Published in the Nov-Dec 2013 issue of MyLIFE magazine

November 11 is the day we honor brave Americans who served in our armed forces. Veterans Day became a legal federal holiday in the United States in 1938. Great Britain, France, Australia and Canada also commemorate the veterans of World Wars I and II on or near November 11. Canada has Remembrance Day, while Britain has Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday of November).

But have we as a society forgotten those who served our country more than half a century ago? I hope not! World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 650 a day. Most of them are well into their 80s and 90s. These are grim statistics that serve as a powerful reminder: We must do everything we can to honor these individuals and let them know we’re aware of the courageous acts they performed during extraordinary times.

In 2007, there were about 2.9 million World War II veterans living in the United States—a number that has fallen to 1.5 million just six years later. That’s about one tenth of the 16.1 million Americans who served in the war.

When these veterans returned home, many had no parades, no hero’s welcome and few thank-yous. But most of them didn’t mind. In fact, when you talk to them, many will tell you that they don’t want the acknowledgement—even when you thank them for their service and call them heroes. They don’t want to talk about it. They will tell you that the real heroes are the ones who perished “over there”—in France, Iwo Jima, Bastogne, Pearl Harbor or Germany—the infantry, airborne, cavalry, armored and mountain divisions. They are selfless individuals who were a product of their generation—a generation that journalist Tom Brokaw referred to as the “Greatest Generation”—ordinary Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and answered the call to fight in World War II, then came back and built the world’s most prosperous society and elevated the United States to superpower status.

Take a minute to honor America’s Greatest Generation as you view the pictures below. Reflect on the countless battles they encountered, their incredible resilience and resolve, and their courageous fighting spirit against tyranny over oppressed people around the world. May their incredible valor be an inspiration to future generations and never, ever be forgotten.

[flagallery gid=6 name=”World War II”]


Published in the Nov-Dec 2013 issue of MyLIFE magazine

Close behind the Bougainville front lines, these American Navajos serving with a Marine signal unit are shown operating a portable radio set in a clearing they have hacked from the dense jungle. They are Cpl. Henry Blake, Jr. (left) of Fort Defiance, Arizona, and Pfc. George H. Kirk of Leupp, Arizona. DEFENSE DEPT. PHOTO (MARINE CORPS) 69889-B.

The legislative branch of the Navajo Nation met on June 3, 1940, and issued this statement:

“Whereas, there exists no purer concentration of Americanism than among the First Americans … we resolve that the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to defend our Government and its institutions against all subversive and armed conflict.”

This was part of a larger resolution passed by the Navajo Tribal Council more than a year before the United States was officially involved in World War II. When war came suddenly with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1942, Navajo tribe members were ready to serve. Nearly 900 did so in the United States Marine Corps. Of these, a group of more than 400 performed a specialized service during the difficult campaigns in the Pacific, repeatedly helping the Unites States defeat Japanese forces. They were the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Need
Having enemy forces able to decode communications is a highly undesirable state of affairs during war. At the start of the Pacific campaign, Japanese forces were often able to do just that, and sometimes they received U.S. military orders almost as quickly as did the American Marines. Additionally, most Japanese radio operators spoke fluent English and could interrupt transmissions and broadcast false orders. The United States needed a quick, accurate and secure way of sending messages. In the tight maneuvering area of the Pacific Islands, there was no margin for error in directing supplies, troops and artillery fire.

California-based civil engineer Philip Johnston proposed the idea of using the Navajo language as a tool to send secure transmissions. During his childhood, Johnston’s parents worked as missionaries on the Navajo reservation. Although not fluent in Navajo himself, he knew that the language could be used to create and implement a coded messaging system that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to crack. The tribe was geographically isolated, and use of the language was primarily oral and difficult for non-native speakers to learn. Johnston facilitated a trail with a few members of the tribe in late 1941, and by mid-1942, the code talker program was in full swing.

The Undeciphered Code
Johnston’s role began and ended with implementation and administration of the program and its structure. Navajo recruits did all the work developing and later expanding the code. It consisted of both individual words as well as an alphabet for things that would need to be spelled, like names of people and places. It came to include nearly 400 words, and carrying written copies into battle was against military rules. Every term and letter representation was memorized, and the code was never deciphered by the Japanese.

Undoubtedly the most famous—when declassified—of all the code talker transmissions was the one sent from Iwo Jima in February 1945 indicating that the marines had secured Mt. Suribachi: “Naasisosi Thanzie Dibeh Shida Dahnesisa Tkin Shush Wollachee Moasi Lin Achi,” which translates to “Mouse Turkey Sheep Uncle Ram Ice Bear Ant Cat Horse Intestines.”

