'Never So Few': Charles Bronson and the Navajo Codetalkers
In 1959, the world was a different place than the one that we see today. Then, just as similarly today, there were secrets and then there were SECRETS, just as there are now. The military-themed motion picture “Never So Few”, co-starring rugged tough guy actor Charles Bronson is a good example of how we can take things that we see around us for granted, yet those objects or images may also harbor secrets—in this case, secrets with national security implications.
In April 2013, ICTMN published a short story on the motion picture “Never So Few,” a movie with Charles Bronson in a 1959 co-starring role as a Navajo (Dine’) character Sgt. John Danforth. The ICTMN report included the comments of professional photographer Stephanie Allen, Dine’, who had posted a report on her YouTube channel that included a video clip pertaining to her observations of the film. The Charles Bronson character was using the world famous Navajo Codetalker system to radio-relay information to an unseen voice talent actor who responded to the Sgt. Danforth character appropriately enough in the Navajo language. The catch was that although Bronson was unable to speak Navajo authentically, his off-screen counterpart was speaking in the authentic dialect that the Navajo Codetalker language utilized, as well using the classified code system itself employed during World War Two in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
All the more compelling to Ms. Allen was that the United States government did not declassify the original Navajo Codetalker military program or the top-secret language code until 1968, nine years after the film was released. I found an instance from November 2009 where an online forum participant also noted the discrepancy in the film date and the declassification date, but they did not mention the Dine’ language authenticity in the film.
Who was the vocal talent who used the Navajo Codetalker language? And how did the use of the secret code sneak into the film? Was it intentional, inside joke (so to speak)?
I have been a regular contributor to ICTMN, and when the initial piece featuring Ms. Allen was posted with a call for anyone with information about the identity of the unknown Codetalker in the film to come forward, I was transfixed. I have a background as a professional librarian with a research specialization in intelligence studies. I also am a student of twentieth-century filmmaking, especially of films from action heroes such as Charles Bronson and Burt Lancaster. Needless to say, I dove right in to try to solve the mystery.
According to the Internet Movie Database entry for Never So Few, Academy-Award winning sound director Franklin Milton (“Ben-Hur”) received the film production credit for the motion picture. I sought out Milton and his possible personal papers or film collection and located some immediate family members. Although I reached out to all of them, I never heard anything back. The possibly easiest path to uncovering this obscure research insight was to have no yield, unfortunately.
Next, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences research specialist Kristine Krueger was helpful in gathering casting notices and actor call-outs for the production, but a review of them found no mention for any specialized linguistic skills or military backgrounds as a casting requirement. I also took the standard routes of contacting the Department of Defense entertainment liaison offices, including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to see what these public affairs outreach offices could offer on the film production. But before we get to those results, it’s worth reviewing the cast of actors, as well as the history of the Navajo Codetalkers.
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Charles Bronson, the film’s Sgt. Danforth, passed over in 2003. His wife at the time of the movie production in 1959 is still alive and I had recently read her autobiography, which confirmed her presence in the actor’s life at the time of the film being shot. Harriet Tendler Bronson wrote Charlie and Me in 2011. She is currently living in Los Angeles. I contacted her through her publisher and we set up an interview. Harriet professionally accepted my request and the interview took place by telephone, since the astute Mrs. Bronson shuns computer use.
“I’m not sure what I can tell you, that was a long time ago,” Mrs. Bronson told me. “My husband would prepare methodically for an acting role, even for his smallest cast parts in those early years. He never mentioned the film as being out of the ordinary, in any way. He really was a war veteran, in the United States Army Air Corps, but in the film, he was playing a soldier in the Pacific (Burma Theater).”
I asked her about the classified nature of the Navajo Code Talker code that he heard back on the military radio, via his film character. She doubted there was any overt conspiracy in play. “Charlie was not a joiner of anything. He was not in any veteran’s organizations; he was a painter in his spare time. He would read scripts and books until the early hours of the morning. Charlie was always thinking about the next role. He acted for the money, as he admitted.”
I had also asked Mrs. Bronson if she had any idea why some cinematic fans had (at one time) thought that Charles Bronson was an American Indian. She was not sure why this was the case exactly, but she pointed out that her husband had already portrayed other scripted roles as a Native American by 1959, when Never So Few was shot and released. In 1954, Bronson starred as the character “Captain Jack” in 1954 in the film Drum Beat and that he also played the role of “Blue Buffalo” in the 1957 motion picture Run of the Arrow, she reminded me.
I then contacted Brian D’Ambrosio, who is the author of the 2012 Bronson biographical treatment, Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson. Mr. D’Ambrosio responded appropriately to my earnest inquiry with a timely quote.
