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BULLEThistory archive
History Archive Photo
Navajo Code Talkers Preston Toledo, left, and Frank Toledo served in the South Pacific in 1943.

© Arizona State Archives


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Editor's Note:
In February 2012, Arizona will celebrate 100 years of statehood, and Arizona Highways will publish a special Centennial issue. Leading up to that milestone, we're presenting a 10-part history of the state. This is Part 4.
Arizona: 1942-1951
In Arizona's fourth decade of statehood, Navajo Code Talkers play a major role in World War II; Motorola opens its first plant in Phoenix, ushering in the city's high-tech industry; and the state population reaches 500,000.

By Jana Bommersbach

Arizona was front and center as the United States entered World War II. No state in the nation sent such a variety of men and women to serve. From the vast Navajo Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona came the Navajo Code Talkers. Using their native language, they developed a code that the Japanese couldn't break. The Code Talkers became one of the great American stories of the war and played a major role in the nation's success in the South Pacific.

In 1945, another Native American from Arizona made history. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from the Gila River Indian Reservation, was among the men photographed in the iconic image of the U.S. flag being raised at Iwo Jima.

Ironically, none of those Native Americans had the right to vote as they risked their lives for the nation. In 1928, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a voting restriction on reservation Indians, saying they were under "guardianship" of the federal government and therefore didn't qualify as voting citizens. It wasn't until 1948 that Native people got the right to vote, and one of the plaintiffs in that landmark case was Frank Harrison, a Mojave Apache from the Fort McDowell Reservation in Arizona. Harrison was a World War II veteran.

Despite the heroics of its citizens, Arizona had only one Medal of Honor winner from World War II: Sylvester Herrera, who was born in Mexico but later became a Phoenix resident. Herrera wasn't the only Phoenician to garner accolades. Bill Mauldin, who graduated from Phoenix Union High School and went on to become a cartoonist for The Arizona Republic, won a Pulitzer Prize for his sketches of foot soldiers in Sicily during the war while serving as a staff member of Stars and Stripes.

Meanwhile, two Japanese internment camps were built in Arizona as the nation segregated its Japanese citizens, overlooking the fact that many of those families had sons wearing the American uniform and fighting for this country. In Papago Park, the government also built a camp that housed German prisoners of war.

In the spring of 1942, General George Patton organized a training center at the Thunderbird Air Field near Glendale that trained Chinese, French, English and American pilots. By war's end, Phoenix was bookended with Air Force bases renowned for their pilot training: Luke Air Force Base (named for World War I flying ace Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr.) in Glendale, and Williams Air Force Base in Mesa. At the time, many young airmen vowed that if they ever lived through the war, they'd return to sunny, citrus-filled Arizona — and many of them did, creating a population boom that continues to the present day.

In 1948, Motorola built its first plant in Phoenix, launching the city's high-tech industry. That same year, Lieutenant General Barton Kyle Yount saw the need for returning veterans to learn about business in foreign countries. And so, for $1, he bought the old Thunderbird Field as surplus property and established an international business school that eventually became the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Today it's regarded as one of the top three graduate business schools in the world.

The headlines notwithstanding, Arizona was still a relatively quiet place in the 1940s — in 1940, its entire population was just 499,000. By 1950, however, that number had increased by more than 50 percent to 750,000. Even bigger gains — much bigger gains — were ahead.

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