In Battle
Initially in the field Marine commanders were skeptical that such a fast, efficient communication method was completely secure, and they tested the speed and accuracy of the code talkers against more traditional methods of encoding and sending messages. The code talkers repeatedly proved their worth, and by May 1943 nearly all of the commanders in the Pacific were singing their praises.

When a message came in for a code talker to decipher, it was preceded by either “Arizona” or “New Mexico.” With this, the Japanese began to recognize that a certain type of code was being used consistently. Although they were unable to break it, they became increasingly frustrated with their inability to decipher what they heard, and their radio operators would shout and curse at the Navajo in a desperate attempt to interfere with transmissions. Japanese forces were also efficient at tracing the origin of communication signals, and all radio operators had to be skilled to set up their equipment, transmit quickly and run. Teddy Draper Sr. remembers that he “didn’t have time to shoot back” while sending and receiving messages.

The presence of the code talkers was largely unexplained to the general Marine population, and this led to some difficult situations. Navajos resembled Japanese soldiers to untrained eyes in the heat of battle, and their own comrades sometime mistook them for the enemy. A marine sentry “captured” code talker William McCabe, who was almost executed until several members of McCabe’s own unit vouched for his identity. Eventually, a bodyguard was assigned to each code talker for protection.

The U.S. military kept the Navajo code classified throughout the war and for nearly 30 years afterward; virtually no one knew about the unique service these men provided for their country. In 1969, the Navajo code was declassified, and in 1970 some of the veterans formed the Navajo Code Talker’s Association. Still, public recognition came slowly, and it seems that the government began to fully acknowledge the code talkers only after the civilian population became aware of their existence. In 1981, Ronald Regan designated August 14th as National Code Talker Day, and on March 2, 1989, a monument was dedicated in Phoenix, Arizona, as a tribute to the code talkers’ service.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century, widespread public recognition has continued intermittently, including the creation of a G.I. Joe doll in 2000 and the popular Hollywood movie Windtalkers, produced in 2002. It seems that every few years the code talkers are national news again. May this trend continue well into the future so the important story of their service is never forgotten.

Navajo Code Talkers TBY-2 radio
Navajo Code Talkers TBY-2 radio
The infallibility of the code came from the nature of the Navajo language itself (unknown outside the tribe and unrecorded) and from the clever way the code talkers constructed some of it. Several terms were quite a stretch from their original English meaning, and others used simple but not necessarily intuitive word combinations to achieve the translations. The alphabet worked much the same way, and there were multiple words representing each letter.

Military Term……….Navajo Word……….English Translation
Banzai……………..Ne-tah……………Fool Them
Dive Bomber…………Gini……………..Chicken Hawk
Rate……………….Gah-eh-yahn……….Rabbit Ate

English Alphabet……….Navajo Word……….English Translation


Published in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine

Fairy Chimneys rock formation near Gorëme, in Cappadocia, central Turkey – Photo by Benh LIEU SONG

Visiting Cappadocia to witness its richly layered, stunningly beautiful landscape from a hot air balloon before sunrise, walking among remnants of many cultures that inhabited the land as far back as 500,000 B.C., admiring its fauna and flora thrive despite the parched earth may be the most incredible experience of my lifetime. Even if this is my third return, the magic I felt at first still beckons with the sultry tongue of the sizzling Anatolian sun, and thus the enchanting Cappadocia holds me under its spell. To some, three days may suffice to abandon themselves to the mind frame of this magic; to others, weeks may not.

No excellent writer or photographer could do justice to the magnificence and the magic of what spreads before one’s eyes bearing its fiery soul, which beats with rich history.

The area, known as Kapadokya in Turkey, comprises Aksaray, Kayseri, Kirsehir, Nevsehir and Nigde—an area close to 300 square kilometers. A work in progress, the area has been evolving geologically since 60 million years ago. Kapadokya Valley was formed 10,000 years ago after the latest eruption of three volcanoes: Göllüdag, Hasan Dagi and Argeus. The ash and lava these volcanoes spurted covered countless other mountains before settling into soft tufa layer as they cooled. The erosion brought on by cooling of the tufa layer reaching 150 meters at some points exposes layers of harder, basal rocks. These formations we marvel upon today are known as Fairy Chimneys, perhaps because it’s impossible to imagine that anyone but fairies could create something this enchanting. But, I believe in nature’s miracles more than I do in fairies.

