Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers

Not long ago the United States government believed that Native Americans must learn to embrace the ways of the non-natives so that they would assimilate better in modern American society. Children were rounded up and sent to government-run boarding schools where they were forbidden to use their native language and denied the ability to dress like their people. Many children were punished often for trying to communicate using their own language, which began the great suppression of Native American languages around the country.

Navajo Boy. SOURCE: HistoryinBW

A few years after this practice of cultural and social assimilation of the Native American children, a missionary came to Navajo territory and, with him, his son Philip Johnston. Philip Johnston began to learn the Navajo language and kept its memory with him until World War II broke out involving the United States. There was an extreme necessity to end the conflict in the South Pacific against Japanese military aggression, but how they were going to be able to do it became the biggest puzzle. Regardless of the fact that the United States possessed larger military force than the Japanese, they were still suffering heavy death tolls. Every maneuver and strategic plan was matched and thwarted by the Japanese military. Every time the marines would plan an attack, the Japanese code breakers would decipher all the details. Even the United States Navy was not safe as Japanese code breakers found their ocean coordinates and bombed their ships and ports. The Japanese code breakers created the biggest obstacle for the United States military, and its higher officials were at a loss for a solution until Philip Johnston proposed that the Marines used Navajo Native Americans to send messages and receive throughout the south Pacific.

What made the Navajo language so unique? It was mostly due to the fact that the Navajo language did not possess an alphabet and it wasn’t written. In fact, there were only 50,000 Navajo living in the United States during 1942. The only way a person could learn the Navajo language was by living in a community and observing the pronunciation of words, therefore being a Navajo language speaker was quite unique. With this knowledge, Philip Johnston convinced Major Howard Conner, 5th Marine Division signal officer, of the uniqueness of the Navajo language — and since it has never been a written language the Japanese had no means of reference to decipher what would be said.

Corporal Henry Bake, Jr. (left) of Ft. Defiance, Arizona and Pfc. George Kirk (right) of Leupp, Arizona operate a portable radio unit on the front line in the jungles of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands. SOURCE: Navajocodetalkers.org

Shortly after this discussion, 29 Navajo males were enlisted to transmit and interpret encoded messages, thereby securing the vital communications between military commands. This first batch of brave young men began in 1942 and they were trained at Camp Pendleton Marine base before they served at their posts. Some of these Navajo males were still in their teenage years. These young men developed their own code using their Navajo language, which proved itself so successful, that it began to turn the tide in the favor of the United States during the war. By the time World War II ended, there were almost 420 code talkers utilized by the United States military, and every one of these brave young men was put in harm’s way to perform his duties. The United States had come full circle — from banning the them from speaking their own language, to embracing the Navajo and deeply valuing their native tongue — thus proving that even in the face of adversity, the Navajo cannot be broken.

Given the treatment of the Navajo by the United States in the past, why would they want to fight with the very people who punished them for using their native tongue? Navajo Code talker Keith Little, replies to such questions by saying, “All I knew is that this was our land. When I heard it was being bombed, being attacked by some enemy, that didn’t sit well with me.”

Recruited Navajo Soldiers. SOURCE: navajocodetalkers.org

The taking of Iwo Jima was strategically pivotal for ending the war in the Pacific. The strategy of the taking Iwo Jima, made it possible so that the United States Military could land bombers that were capable of penetrating of what had been an impenetrable country. Simply put, the taking of Iwo Jima ensured a quick end to the war with Japan. In fact Major Howard Connor, stated “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Given the huge contribution that the Navajo code talkers had given to the United States, one would suspect that they were given one of the most enthusiastic celebrations when they came back to the Unites States. However, this was not the treatment they received. No one in the United States knew about their heroic efforts because their involvement was deemed classified. This was mainly due to the fact that the Japanese government was never able to crack the Navajo Code. They were considered too valuable due to concerns that another war may break out, therefore the Navajo code talkers were never acknowledged until the present.

In Recognition of Navajo Code Talkers. SOURCE: Artist David Behrens

So when traveling in Navajo country, think not of their turquoise, their fry bread or even their baskets, but think of their language — a gift that cannot be held, and a people who will never be broken.

-M-

 

-For more information and to contribute to the Navajo Nation’s “Code Talkers Museum” please visit their website.