"Charles Bronson had a malleable face, a face not the least bit predictable. He began his career playing henchmen, thugs, deaf mutes, sailors and ethnics. In fact, Bronson's indistinct racial features - his eyes, complexion, and hair - helped cast him in many Native roles. This was a common theme in Bronson's screen history. You know what's interesting is that Bronson often played "Indian" roles; he was the renegade "Indian" bad guy in Drum Beat. It was the first time he appeared as "Charles Bronson;" He played an Apache Indian, in Apache, in 1954, and he played a Sioux Indian in Run of the Arrow, in 1957. He played a "half-breed" Indian in 1967 in Guns of San Sebastian. He was also a vengeful half-Apache in Michael Winner's first Bronson film, Chato's Land, in 1972. It's an interesting subsection of Bronson's movie career that has never been fully delved into."
Although Charles Bronson himself was not an American Indian, his projected nature and spirit both showed a determination that appealed to many people, and he possibly reminded audiences of an internal fortitude that showed survival was possible, despite adversity, challenge and duress.
These themes of cultural survival also can be seen within the Navajo Code Talker Program itself.
The enduringly popular Navajo Code Talker subject has always fascinated me. The core of the Navajo Code Talker program is based on the work of the “Original 29” Dine’ military service veterans who served during World War Two. The local dialect of the Dine’ language was understood by Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary who had lived on the Navajo Reservation for over three decades. A March 1942 declassified memo to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, initiated by Johnston, referred to only “28 Americans who have made a study of the dialect” other than the language base of approximately 1000 Navajo Indian language speakers who could be drawn upon for language adaptation in the United States military.
The use of American Indian languages by the United States military extended back to at least World War One, when the language of the Choctaw Nation was first used to “encrypt” United States Army orders in the field of battle on the European continent. Other Native American language groups were eventually utilized by the United States military under wartime conditions, for the sake of intelligence purposes, including my own Mohawk peoples’ language. Counter-intelligence linguistic information had been gathered by foreign nations to exploit this uniquely Americanized-resource since the end of the First World War, under the guise of anthropology and college language arts study, particularly by German governments, the far-reaching 1942 Marine Corps memo had noted. Johnston convinced the United States armed forces of the viability of using this native language as a military code by emphasizing the then-unwritten nature of the Dine’ language, which would have made it more difficult to spy on.
When Stephanie Allen was prompted to write her YouTube comment to bring attention to the Never So Few motion picture her words, in a sense, put the world on notice.
The era of the Navajo Code Talkers is fast-approaching its end. The veterans have “hung-on” but history is moving past their military contributions. The publicity of the Twentieth-Century media exposure has died down and the focus on overall military digital innovation has seemingly eclipsed the high-water publicity mark that the Navajo Code Talkers legacy had reached, through the distribution of such popular entertainment as the G.I. Joe “special edition” Code Talker action figure, as well as the 2002 film Wind Talkers, starring Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach.
The time to reflect on the contributions of these earliest Navajo Code Talkers is now, and they deserve every bit of attention. The images of Ms. Allen and her photographic skills tell a story in and unto themselves, related to these proud American military veterans, leaving behind their own visual history.
The DoD entertainment office responded to my media research inquiry with a straightforward answer. The film Never So Few had been cleared by the United States military censors, despite a protest filed by the Chungking nationalist Chinese government, which was featured in the antagonistic role of an American-allied turncoat military force in the script, by placing bounties on the heads of American service personnel in the Burmese Theater of Operations. The original novel by Tom Chamales which the film was based upon, was itself based on an actual incident, according to group forum responses from the OSS Society, which is comprised of members of the famed World War Two military strategic intelligence unit, the forerunner to the modern Central Intelligence Agency, which had been formed by the World War One Medal of Honor winner, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan.
Troy Sacquety, PhD., is the author of The OSS in Burma, a 2013 book on this same military theater of operations, and serves as the historian for the OSS Detachment 101 Association. He responded to my general inquiry of the film.
“Detachment 101 (portrayed in the film) did not use Navajo code talkers. There were no Navajo code talkers anywhere in the China-Burma-India Theater. The only Native American that I became aware of in the OSS Detachment 101 was named Louis Ojibway (Ojibwe’) but he did not serve as a communicator in any fashion. The event depicted in the film (Chungking nationalist government actions) did happen, but it was just fictionalized a bit in both the novel and the movie.”
According to the DoD entertainment liaison desk, initial news stories about the Navajo Codetalkers surfaced in the decade prior to the film. The Navajo Codetalkers as an aspect of United States military history had by then been outright revealed in 1945 and 1946 in New York Times stories on how the United States had been victorious in World War Two.
Analytically, it is possible that the Navajo Code Talkers program was an “open secret” at least in the minds of the many military service aged Americans whose own horizons and future standing had been so fundamentally affected by the overall technological and military advancement of the entire World War Two conflict. Quite possibly, their own minds and perceptions had been made more pliant to accepting the reality of service to country and a probing nature to national defense intelligence, once the war began.
Very few actors are alive either from the motion picture cast. But two notable, uncredited actor appearances still stand out on the casting sheet.