In the ensuing thousands of years, winds and rains continually eroded the tufa layers, forming cracks and exposing the tougher basalt layers. Higher parts that escaped the wrath of nature’s elements were unaffected. Today, they stand out in rows, forming canyons of structures resembling cones with mushroom heads.

The first settlements in Cappadocia go back to the Paleolithic Age, 500,000 years ago, and bear testament to the existence of a Catholithic Age later between 500,000 and 300,000 B.C. These finds are displayed in the Nevsehir Museum.

During a 1991 excavation about 18 miles north of Avanos, evidence showed the presence of life during the Bronze Age (300,000-1,200 B.C.). Pre-Hittites and Hittites ruled and left their influence from 1,200 to 547 B.C., at which time Persians conquered the land. Later, in 333 B.C., led by Alexander the Great, Macedonians became the strongest force in Anatolia, and Ariarthes I served as king of Cappadocia. He was followed by his son, Ariarthes II, who continued to expand the borders of the Cappadocian kingdom and recognize a very high place for culture, the arts and science.

Alexander the Great had no heirs; thus, following his death, his generals became embroiled in wars over who would rule Anatolia, rendering the nation weak. Persians took over in 547 B.C., and under their dominion they created the mighty Persian Empire. Cappadocia then became one of 31 Persian states and started paying annual taxes to the kings in the form of live animals. It was during this time that Cappadocia was named Karpatuka, land of the beautiful horses.

Karpatuka was to become the 17th state of the Romans in 30 B.C., when Caesar ended the Hellenistic period. As history has shown too often, the Roman Empire was not immune to internal conflicts and was divided into the Eastern and Western Roman empires in 310 A.D. In Emperor Justinian’s hands, by 527 A.D., the Byzantine Empire began its golden age in Cappadocia with churches, painted frescoes, cave dwellings and lasting art. It became the center of monastic and religious studies and the home of St. Basil, founder of monastic life in Cappadocia. The second golden age for the Byzantines returned during the 9th to 12th centuries, during which time many beautiful churches were built and decorated with colorful frescoes obtained from natural dyes from plants and mineral-enhanced stones. Today, many of these churches and paintings remain to be viewed in awe by visitors to this surreal place.

Before the Ottomans’ conquest of Anatolia during the 15th century and their subsequent reign for the next 800 years, the Seljuk Turks who migrated from central Asia into eastern Anatolia during the 11th century had driven back the Byzantines, conquering Cappadocia in 1072.

The storied past of Cappadocia—that it was such an attractive land and that it attracted so many talented, intelligent and brave individuals to leave their legacy—may be one of the factors that make this place so magical. But I wanted to know what people who live there today think. I spoke about this with the lovely owner of a gift shop in Urgüp, since she sees so many tourists and locals alike daily.

“What gives this place its unparalleled magic and draws people in like a magnet?” I asked.

After thinking for a few seconds, Gül Hanim replied, “Kapadokya’s unbelievable atmosphere brings about a sense of serenity and inner peace. It’s also the center of many religious studies, scholars and artists of ancient civilizations. All that and the natural beauty, fairy chimneys, clean air [and] kindest people reassure one of the existence of a much bigger power who can bestow such beauty and blessings.”

How right she is! That sums up what I heard from everyone I asked, including the Hon. Muharrem Memis, deputy mayor of the town of Ortahisar. I suppose one can only describe magic just so much; beyond that, one has to live it.



The Declaration of Independence has long been regarded as a symbol of American democracy and liberty. The original document has been around for more than two centuries, and in that time it has dramatically faded and cracked—largely because of poor handling and preservation techniques.

Believe it or not, during its early years, the Declaration of Independence was often rolled up as it traveled between states and was not handled in a delicate fashion. In 1823, a copy was made, but during the process the original became wet, causing the ink to fade.

Later, in the 19th century, the Declaration of Independence was framed, hung and displayed next to a window at the old U.S. Patent Office (now part of the Smithsonian Institution) for many years, where exposure to sunlight contributed further to its deterioration. The document was eventually taken down and stored in a dry place, away from direct sunlight. At that time, preservation experts did not realize that to prevent cracking, the parchment, which was made from animal skin, needed a little moisture. The dryness factor while the document was in storage caused it to crack severely during the next 50 years.

In the ’50s, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) built helium-filled glass metal cases that helped keep destructive gases and microorganisms away from the precious document.

