Code Talker statue

This statue of a Navajo Code Talker stands in from of the Gallup Cultural Center.

Signs on Historic Highway 66 welcome travelers to Gallup and tout the town’s sobriquet, “Most Patriotic Small Town in America.” They didn’t make this up. The designation was awarded by map-maker Rand McNally.

For a town surrounded by Native American tribal lands – Navajo, Zuni and Hopi — the town is surprisingly diverse. As one might expect in New Mexico, there is also a large Hispanic population. The “pale faces” are a varied bunch. The area was once a coal-mining center, attracting families from Italy and Croatia. It’s a town that refused to intern Japanese citizens during World War II.

One of the town’s most beloved residents is 93-year-old Hiroshi Miyamura, holder of the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, for his service in the Korean War. The city holds those who have served the country in the military in high esteem. A series of columns in front of the McKinley County Courthouse honors veterans from McKinley County serving in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. Special columns are devoted to the Navajo Code Talkers and to Hiroshi Miyamura.

New Mexicans have always stepped forward to serve the nation. During World War II, the largest contingent on the Bataan Death March was made up of soldiers from New Mexico. Veteran and manager of the local Comfort Suites, Ken Riege, estimates that 25-c30% of Gallup’s 20,000-plus residents have served in the military.

Several year’s ago, Riege’s good friend Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura bought the Rand McNally contest to his attention. Riege, who served in the Air Force during Desert Storm, had already started a small collection of military materials which he displayed in the hotel. Military visitors had begun bringing items in when they visited. 

Riege investigated that Rand McNally project and was sure that Gallup had a good chance of winning the title. Riege says, “Patriotism isn’t just flying the flag; anyone can do that. It’s deeper than that. It isn’t just honoring Veteran’s Day. We live it every day. It’s caring about citizens; helping each other out and looking out for our neighbors.”

The Rand McNally committee was impressed with Gallup’s submission. The city won the honor several years then the map company discontinued the competition – leaving Gallup with the title, the “Most Patriotic Small Town in America.”

Riege’s collection has continued to grow. One of the most interesting exhibits is a display of Medal of Honor challenge coins. Riege had to explain the coins to me. It’s a service thing. There are coins for military units, Purple Heart coins, basically coins for anything a vet wants created. 

Sort of like pins or patches, coin holders swap with others, collect them or just hand them out. They’re also used for bar challenges. One individual will slap his unit coin on the bar and whoever’s there will have to slap theirs. If one doesn’t have one, he buys the drinks. There’s also a coin hierarchy — the rules are arcane and, maybe even flexible. The highest coin of all is the Medal of Honor. It even outranks a presidential coin. 

The Comfort Suites collection displays 105 Medal of Honor coins, each with the owner’s name. There are no duplicates. Many of them came from Medal of Honor holder John Baca from California, who donated his collection to Riege. Others are coins given to Riege by other recipients. Many have visited the hotel. And, of course, there’s Hershey Miymura’s coin.

A particularly poignant display features hanging dog tags inscribed with the names of military members from the community who died in service. The array includes those who served in World War I and II through those killed in the Global War on Terror.

Historic posters, articles and photos line the first-floor hall of the hotel. A conference room is dedicated to the Navajo Code Talkers. These soldiers were called to service in 1942. In all, there were talkers from at least 16 tribes. Originally, 30 Navajos were called — one missed the bus — so the first group was made up of 29 men. The Navajos were particularly favored because they had no written language. They first had to develop names for the 26 letters of the alphabet then, in addition, create new words for military terms. For example, the code word for a transport plane was “eagle.” 

The Navajo Code Talkers were not involved in the war in the European Theater — they served in the Pacific. Of the 420 Navajo Code Talkers, few are left. Three passed away in the past month, the last, William Tully Brown, 96, died on June 3. Now there are only three of these heroes left.

I have to admit I was puzzled at the number of Native Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. Recently I visited several of the Native American museums here in Oklahoma and the Trail of Tears, and the years of betrayal and broken treaties were on my mind. 

While I was in Gallup, I drove to Window Rock, Arizona to the Navajo National Museum. The Navajos also shared their tragic history — and their own Trail of Tears, which they refer to as The Long Walk.

Riege’s answer to my question is that the Navajos’ loyalty is to the ideals for which our country was created rather than dwelling on our failures to live up to them. That’s patriotism.

Reminders are everywhere in Gallup. In addition to the places I’ve mentioned, there are displays in the Chamber of Commerce office, a small exhibit in the Gallup Cultural Center and a Code Talker statue in front of the Center and train station. 

Then there’s Ken Riege. To every veteran who visits, he gives a small, American flag (4”x 6”), folded in the traditional triangle. “I figured out that I’ve folded and handed out about 25,000 flags,” he says. The ultimate touch is — the mints on the check-in desk are packaged in red, white and blue wrappers. I guess Rand McNally got it right!