We rarely get the opportunity to know real heroes. Many people think that anyone who puts on a military uniform is a hero, but I think not. Becoming a soldier is a heroic deed, yes, but it does not automatically make anyone a hero. To say that someone is a “hero” requires placing the word, the person and the deed in context, which is what I hope to do today. So, in honor of Memorial Day, let me tell you a little about some real heroes . . .the U.S. Marines known as the Navajo Code Talkers, a small group of soldiers who created an unbreakable code from the ancient language of their people and changed the course of modern history.
On the battlefields of World War II, among the riskiest and most valuable of military duties was the transmission of secret communications. When America’s best cryptographers failed, these young Navajo men stepped forward to create the most ingenious and successful code in military history. It’s hard to believe that such modest young men, sheepherders and farmers, could succeed where generations of officers and trained soldiers had failed. Yet, they did, and did so bravely, across the dense jungles of Guadalcanal and the exposed beachheads of Iwo Jima. The Navajo Code Talkers, drawing on their brave warrior tradition, served with the greatest distinction in every major engagement of the Pacific Theater from 1942-1945, and their unbreakable code played a pivotal role in saving countless lives and hastening the war’s end.
One would never have guessed that the most successful code in American military history would come from the Navajo language, but it was an idea that was apparent to one very special man, a civilian, named Philip Johnson, seen here on the left, and below. Johnson was the son of Protestant missionaries and spent his childhood living among the Navajo. He learned to speak their language fluently, and spoke it so fluently, in fact, that he served as a translator, even as a child. From his experience, Johnson knew that Navajo was a language that was almost impossible to acquire as an adult. And beyond that, the linguistic structure of Navajo is so radically different from that of any other known language, that even if a Navajo sentence were translated literally, word-by-word, the true meaning of the sentence still would not be understood by anyone, except a Navajo, of course.
It was the perfect solution, and brilliant in it’s simplicity. Philip Johnson met with U.S. Marine officers at Camp Elliott in Southern California to propose his ideas, and in February of 1942, Johnson’s plan was accepted with such resounding enthusiasm that Johnson was inducted into the Marines and made Staff Sergeant for the project. The U.S. Marine Corps immediately sent out a call for thirty Navajo men to enlist in the pilot project, and thirty brave Navajo men stepped eagerly forward. One man dropped out of the original group, which left what is still known today as the “first twenty-nine”.
Those twenty-nine men set about developing the original code, which consisted of approximately two hundred terms and a complex alphabet. Eventually, the code grew to include over six hundred terms. The translation of military messages from English to Navajo and from Navajo to English could be done almost instantaneously by the Navajo Code Talkers. In contrast, the previous coding and decoding processes were time consuming, brief messages usually requiring one half hour of translation time.
The project expanded and by the end of the war, nearly four hundred Navajo code talkers were serving on the Pacific battlefields. The Navajo code is credited with saving countless lives at the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Saipan, Tarawa and Guadalcanal. And these Navajo soldiers worked tirelessly to transmit and translate their encrypted messages. You might think that would have been enough “duty,” but you would be wrong. The Code Talkers were not exempt from frontline battle. In fact, others in the U.S. military often mistook them for Japanese soldiers and their own comrades mistakenly shot many of the Code Talkers. Some were captured by the Japanese, and tortured, but they never, ever revealed their secrets.
Their steadfast commitment to their country and their duty is all the more remarkable when one little known fact is considered: The U.S. Government did not extend citizenship to Native Americans until 1924, and did not extend them the right to vote until 1948, three years after the Navajo Code Talkers returned to U.S. soil.
The story of the Navajo Code Talkers is a little-recognized chapter in history. This is largely because for decades, the Navajo Code Talkers weren’t talking! Their work was a classified military secret until 1968. After the war was over, these brave men went back to their lives on the reservation and never spoke of the unique way in which they served their country. They did not even tell their families. They returned home as heros, but never received a hero’s welcome. And it was not until 2001, nearly 60 years after they created their legendary code, that the Navajo Code Talkers finally received their well-deserved Congressional Medals of Honor.
As with all WWII veterans, the number of Navajo Code Talkers is dwindling. Only a handful of Code Talkers, our silent heroes, remain: Bill Toledo, Keith Little, Samuel Tso and Teddy Draper. On this Memorial Day, let’s remember the Navajo Code Talkers, who served so bravely and showed us what the word “hero” really means.
If you have a few minutes, watch this remarkable video interview with Samuel Tso and Keith Little, which also includes documentary film footage of the battle at Iwo Jima, and the Code Talkers at work.
Happy Trails, y’all!