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Comments

  1. It’s a shame that most people don’t see the value and beauty in language. If they did, we wouldn’t be hearing all of this “English only” crap. The Navajo proved that diversity is always a better option than conservatism.

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Hi Tim, Thank You for adding to the dialogue about this article! I believe what needs to be stressed, about language in the United States, is even though English should be spoken and written fluently by its citizens- Language Diversity should ALSO be stressed and valued. In this way, the country would be set up to thrive in this age of globalization.

  2. Aho!! Beautifully written. Thank you for reminding people of the importance of not only this specific issue with regard to the Code Talkers, but to staying true to your culture – whatever that may be. Honor the country and the people where you live, but don’t forget your people and where you come from. Aho!

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Thank You Debbie for adding to the dialogue of this article!
      Sometimes people forget that language is a part of culture and can enrich lives. Also, in this case, language can save lives as well. 🙂

  3. Very nice! This is a classic example of the importance of communication regardless of language. While initial intentional miscommunications failed, later actual communication was achieved. Whoo Rah!

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Tim, Thank You for your insight on this subject! It is true, regardless of language communication is vital. It is quite astounding how the Code Talkers re-established communications to achieve missions. This is something every U.S. citizen has ever right to be very proud about. 🙂

  4. Really amazing article Michelle.
    I’m with Tim on this one- because of the Navajo Code Talkers, miscommunication was rectified and the mission was achieved.
    Semper Fi WHoo-Rah!!!

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Thank You Jason! I can see that both you and Tim are military men. 🙂
      Yes the Navajo Code Talkers have showcased, through their actions, how the U.S. military can produce efficient communication systems. No matter what language or code is used, the vital key lies in the soldier utilizing this type of technology. 🙂

  5. Mimi Shoop says:

    A fascinating piece of American history that should remind us that sometimes the things that initially appear undesirable or inconvenient can turn out to be the most valuable.

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Thank You Mimi! What a profound insight you have shared! Thank you for adding to this dialogue. 🙂

  6. Cathy Fitzgerald says:

    I’m always amazed at the fascinating topics you come up with and well written articles. I particularly enjoyed the video with the actual Navajo language. I hope the WWII veterans are able to pass along their language to the younger generation and Navajo doesn’t join the list of extinct languages in the world. Every 14 days, a language dies and 90% of the world’s languages will cease to exist by the year 2050.

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Wow Cathy, thank you so much for sharing this information about the death of languages. Yes, the Navajo started a very focused effort a few years ago to teach the youth their language. It became a concern that most children were not speaking to their family in pure Navajo. The Navajo people have remedied this issue and are enriching their people with their culture and heritage through language.

  7. Taylor Donovan says:

    Thanks for unpacking this story Michelle. I’m half way through Wade Davis’ book The Wayfinders which is a fascinating and relevant read. “Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to our children. What dies then? An old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Thank you for adding these thoughts to the dialogue Taylor! It should makes us all ponder on what else dies when a language is no longer known or spoken…

  8. Fascinating! Loved it! =D

  9. Michelle – Thought you’d find it interesting to know that my Dad was in the 158th Regimental Combat Team known as the Bushmasters (after the venomous pit viper snake). It was made up of Oklahoma Native Americans known for their combat skills and were code talkers. My Dad was among the first non-Native American replacements. Their regimental combat team was selected as part of the planned Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan, selected to attack the island of Tanegashima to capture the islands air warning stations two days prior to the Allied assault on Kyūshū. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the surrender of the Japanese on 14 August 1945, which probably saved my Dad’s life as the assault on Kyūshū would have been a death sentence with the buildup of Japanese already on that island. On 13 October 1945, the regimental combat team landed in Yokohama, Japan to be part of the Occupation of Japan. The 158th Regimental Combat Team was deactivated at Utsunomiya, Japan, on 17 January 1946.
    General MacArthur gave the Bushmasters the accolade, “No greater fighting combat team has ever deployed for battle”.

    • Michelle Quevedo says:

      Wow Linda! Thank you for sharing this significant piece of U.S. history! Although there were many lives lost during WWII on boh sides, it’s nice to know that your died survived and was able to become father of an amazing and knowledgable person 🙂

  10. Janet Sue Reck says:

    A really great article Michelle…..good job!

  11. Michelle Quevedo says:

    Thank You so much for sharing the article Peggy! Also thank you for sharing about your friend’s dad who speaks Navajo fluently. What a treasure! 🙂

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