One part is a young bandaged Kachin fighter seen recuperating in a US military hospital setting, enroute to a dramatic scene with film-lead Frank Sinatra. The young Asian actor playing the role was George Takei, later to become well-known as a co-star of the original Star Trek television series, playing starship navigator Lt. Sulu with dramatic aplomb. Takei, who was raised in a Japanese American internment camp by his Nisei parents, is now lauded for his notable Facebook presence (4.2 million “likes”) and is a best-selling author, who continues to act.
The second uncredited actor that caught my attention is possibly the most intriguing of the entire cast, as far as possibly knowing something about the film’s use of a classified code. William Smith appears in the film, either as an unnamed US Army military police officer who is beaten by film co-star Steve McQueen, or possibly as a Corporal in a transport plane, listed as a gunner. There is some conflicting information in the film records concerning the actual film role that was played. Watching the film over and over to determine this answer also proved to be daunting, given the short screen appearances of the actor(s) in these peripheral roles. My low-resolution research proved to be inconclusive.
Who is William Smith, you may ask? “Big Bill” Smith is best known for being the second player of the longest two-man fight scene in motion picture history, from when he fought Clint Eastwood in the 1980 action-comedy film, Any Which Way You Can. More relevant to the Never So Few research was the military experience that Smith had acquired by the time he appeared in the 1959 film. As a self-proclaimed member of National Security Agency (NSA) Security Squadron 6907, William Smith is one of Hollywood’s most cerebral actors, in any era. Interestingly, the research inquiry made into the DoD liaison office regarding the existence of a Squadron 6907, could neither be refuted or confirmed.
Speaking five languages (including Russian, German, French, and Serbo-Croatian), he attended Syracuse University while in the NSA as a foreign language program graduate student, and Smith later graduated Cum Laude from UCLA. While working towards a doctorate, Smith was offered a MGM actor contract, prior to his appearance in Never So Few. Much later in his enduring career, Smith convincingly played a Russian general in the 1984 film Red Dawn, in filmed display of his linguistic abilities on YouTube, from which translated comments verify the flair of his display of the Russian language.
It is my own feeling that William Smith, and possibly of anyone still alive from this film, offers the best chance of providing some final commentary of either the inadvertent inclusion of the authentic Navajo Code Talker language and code in the film, or possibly, more telling, the deliberate use of the classified secret language dialect turned code, as an example of a top secret in plain sight.
Waiting much longer to document this cinematic expression would not have benefited the Allen family, the memory of their fallen code talker family member Sgt. Johnny Manuelito, or any chance to get to the bottom of this elusive explanation. Part history, part show business, the knowledge to be found here is seen through a modern lens, inextricably interwoven into the fabric of present day political intrigue involving espionage and intelligence failures. At the heart of Stephanie Allen’s quest for answers was the strength of the intelligence success of the Navajo Codetalker program, and her family’s unending support for her uncle who was one of the Original 29 at the core of that unveiled legacy; a notable factor in the overall Allied Forces success in World War Two.
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Special thanks must be expressed in this months-long research to many parties: Entire family of Sgt. John R Manuelito Sr. for providing second-person testimony and family images for reprint. Stephanie and Jovanni Allen of Shiprock, New Mexico. Donna Vasquez, Leanne Manuelito-Mojado, John R. Manuelito, Jr., John R. Manuelito III., Bishop, California.
ADDITIONAL THANKS AND CREDIT DUE:
Zonnie Gorman – daughter of Carl Gorman, Original 29 Navajo Code Talker unit, Yvonne Murphy – main contact for the NCT Association, R.O. Hawthorne – Vice-President of the NCT Association.
USMC General Robert “Bob” Magnus, retired. Gretchen S. Winterer – National Museum of the Marine Corps – History Division, Quantico, VA.
Defense Intelligence Agency – Public Affairs Office
Brian D’Ambrosio – author and researcher
Kristine Krueger – researcher – Margaret Herrick Library – Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Mark Quigley, Manager –Research and Study Area - UCLA Film and Television Archive
Daniel L. Haulman PhD – Chief, Organizational Histories Branch, Air Force Historical Research Agency
Lynn Gamma – United States Air Force Historical Research Agency – Reference Historian
Kenneth A Hawes – Chief – Public Affairs Office – Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, Philip M. Strub – Director of Entertainment Media, DoD, Lt. Colonel Steven R. Cole – US Army Public Affairs liaison.
Troy Sacquety, PhD – author and Detachment 101 Association historian
Charles Pinck – President – OSS Society, Inc - Falls Church VA, Patrick O’Donnell – DropZone historian, OSS Society, Erik Brun and James Foradas – OSS Society.
Sylvia Cary – publisher, Timberlake Press
Harriett Tendler Bronson – author and interview subject
Family of Franklin Milton, Oscar –winning sound director
Actors and families – Charles Bronson, George Takei, William Smith, Dean Jones, James Hong, Aki Aleong
The Internet Movie Database
New York Times archives