (Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

Booth travels by taxi, train, ferry, and car through various points of interest on his journey through the three nations. Writers, journalists, and academic scholars are his primary interviewees, but he has the occasional interaction with someone off the street that expands the grassroots feeling. He spends times interacting with expatriate communities in each country, where they deliver their interpretation of preceding histories and what it means for relationships between their birth and host countries. Major tension stems from the turn of the 20th century when Western colonial powers were waning in the Far East, resulting in a political power vacuum. Japan filled this void quickly by defeating the Russian Empire in 1905, which expanded their control over Korea, and placed the Chinese in precarious situations. In the late 1930s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria resulted in massive loss of human life and arguably started World War II (Booth doesn’t believe it began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland; it started in the Far East with Japan and I agree with him). The atrocities of World War II are, for many of Booth’s interviewees, the foundation for modern-day geopolitical animosity and grudges between people. War crimes, biological warfare, the atomic bomb; everything changed the balance of power when the war ended.

Booth does a phenomenal job explaining the complex dichotomies in direct terms. Not necessarily boiling them down because the details are incredibly important, but by showing how everyday people understand how their countries have changed over the past 70 years. He interviews a Chinese man who built his own museum dedicated to Unit 731, a weapons research department that performed lethal human experimentation on military and civilian prisoners. He states that many Chinese people today consume one of two stories; the official state version taught in school, or the heavily dramatized versions in popular entertainment. This disparity is not only limited to China because of its strict state control of the media, but is found in South Korea and Japan as well. Booth argues that accurate historical education is imperative to understanding the struggles between the Asian nations. That narrative can be distorted however, and that’s a real fear to Booth.

Apologies are another major trend in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’. This is especially common in the section on South Korea and Japan. For most of its history, Korea was subjugated by Japan or the Mongols. Japan is seen as the major perpetrator, especially during World War II. Comfort women and forced conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army were sticking points for the Koreans, who have been demanding official apologies from the Japanese government. While there have been public statements addressing the issue, Japan has somewhat skirted the issue or alleviate the Korean activists right up to the cusp of an apology. Older South Koreans understood the sacrifices their generations made, but Booth notes that not many of the newer generation understand that history though. Younger South Koreans put their energy into cosmetics, internet cafes, smartphones, and visiting Haesindang Park (the ‘Penis Park’; yes, that’s an actual place. Google it at your own peril). Booth highlights the importance of apologies in each section because as modern nations begin issuing official apologies for past grievances or war crimes, some are still encounter difficulties reconciling their history because the people remained divided. This is was the most poignant lesson that Booth recounts because we as U.S. citizens have our own historical demons with the subjugation and massacring of Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yasukuni Shine in Tokyo. An official Shinto shrine that remains a lightning rod for controversy in the post-WWII world.

Yasukuni Shine is another point of contention between the three nations. In a nutshell. this Shinto shrine serves as a war memorial for all deceased Japanese servicemembers. In these names are those convicted of war crimes, including fourteen Class A war criminals convicted of ordering or carrying out atrocities. Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine over the decades, which Korea and China have deemed offensive and controversies have even affected the Emperor of Japan’s actions. No emperor has visited the shrine since 1975, but this doesn’t prevent members of Japanese far-right political parties who advocate for Japan’s re-militarization. A portion of Japanese people still deny that any war crimes were committed during World War II and this leaves many Koreans and Chinese frustrated and unable to pursue future reconciliation. Throughout his interviews in Japan, Booth’s introspection kept returning to the importance of historical education. How could these nations rebuild their prestige and standing with one another if their younger generations denied what their ancestors did?

Overall, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ was a compelling and enlightening read. Booth’s combination of the grassroots history with the broader historical narrative really demonstrates how the course of history affects individual people. Some people will continue to have a burning hatred for another nation, while another embraces another cultural more than their own. All of it boils down to a well-rounded, properly informed education according to Booth. I couldn’t agree more. The ideology of one generation is undoubtedly shaped by another. If proper historical dialogue is replaced by negation and denialism, what can we expect to achieve in terms of global cooperation and cultural understanding? I take the grim view that tensions in the Far East will continue to simmer unless there’s a concerted effort for the nations to face their sordid histories and find a path to reconciliation. Otherwise, the three tigers will keeping circling one another until they all decide to pounce and see which emerges the sole survivor.

Yokohama Chinatown: one of many enclaves of expatriate communities in Japan. Some Chinese and Koreans extol Japanese social and economic virtues, but others are still unable to let go of the historical bad blood between their home countries.