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Keith Little, a Navajo who served in the Marine Corps during World War II, receives a gift from Colonel Alan Pratt, Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity’s (MCTSSA) Commanding Officer, at MCTSSA’s Acquisition Excellence Day.

Photo by Wil Williams

War Veterans: MCTSSA AE Day focuses on the extraordinary

29 Jul 2010 | Wil Williams

Resolute in their efforts to defeat the enemy, two Marines, serving more than six decades apart from each other, presented dramatic accounts of how innovation and change impacted their service at Iwo Jima during World War II and in Afghanistan today. These war veterans spoke at Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity’s (MCTSSA) annual Acquisition Excellence (AE) Day.

“At Iwo Jima and presently in Afghanistan we have innovated or transformed equipment into weaponry suited to the conflict” said Colonel Alan Pratt, MCTSSA’s Commanding Officer. “Two of our four speakers – Keith Little, a Navajo Code Talker, and Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Frietze, a Marine Engineering Support Commander – have chronicled how many of the challenges warfighters face in conflict have not changed, while highlighting how technology, be it rudimentary or sophisticated, has been used in battle.”

Illustrating the need for rapid, secure tactical communications, Little, a Navajo who joined the Marine Corps during World War II at the age of 17, spoke on the unbreakable code that stymied the Japanese in World War II and at the battle for Iwo Jima.

“It was a code within a code,” Little said. “It was a double language … that could be used over the radio. It was all covered by secrecy, and we were constantly told not to talk about it."

Based on the Navajo’s native language, the code took military equipment or operations and assigned cryptic disassociated English terms to each. Committed to memory by the code talkers, the English terms were then translated into Navajo, allowing messages to be quickly transmitted from one Navajo code talker to another openly over tactical radios. “Aircraft,” for example, were called “hummingbirds,” which was translated into the Navajo as “dahii ti hi.”

"Time is a very important element,” the code talker stated. “It keeps you from being wiped out. … even if they [the Japanese] manage to translate it, it would be of no value."

Delivering the keynote address, Frietze, 7th Engineering Support Battalion’s Commanding Officer, spoke on his unit’s mission to provide general engineering support to units throughout Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a region not much different than the arid southwest United States. Throughout the deployment, according to Frietze, Marines built anything that was required to complete a mission.

"We constructed everything from roads to wooden structures. … we put bridges across rivers to move forces into Majah during combat operations … and we produced water, ¬millions of gallons of water, and provided bulk fuel and power," he added. "Basically we built the infrastructure life support to sustain patrol bases, combat outposts and forward operating bases."

Significantly, all of this construction was done over terrain notorious for harboring improvised explosive devices.

“Sustaining the complex tactical environment, as these speakers respectively illustrated, underscores how vital the MCTSSA’s workforce is to the warfighter and the importance of having an AE day,” Pratt said. “For on this day, we pause from all our efforts to recognize individual and team excellence, the super job that is paramount to the safety of the troops in the field daily.”

Marine Corps Systems Command