An examination of the Declaration of Independence in 1995, however, revealed signs of deterioration in the encasement’s glass. Furthermore, a very high amount of carbon dioxide was discovered. Although the document was not in danger, the glass was becoming opaque, obscuring the document inside. To remedy this, NIST recommended building new encasements for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Scientists and engineers from NIST collaborated with NASA to develop and build state-of-the-art encasements that would secure the documents against every type of harmful gas known.

Inside the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, D.C.

The Declaration of Independence, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is on exhibit at the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, D.C., where, thanks to advanced technology, the original words from our founding fathers can be preserved and can continue to guide our democracy for generations to come.


One of the best places in the world to contemplate the nature of time and the time of nature is Arizona’s Grand Canyon. As Arizona celebrates its centennial year, staring Feb. 14, 2012, it’s a natural time to think about what 100 years means on several levels.

Or layers.

It took a river running through, and possibly an earthquake, to sculpt an image of what canyon time looks like. As for the Grand one, at least seven layers have been named by time’s progress—from remnants of the former mountain range that exists at the very bottom, up to the Hakatai Shale layer showing an ocean’s retreat, to the Cardenas Basalts proving an era of volcanic activity, up to the top layer of Kaibab Limestone that is estimated to be about 250 million years old.

Estimates vary widely on how old the Grand Canyon is—geological studies have placed it between six and 17 million years. As contrast to the canyon’s age, scientists believe that the Rocky Mountains came into being between six and seven million years ago.

Given that Earth is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old, the ratio between it and the canyon can be compared to the 125 years between when Delaware became the first state of the union (when it ratified the U.S. Constitution) in 1787 and Arizona’s admission into the union of states in 1912. The difference between 4.3 billion geographic years and 125 years of social history matches dinosaurs to oranges, but the comparison has the concept of time as its common denominator.

The largeness of the chasm can also be measured in terms of humanity. From the few humans who visited or lived near it in the past, 4.5 million people now visit the Grand Canyon each year.

The first human beings to see this vast and layered hole were Native Americans, perhaps some of the Anazasi, who did not leave any written or oral record. So this is where readers can plumb the depths of imagination—what thoughts would you have had if you had been the first person to step up to the rim?

In 1540, a Spaniard wrote about another man’s tale of the experience on seeing this place of time, distance, stone and water. Garcia Lopez de Cardenas was a conquistador who led a party of explorers sent on a mission to view the river at the bottom of this rumored canyon. The orders came from explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who then lived in the region of Arizona in a town known as Cibola. The explorers were curious about tales they’d heard from Hopi tribe members that the canyon was the place from where humans first emerged from the Earth. Cardenas brought Pedro de Sotomayor with him as a secretary, and after the trip, Sotomayor told the story to an historian named Castaneda, who wrote an account of the exploration:

As Don Pedro de Tovar was not commissioned to go farther, he returned from there and gave this information to the general, who dispatched Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas with about twelve companions to go to see this river. He was well received when he reached Tusayan and was entertained by the natives who gave him guides for his journey. They started from there laden with provisions, for they had to go through a desert country before reaching the inhabited region, which the Indians said was more than 20 days’ journey. After they had gone 20 days they came to the banks of the river. It seemed to be more than three or four leagues in an air line across to the other bank of the stream which flowed between them.

 This country was elevated and full of low twisted pines, very cold, and lying open toward the north, so that, this being the warm season, no one could live there on account of the cold. They spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river, which looked from above as if the water was six feet across, although the Indians said it was half a league wide. It was impossible to descend, for after these three days Captain Melgosa & one Juan Galeras and another companion, who were the three lightest and most agile men, made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place, and went down until those who were above were unable to keep sight of them. They returned about four o’clock in the afternoon, not having succeeded in reaching the bottom on account of the great difficulties which they found, because what seemed to be easy from above was not so, but instead very hard and difficult. They said that they had been down about a third of the way and that the river seemed very large from the place which they reached, and that from what they saw they thought the Indians had given the width correctly. Those who stayed above had estimated that some huge rocks on the sides of the cliffs seemed to be about as tall as a man, but those who went down swore that when they reached these rocks they were bigger than the great tower of Seville. They did not go farther up the river, because they could not get water.

Because the land was rugged and water was scarce, no further written record of exploration happened until 1776, when two Spanish priests who were exploring southern Utah happened upon the canyon’s North Rim in Utah.

In the 1860s, a Union soldier and geologist, Major John Wesley Powell, explored the Grand Canyon by boat and wrote about his observations of the place. His book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, is known as a classic.

