Rain doesn’t dampen Memorial Day ceremony
Michael Bauer, Editor-in-chief
Rain could not keep Chester Nez from participating in the annual Memorial Day program at Pittsburg State on Monday, May 26.
The celebration, which usually takes place at the PSU amphitheater, was moved to the Kansas Army National Guard training center right next door after a torrential rainstorm nearly caused the event to be canceled. The Frontenac American Legion Post 43 and the Pritchett Trust sponsored the event and about 80 people were believed to have attended.
“We were amazed by the amount of people who still showed up in the rain because they wanted to hear the story of Father Kapaun and of (Navajo code talker) Chester Nez,” said Don Morey, commander of the American Legion Post No. 43 in Frontenac.
Nez, 93, of New Mexico is the last of the 29 original Navajo code talkers from World War II. His memoir “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII” was co-authored by Judith Avila. Avila spoke to the crowd on Nez’s behalf and explained what Nez and the other members of the Navajo tribe did in creating an unbreakable code used against the Axis powers during World War II.
“There is so much pride in what they did, not only for their country, but for the Navajo people,” Avila said. “With their Navajo language, they helped win the war at a time when they couldn’t even vote.”
With the Japanese having no trouble in cracking U.S. codes, the U.S. Marines turned to a different solution. After going to the Tuba City School in 1942 to find 30 smart Navajo boys who spoke their native language and understood English, the U.S. military found their answer.
“One of the 30 dropped out, and it became 29,” Avila said. “They all made it through basic training.”
Afterward, an officer took them into a classroom, locked the door and told them about their secret mission.
“They were told that they were needed to design a code even another Navajo couldn’t break,” Avila said. “They found new words for different kinds of equipment and different ranks of officers.”
The Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, which included Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Nez signed copies of his book. He also was featured Sunday, May 25, at Pittsburg High School
The Memorial Celebration also included a presentation on Father Emil Kapaun who was a Roman Catholic priest and a native Kansan. Kapaun died in 1951 while he was a prisoner of war during the Korean War and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 and is a candidate for sainthood.
The Rev. Adam Keiter, associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Pittsburg and the chaplain for the St. Pius X Catholic Student Center at PSU, shared Kapaun’s story.
“He is such a great model to not just us priests, but to everyone he came in contact with,” Keiter said. “Interest in his story has gone up so much since he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, but there are still people who may not know what he did during the Korean War.”
Kapaun was captured and forced on a 300-mile march into North Korea, where later died but before continuing his services as a chaplain to the service members with whom he came into contact.
“Just telling his story today to people who may not have known who he was keeps that legacy alive,” Keiter said.