By Lori Hasselman
Lawrence, KS – When Haskell student, Gwendolyn Charles walked into the Burger King in Kayenta, Arizona with her basketball team, she had no idea she would find a picture of her grandfather. “There was a little museum with pictures of the Code Talkers and even a Marine uniform displayed in glass. I just started reading and looking and there was his name, Ira Manuelito,” said Charles who began searching the displayed picture for a familiar face. “He looks just like my dad. I got real excited and started waving everybody over saying, ‘That’s my grandfather!'” The artifacts on display were the possessions of King Mike, Navajo Code Talker. The restaurant is owned by his son, Richard Mike. “We all knew my grandfather was in the war but I never knew he was a Code Talker,” said Charles. Like many of the Navajo Code Talkers, her grandfather never spoke about it. “He was a humble man,” said Charles.
Excited after her discovery at Burger King, Charles began doing some research. A picture was found of Ira in his Marine uniform at her grandmother, Harriet’s home but Ira’s service as a Code Talker was never talked about. “My grandfather was in the 297th Marine Platoon in 2943 which is the second 60, ” said Charles. Although the most widely known Navajo Code Talkers were those of the first 29, the second 60 was responsible for the conception of over 800 words of the code. Haskell history professor, Dr. Mike Tosee adds, “A little known fact is that the Choctaws were actually the very first Code Talkers in WWI and in December 1940, Comanches were being picked up by the United States Army as Code Talkers.” In addition to the Comanche, WWII military personnel from 15 other tribes were also utilized as Code Talkers with little recognition. After 30-plus years, the United States government through an Act of Congress in 2001 honored the Navajo Code Talkers with Congressional Medal of Honor; gold for the first 29 and silver to the others. The son of Sam and Gladys Manuelito and direct descendent of great Navajo leaders, Ira could speak and write very good English. He was a high school graduate along with all his other siblings. when the all came for Navajo recruits during WWII, the husband of Ira’s sister, Harriet went to join. With only a 3rd grade education, he could not write or speak English as well as Manuelito siblings and was not admitted into the Marines. “My grandfather and Priscilla Newcomb Thompson were playmates growing up. She remembers my grandfather was so nice to her. They rode horses together. When my grandfather and his siblings would go to school, Priscilla remembers looking over the big fence around the school, wishing she could go with him and play,” said Charles. Priscilla is the daughter of famous sandpainter, Franc Johnson Newcomb. Charles was raised by Ira’s sister, her paternal grandmother, Harriet was close with her brothers. Ira, the second to the youngest, was a frequent visitor at his sister’s house. Ira would arrive by horseback to plow the dry land for her cornfield. “I remember seeing him come by wagon with his family,” said Charles. Working hard on the farm for his sister, he also had his own cattle and horses to take care of at home, as well as his parents sheep. A hunter, Ira would bring the family deer and turkey meat and sometimes mutton when it was available to be dried. The family had no electricity until Charles returned from boarding school in 1967.
Charles has many fond memories of her grandpa, Ira Manuelito. “He would hug me and pick me up and he’d say, ‘We’re going to find your mom and tie her up and make her be with you,'” said Charles “I didn’t understand because I looked to my grandma as a mother.” Charles recalls another fond memory of her grandpa playing a game with her. “he was missing a finger. He would put that finger in his mouth like he was biting it off and then take it out and poke it at me, teasing me, and he would just laugh. It scared me!” Ira would often call all the kids over from playing to his big tin lock-box full of candy, apples a nd other treats and he would diplomatically give each child the same treat to prevent arguments.
Ira Manuelito died at the age of 52 in 1977. His graveside services were conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. When asked how she feels about her grandfather’s military service, Charles said, “I feel happy. The Navajo flag means more to me now. They fought for the land. They didn’t want to go to war. The land can not be owned.” Charles also feels a stronger connection with her Navajo Bible and song book, both written in the same language her grandfather used in WWII to devise a code that saved many lives. Charles’ grandfather is buried in the Veterans section of the Shiprock cemetery. He served 7 years as a Marine.