It’s one thing to be an explorer, and quite another to be an inhabitant. Modern settlement along the South Rim of the canyon most notably began with John D. Lee, the man who established Lee’s Ferry in 1872. He lived at Lonely Dell Ranch on the South Rim while he ran the ferry operation. Unlike Lee, fortune seekers mining for precious metals put up temporary shelters before moving on in search of other promises.

A railroad line to the Grand Canyon was finished in 1882 opening the scenery to visitors, and by then people who made their living via tourist trade became permanent residents of the area. The El Tovar lodge was opened in 1905 as Fred Harvey’s company constructed several lodges and built a reputation for great hospitality.

There are several small villages near the canyon: Grand Canyon Village, Havasupai, Cameron, Bitter Springs. At present, the town of Tusayan, six miles from the rim, is the newest and smallest incorporated town in Arizona. To accommodate the residents who support the many ways tourists visit the canyon—by airplane, helicopter and bicycle, on foot and on rafting, mule-riding and guided tours—not to mention those who work in hospitality, curio shops and restaurants, Tusayan is experiencing some growing pains.

Tusayan’s Vice Mayor Cecily Maniaci spent summers in her girlhood in the canyon because her parents owned a gift shop. She said, “Arizona is young, as states are counted. In another 100 years we will be gone, but the canyon will hold a small memory of all who visit it and all who have lived here.”

An indicator of the social history of the Grand Canyon area is the school district. It is the only national park with a boundary that includes a K-12 school. The first school opened on July 10, 1911, just seven months before Arizona became a state. The present elementary school and high school were built in 1940, and nearly 300 students attend the schools today.

Perhaps the lure of the canyon helped Arizona get its seal of statehood in 1912. Of the many visitors to the Grand Canyon, President Theodore Roosevelt laid his eyes on this prize in 1903; in 1906 it became the Grand Canyon Game Preserve, and in 1908 it was named a national monument. It took an act of Congress under President Woodrow Wilson to become a national park on Feb. 26, 1919—seven years and 12 days after statehood was established.

Todd Berger, of Flagstaff, Ariz., is a historian as well as the director of publishing for the Grand Canyon Association. He was unaware of any celebration of statehood on the canyon’s South Rim, but Mike Anderson, another historian who Berger claims “has more knowledge in his head about the canyon’s history than probably anyone on the planet,” made a conjecture.

Anderson, of Strawberry, Ariz., said, “Grand Canyon Village was a small, close-knit community at the time, and I suspect they took notice that Arizona was gaining its statehood.” According to him, telephone service was in place in the Village as of 1903, so the news could have been transmitted on the same day.  It would take a feat of time travel to learn how statehood was celebrated on the South Rim on Feb. 14, 1912.

Seeing the canyon, unless you live there, is brief, but remembering it can be done anytime through the aid of lens and brush. Within the last 100 years, the Grand Canyon has been the subject of billions of photographs. Emery Clifford Kolb’s name has gone down in history for being one of the Grand Canyon’s earliest photographers. He and his brother Ellsworth made the first motion pictures in the canyon during a river trip in 1911.

Artists have recreated the Grand Canyon on canvas for eons, but one contemporary painter, Bruce Aiken, now of Flagstaff, lived at the bottom of the canyon for 33 years with his wife, Mary. They raised three sons there, and one of them still lives in the canyon. Aiken’s paintings can be seen in his book, Bruce Aiken’s Grand Canyon – An Intimate Affair, or on his website, bruceaiken.com.

It often happens that people who live near a noted attraction never visit it, but the Grand Canyon should be seen and celebrated by travelers from near and far, as it has been for years. Travel in 2012 is easy; plan for it to take approximately four to 4.5 hours by automobile from Phoenix when you travel I-17 to Flagstaff and then take I-40 to State Highway 64 all the way to the South Rim. The cost to enter the national park is $25 unless you have the Golden Eagle annual pass. If you want to drive as far as Williams, Ariz., and take the Grand Canyon Railway along a 65-mile route to the South Rim, the adult round-trip ticket is $70. The cost for a day trip by air from Scottsdale to the South Rim is around $450 per adult and $400 per child.

You can plan a day trip to the Grand Canyon, but if you stay overnight, there are many lodging options within 75 miles of the South Rim, from camping (check with the National Park Service regarding a permit) to staying at a national park-run hotel, historic hotels or bed and breakfasts.

Finally, here’s what to do when you get there: Walk to the rim. Hold onto the rail and get your bearings. Be in awe! Witness the state of Arizona’s first 100 years as the top 1/100th of an inch layer of the canyon’s walls.

Arizona and the Grand Canyon. They are both just a matter of time.