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Navajo Code Talkers

November 7, 2011

On Veterans Day soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis, Director of the United States Office of War Information during World War II, said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The following year President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the anniversary of the armistice should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings.

This day was originally intended to honor veterans of World War I.  In 1954, by act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day. 

Five of my uncles served our country during World War II. Two were in the Navy, two were in the Army Air Corps, and one was in the regular Army.

Uncle Buzz was in the Normandy invasion.

Two were in bombers that were shot down over Germany. Uncle Bury parachuted into Switzerland. Uncle David was taken as a prisoner of war.

Uncle Robert endured the harsh life of an infantryman and then was captured as a prisoner of war. From these four uncles I learned that in war every soldier is wounded, all emotionally, some physically.

Uncle Bill was assigned to the Pacific. From him I heard the story of the Navajo Code Talkers. I learned much more from “Native Words, Native Warriors” on the Web site for the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Navajo Code Talkers are an unusual group of veterans. The 29 young Navajo men who stepped into the Marine recruiter’s office one morning in 1942 were unsure what their futures would hold.

“I thought the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform,” recalled Chester Nez, in a 2004 interview. Nez wasn’t altogether wrong: He and his tribesmen would fight in battles across the Pacific and European fronts. But these courageous young men were destined for something more.

Though they have received little acknowledgment for their service, the hundreds of Navajos and other Native American tribesmen in the U.S. Military’s Code Talkers program helped pave the way for the Allied victory in World War II.

The program was developed in 1942, when Philip Johnson, a World War I veteran who had been raised on a Native American reservation, made a suggestion to the Marine Corps to help ensure the secrecy of communications during World War II. By translating all messages into Native American languages, they could reduce the risk of interference from the enemy, who were likely to crack their codes. After viewing a demonstration, Marine officers were impressed. They immediately recruited 29 Navajo Code Talkers, who were charged with the task of developing a military code in their native language.

Though some words in the code were direct translations from English to Navajo, other codes were more complex, using the tribal name of a type of animal to represent each letter of the alphabet. In some cases the Native Americans would invent new words for military vocabulary that had no translation in their own languages: “When they first recruited us as Code Talkers, we had to work that out among ourselves. We didn’t have a word for tank,” said Charles Chibbity. “It has a hard shell and it moves and so we called it a wakaree´e, a turtle.”

The Code Talkers were key to the Allied victory in the Pacific.  Risking life and limb, watching friends and comrades die, they held the fate of their country in their hands every day. Thanks to the Code Talkers, the Axis forces never cracked a single message from the Allied troops.

Despite their essential role in the war, the Code Talkers weren’t acknowledged for over a quarter of a century. They were not even permitted to tell their own families about the work they had done to protect their country.

In 1968, the military declassified the Code Talkers programs, and those who served were finally honored for their service in wartime. In 2001, the surviving veterans of the Navajo Code Talkers program were presented with Congressional Medals of Honor. On the back of the medals was an inscription in the Navajo language: “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

Though few of the Code Talkers are still alive today, those who’ve spoken about their experiences serving in World War II are proud heroes. “I was fighting for all Indian people, and all the people in the United States,” said Navajo Code Talker, Sam Tso.

Veterans Day, November 11, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace. The Code Talkers are among those to whom we are grateful.

 Kirk H. Neely
(C) November 2011







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