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Codename Geronimo

Posted May. 07, 2011 04:14,   


“They took the whole Cherokee Nation / And put us on this reservation / Took away our ways of life… They took away our native tongue / And taught their English to our young…” So goes the lyrics of the U.S. pop song “Indian Reservation.” The Cherokee language, which is on the verge of extinction, was very useful for U.S. troops during World War I. They used Cherokees, dubbed “code talkers,” to exchange secret messages in the Cherokee language at the Battle of the Somme. German troops were unable to decode the communication due to their lack of knowledge of the Cherokee language. Preparing for World War II, Adolf Hitler sent about 30 anthropologists to the U.S. to learn Native American languages.

The most prominent case of native Americans mobilized as code talkers involve the Navajos during the Pacific War. Paul Johnston, a World War I veteran, was one of the non-Navajos with fluency in their language as he grew up on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary. Before World War II began, there were less than 30 non-Navajos who could speak the language in the U.S. and none in Japan. Under Johnston’s advice, the U.S. military mobilized Navajo code talkers. The crucial Battle of Iwo Jima ended in a U.S. victory due in large part to six Navajo code talkers who exchanged 800 messages without being deciphered by the Japanese.

The U.S. used the codename “Geronimo, E-KIA (Enemy Killed In Action)” for the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the codename, Geronimo points to bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Geronimo (1829-1909) was one of the last Apache warriors who struck fear into U.S. and Mexican troops. A number of Hollywood films feature the famous Apache. Hollywood movies always need villains, and the latest bad guys are Islamic terrorists. Before, they were Soviet spies during the Cold War and Native Americans in early Western films.

With Washington using Geronimo as the codename for killing bin Laden, Native American communities are protesting the name, saying it is inappropriate to link one of the greatest Native American heroes to America’s most hated enemy. Americans have both awe and respect for Geronimo. The U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment still use Geronimo as their nicknames.

Editorial Writer Song Pyeong-in (pisong@donga.com)