From the Napa Redwoods to Iwo Jima
In the 1920s, Harold Jachens grew up in San Francisco and, especially as a young teen, also spent most weekends and summers in the Napa Redwoods at the end of Redwood Road outside of Napa. He became a regular member of the community and stayed one into adulthood. And, as an adult, he would have an adventure far from the redwoods—in a bunker on Iwo Jima during World War II with six Navajo “Code Talkers.”
His own Navajo connection
Jachens himself was one-eighth Navajo. According to Jachens in a mid-1990s interview, one of his maternal great-grandfathers was a mining engineer who had come from Germany by way of Florida and traveled across the southern United States until he reached the Navajo nation in New Mexico. There he was told by a tribal elder that, because winter was close, he should not try to continue on over the Rocky Mountains until spring. So he spent the winter in the Navajo village, where he fell in love with and married a Navajo woman. The great-grandfather moved on with his bride in the spring to the Comstock Mine in Virginia City where he took a job as an assayer, said Jachens.
That a German had married a Navajo woman did not go over too well in Virginia City, but the great-grandfather took care of that. “He was a scrapper,” said Jachens, “and at any word against his wife, he decked them, absolutely.” After a few of these encounters, joked Jachens, his great-grandfather “got to be well known as the husband of a wonderful lady.”
That Harold was part Navajo became known to his friends because schools tracked that kind of information then. Some of them called him “Half Breed.”
“All the kids wanted to play ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ and I had to be the ‘Indians.'” He laughed “They’d all be the cowboys, and beat up on me. So I learned to protect myself.”
Joins the Marines during World War II
Over the next 20 years, Jachens went on to marry Amy Marriner, have two children and work as an etcher and as a commercial artist for a lithographer in San Francisco. Then World War II began, and in 1943, Jachens joined the United States Marine Corps. He was 37, stood five-foot, nine-inches tall, and weighed 140 lbs. Because of experience as a commercial artist, he was put into camouflage training (“camofleur” was the official title) in San Diego. But one day he came back late from leave. He and a group of cohorts tried to go over the base fence. As he fell down from the fence, said Jachens, he “conked the officer of the day.” When he was found out, he was offered the brig or transfer to the Pacific theater.
Sent to Hawaii to train for Saipan and Tinian
Jachens took the transfer. He was assigned to the First Battalion, 23rd Marines and sailed from San Diego for Hawaii in late January 1944, arriving after seven days at sea. Over the next four months, he trained on Maui for amphibious assaults, which included two large landing exercises on Maui beaches.
In June he sailed with other troops for Saipan and participated in the taking of that island, and in late July, took part in the assault of Tinian. These two victories set up an assault on Iwo Jima, but it was too soon for that. He sailed back with other troops to Maui in late August. A doctor’s physical in October said Jachens was then 38, still a camofluer, and had “joined this outfit before the Saipan-Tinian campaign and went through these two battles without too much distress or too many complaints. He does, however, have a low tolerance for strenuous exercise and cannot keep up with the troops in long marches. He generally rode whenever he could and he was kept at the Command Post throughout most of the campaign and used as an Intelligence Man [described by the the Marine Corps as a soldier who “performs or more duties incident to the collection, evaluation, interpretation, and distribution of information regarding enemy activities”]. He is a very willing worker, but it is felt by this medical officer that he should not be with a combat unit at the front but should be in a rear area with a higher echelon such as regimental or division headquarters.”
Trains as forward observer with “code talkers”
But it was late in the war and the Marines needed every able body they had. At some point—likely after Saipian and Tinian—he began training on Maui as a forward observer, a soldier who observed the battle close-in and then radioed back information about where to send air-naval-ground artillery fire based on their observations. Forward observers operated either from the front lines in bunkers or from the air in small aircraft called “jig planes.” Jachens was assigned to a team of six Navajo “Code Talkers.” The Marines had
secretly created the now-famous teams of a forward observer and “code talker” Navajo soldiers who would relay the commands of the observer back to another Navajo behind the lines. That Navajo solder would then translate the coordinates back into English for the gunners
Three generations distant from his great-grandmother, Jachens did not speak any Navajo. And as we will see later, relations may not always have been smooth for Jachens and the Navajos during training on Maui. Additionally, the code talkers soon found out that Jachens was 1/8th Navajo—and started calling him “Half Breed.”
In preparation for Iwo Jima, the team trained on Maui until mid-January 1945, with one large four-day exercise in November.
The invasion of Iwo Jima
They with many others on January 27 for Saipan and from there directly to the assault on Iwo Jima. On February 19 the attack on Iwo Jima began with air strikes and naval bombardment, and the U.S. Marines landed on February 21. The next day, Jachens and the code talkers were in position on the beach, a deep bunker in the sand to protect themselves from Japanese bombardment from the hills. But while the team was directing fire, the Japanese figured out where they were and their bunker took a direct hit.
“All seven of us were hit,” said Jachens. “My legs had 47 pieces of shrapnel in them, and were torn to pieces, and my hands, too.” Three of the code talkers were killed, he said, and the others were “pretty well blasted, too.”
The four survivors lay badly wounded in the exposed bunker, bleeding, and waiting for another Japanese shell or for corpsmen to be able to make their way to them and evacuate them.
The “half breed” becomes a “full brother”
Believing they all might still be killed or even bleed to death, one of the Navajos looked over at Jachens and said, in Jachen’s words, “’Blankity-blank,’ you lousy half-breed, we’re going to make you a full brother.”
So, the three surviving Navajos crawled to his side and held out their arms.
“On the wrist where I was torn,” said Jachens, “the three of them took their arms and mixed my blood with theirs, and the one said, ‘Now, you damn old leatherneck, you’re a full-blooded brother and your name is Amayama.'”
“What hell does Amayama mean?” Jachens asked.
“That means ‘Howl of the Wolf.'”
Curious as to why he’d been given that name, Jachens asked, “What does that mean?”
“Well, you blankity-blank bastard, you always yelled at us [in training] because you couldn’t understand what we were talking about [if information was being passed on correctly]. So that is why we have named you, ‘Howl of the Wolf.’”
The team is saved and recovers…and goes home as the war ends
Finally, the team was rescued, were operated on and able to mend on Iwo Jima after the battle. A month later they sailed back to Hawaii, where Jachens spent the remainder for the war. Japan surrendered in mid-August, and Jachens shipped out of Pearl Harbor for San Diego in October and was given an honorable discharge in November. He also earned a Purple Heart for Iwo Jima.
After the war, Jachens said, he exchanged news and photos with the code talkers he had worked with, and even made an invited visit to the Navajo reservation. Because he was considered Navajo, Jachens said, he was able to participate in a peace dance. “That was a lot of fun,” he said. After that, he communicated with the men sporadically until the phone calls slowed and stopped. A few years before the interview, he said, the daughter of one of the translators called to tell him her father had just died. “There are no more of your old crew,” she said. Jachens himself passed away in late January 1999 at 91 years old.
*Note re “Amayama’: this appears to be a name that Jachens came up with quickly during the interview based on his memory of the event and similar to “Mayacama” which he had been discussing. According to glosbe.com‘s Navajo-English dictionary, a possible Navajo word for “howl” is ałhą́ą́ʼ, and the word for “wolf” is mąʼiitsoh.