We’re proud at NCA to begin our celebration of National Native American Heritage Month with an account of the Navajo-Americans who served the Marine Corps in World War 2. Today, I am honored to introduce you to Sue Jehlen, the cemetery director of Rock Island National Cemetery in Illinois. She will share with us what exactly the Code Talkers did and what their impact was.
While so many Native Americans have worn the uniform with honor and distinction, the story of the Code Talkers is unique in the history of Native Americans’ contributions. It is an example of how they could bring something from their from their community, something so intrinsic to their identity, to their patriotic service: the language they grew up speaking at home.
The Code Talkers came from a generation of Native Americans in which there were still great numbers of native speakers of their traditional language. Sadly, many of these native-speakers of Native American languages are passing away, taking the knowledge of their language with them, and all the cultural history within it. Language extinction is an area of serious concern among many Native American communities across our nation. Consequently, many Native American nations are finding innovative ways to restore language education in tribal schools, but some languages are unfortunately already lost.
The story of the Navajo Code Talkers remind us how this unique, irreplaceable linguistic heritage saved lives in the toughest of times.[Sue’s words follow.]
Rock Island National Cemetery is the final resting place for John Junior Willie (born April 21, 1920 and died July 20, 1962) who served during World War II as one of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers. The Japanese were proficient in intercepting military radio communications and transmissions and, therefore, were able to decipher military codes with a high degree of success. Philip Johnston, a World War I Veteran and civil engineer had grown-up on a Navajo reservation as his father was a missionary, and was one of less than 30 non-Native people of his generation who could speak Navajo fluently. At the time, it was still an unwritten language and, because of its syntax and tonal qualities not to mention dialects, was unintelligible to anyone without exposure and training. In other words, the Navajo language does not operate around the same patterns of expression as languages more widely known outside of the Americas. Mr. Johnston thought it would make the perfect language as a code that would not be easily broken, if at all.
Twenty-nine Navajo men became Marines in May of 1942, stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, and created this secret military code, after Johnston had completed testing his theory:
Roy L. Begay
Samuel H. Begay
John Ashi Benally
Wilsie H. Bitsie
Cosey S. Brown
John Brown, Jr.
Eugene R. Crawford
Lowell S. Damon
George H. Dennison
Carl N. Gorman
Oscar B. Ilthma
Alan Dale June
Johnny R. Manuelito
Frank Denny Pete
Nelson S. Thompson
William Dean Wilson
By the end of World War II, there were over 400 Navajo Marines had been trained and used the developed code book. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, a signal officer in the 5th Marine Division, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock the first two days of the battle. These men sent and received over 800 messages without error. Major Connor stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The Navajo Code Talkers remained a secret operation until the program’s declassification in 1968. Surviving Code Talkers were officially recognized for their service in 2001. President Bush hailed the code talkers as men “who, in a desperate hour, gave their country a service only they could give.” After his remarks, President Bush presented a gold medal to each veteran Code Talker, sharing a moment to listen to them describe their service.
John Brown, Jr., addressed the audience, speaking at length about how thankful he was to be honored, his pride in his fellow code talkers, and how important it was to remember the “ultimate sacrifice” paid by the many Americans who lost their lives during the war. After speaking in Navajo for an extended period, Brown received a round of laughter when he joked, “Maybe Japan is listening!”
Sample of “Code”:
|Meaning in “Code”||Navajo-Language Word||Meaning in Navajo|
|dive bomber||gini||chicken hawk|
|fighter plane||da-he-tih-hi||humming bird|
Table Courtesy of the National Archives
John Junior Willie’s Headstone, which you can find at Section L, Site 328, Rock Island National Cemetery.ajo Code Talker, at Rock Island National Cemetery[/caption]