Silent Voices Give Voice to New Mexicans in WWIIABQ Journal Review
Sunday, December 31, 2006
"Remote beyond compare" is how the 17th century colonial governor of New Spain, Diego de Vargas, described the empire's northern frontier.
Two hundred and fifty years later, by the beginning of World War II, those lands were now the state of New Mexico.
Then, as now, although geographically among the union's largest, it was one of the least inhabited, with a total population of slightly over half a million, (about the size of present-day metropolitan Albuquerque) clustered in a few "cities" and dozens of scattered farming and ranching communities.
But it was precisely this emptiness, an agreeable climate and a unique cultural blend that help ensure New Mexico a place in the history of the war's Pacific theater as unique as the state's identity.
Bookshelves groan under accounts of those times— of Los Alamos and the A-bomb test at Trinity (more than 300 works on these alone); of the Bataan POW Death March; of the Navajo code talkers; and of the Japanese-American internment camp near Santa Fe.
To cite several examples: Los Alamos was chosen as the site for the Manhattan Project largely because director J. Robert Oppenheimer spent boyhood summers in the Jemez Mountains and knew the isolated area would be suitable for the project's necessary secrecy; Diné, the unwritten Navajo language spoken on the sprawling Four Corners reservation, was selected as a secret military code because it was known by only 28 non-Navajos (mostly anthropologists, none Japanese); and months before Pearl Harbor, the New Mexico National Guard's 200th Coast Artillery was assisting local forces in the Philippines because top brass thought the heavily Hispanic unit would be culturally sensitive to their Filipino cohorts.
Cultural sensitivity is a central theme of this book.
Bartlit, a longtime Los Alamos resident, has lived and taught in Japan. An Albuquerque resident and former UNM professor, Rogers' academic specialties are international and intercultural communications. Their perspective emphasizes the personal experience in momentous events, and while this book is not a narrative oral history in the style of, for instance, Studs Terkel, they do give a voice to those often-overlooked, anonymous individuals caught up in the sweep of a great drama.
These are stories of enlisted men and women who lived in Los Alamos and actually built the bomb, of the young Navajos who left the safety of the reservation to serve a government that had abandoned them for generations, and of Japanese-Americans imprisoned in their own country.
Readers familiar with the subject or not will find this book valuable. Its straightforward journalistic style, inclusion of extensive footnotes and references, numerous reproductions of news photographs, maps, charts, diagrams, timelines and other graphics present a clear, comprehensive and informative overview of a compelling time in New Mexico's history. ❇