The national media paused for a few micro-bytes on June 4th, 2014 to mention the death of Chester Nez in Albuquerque, N.M. at age 93. Not only was his passing just one more reminder that those upon whom we confer the honorarium “The Greatest Generation” are disappearing from our midst day by day, but he was in fact the “very last” of a singular group of WWII veterans known as the “Code Talkers”
Within four months of Pearl Harbor, and at a time when the Japanese had broken virtually every U.S. code, 29 bi-lingual young reservation Navajos were quietly recruited, rushed through a special version of Marine Corps. basic training, and assembled at a secret location near San Diego with an unusual assignment: Invent a radio code so totally unique and arcane that it would be undecipherable to all but its originators. All by itself, the Navajo language with its many layers of sounds and syntax and without a written form at the time, seemed cryptic enough, but the 29 youthful members of the ancient Diné culture were urged to go several steps further.
It took them 13 weeks to come up with a system in which the Navajo word for some unrelated object or objects was assigned to each letter of the alphabet or a specific piece of equipment. For instance the Navajo word for potato – “Ni-ma-si” - would mean “grenade” in a radio message while “moasi” the word for cat became the letter “C”. It was even more nuanced than that, in that the choice between several coded words might change from one day to another in a random rotation. Not only did the resulting radio “language” defy Japan’s most talented cryptographers, but was unreadable even by another Navajo outside the “Code Talkers”’ fraternity. No Navajo “Code Talker” message was ever decoded by the enemy.
So successful did the work of this secret group prove to be that more than 400 Navajo “Code Talkers” eventually fought side-by-side with combat Marines in every Pacific campaign from Guadalcanal and Bougainville to Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Several went on to fight in the Korean War.
By an unlikely coincidence, a young Japanese photographer named Kenji Kawano, himself the son of a WWII Japanese military instructor who had taught men to sink American ships riding suicide torpedoes wandered his way onto the Navajo reservation and into a “love affair” with the “Code Talkers”. Kawano in turn won the affection of these retired warriors becoming the group’s official photographer. Occupying a place of honor in my military history library since its publication 24 years ago, is a prized collection of nearly 100 b&w portraits of then-surviving Marine veteran “Code Talkers” and what they had to say about the experience which continued to bind them together as warrior-brothers and proud Americans.
Pictured together by Kawano are Eugene R. Crawford of the charcoal-streaked-Tachii Ni clan who fought with the 1st Marine Division in the Solomons, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and Carl Nelson Gorman of the Black Sheep clan who served with the 2nd Marine Division, from Guadalcanal and Tarawa to Saipan and Tinian. They were both members of that original “pioneer” group of 29, Gorman playing a key role in bringing about the public revelation of just what the “Code Talkers” had done. Until 1968, they had been constrained by oath to keep their story secret, even though their silence on the subject of military service seriously compromised their chances of finding civilian work for 23 years!
Over the years, I have had the privilege of visiting with and writing about Native Americans on Crow, Ute, Paiute, Navajo and Lakota-Sioux reservations, and have been repeatedly impressed by the deeply-held patriotic pride exhibited by these Americans who didn’t even have the right to vote when they first put on the same uniform I did. In every Pow Wow, parade or celebration I witnessed, the stars and stripes and old non-fitting uniforms were always in evidence.
Today, in particular I want to say ahéhee - THANK YOU - to the Navajo Code Talkers, and the families and clans who inherit their proud legacy.
Pfc. Preston Toledo, 1st Marine Division and Bronze Star recipient (Left) and his cousin, Pfc. Frank Toledo relay Navajo-language artillery information on a field radio. Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps.