University of North Carolina at Asheville
Navajo Code Talkers:
Forgotten Heroes of WWII
A Senior Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the
Department of History in Candidacy for the
Degree of Bachelor of Arts in History
December of 2005
Navajo code talkers played an integral role in winning the war in the South Pacific, but why has it taken years for them to be properly recognized as heroes and patriots to our country? Some of these reasons are secrecy of the code, racism, modesty/culture of the Navajo people, some code talkers wanted to forget the awful experiences of war, lack of documentation, and loyalty of the code talkers to the Marine Corps. My research will provide many reasons why it took these heroes almost a quarter of a century to be awarded minor recognition, as well as point out an alternate course the United States government could have taken to grant them awards if they could not be publicly recognized.
To fully understand why the United States government neglected these war heroes for so many years, one has to look at the relationship between the United States and the Navajo Nation in the past. This relationship has been marked by bloodshed, tears, and wrong doings by the American government to the Navajo people for centuries. Brendan Tully, producer of Navajo Code Talkers: An Epic Story gives a good account of this. He states that, “Some of these unlawful acts were forcibly removing the Navajo tribe to a reservation in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico (1863), which killed thousands of Navajo and became known as the “Long Walk,” the killing of Navajo cattle and the scorching of their lands to keep the population down in 1875, and an all out genocide of the Navajo people.” Americans looked upon the Navajo and other tribes as inferior, and when they were sent to those reservations, they were physically punished if they spoke their native language or participated in their cultural beliefs. In spite of these repercussions, the Navajo still spoke their language and held onto their beliefs, which proved valuable to the United States three quarters of a century later.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Navajo men enlisted in the Marines to fight for their country. Mr. Wolf Guts, a former code talker and a guest representative for a Senate Hearing on American Indian Affairs portrays the love that the code talkers had who enlisted in the Marines. He states, “I am a Full bloodied Indian and we do whatever we can to protect the United States because we love America. Nobody can ever take that away from us. That is how come I will do whatever I can to protect it.” American Indians saw the attack on America as an attack on them and wanted to fight to protect their nation.
In an interview, Linda Yazzie, daughter of Jerry Salabiye, a former code talker, stated that, “The Navajo who signed up for the Marines wanted to help out the U.S. They fought to protect their country, family, and American citizens.” Although the Navajo were treated as second-class citizens, they still wanted to protect the country that they lived in, and the people who resided in it. Yazzie relates that, “When they were recruited, they were told that they were going to go fight in the war, they did not know that they were going to “code talk.” Many of these men like my dad were not older then eighteen, some even less, and were still in high school.” Only after they enlisted and were sent to Camp Pendleton for communications school, did they have an idea of the job they were about to perform.
Bill Toledo, a former code talker in WWII for the 3rd battalion explained his reasons for enlisting in the Marines in 1942. He noted that, “I was recruited by Johnny Muletto [a Marine recruiter]. He wanted Navajo who were physically fit and could read, write, and speak both the Navajo and English language fluently.” Potential enlistees were thoroughly examined and then sent to San Diego and Camp Pendleton for training and communication expertise. Toledo reflects on his wartime experience with satisfaction for the job he performed. He notes that, “I was very proud to serve my country and help out. The few Marines that knew about the program had a lot of respect for what we did.” Mr. Wolf Guts, Bill Toledo, and Linda Yazzie demonstrate that most if not all code talkers who voluntarily enlisted in the Marines, did so on the basis of the love for their country and the responsibility they thought they had to protect it from the enemy. According to William Meadows, “Approximately one–third of the entire native population left reservation and allotment communities for service in the armed forces or employment in urban settings.” By interviewing Mr. Toledo and hearing his remarks about the war, it is no surprise that Native Americans constituted a major ethnicity in the American military.
Phillip Johnston, a Los Angeles Civil Engineer, introduced the code program. Johnston, who was the son of a missionary, grew up on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. He was a WWI veteran and while in the army learned of American personnel using Choctaw Indians as code talkers. Johnston believed that since the Navajo language was so hard to understand (for example there are twenty different ways to say “Hi,”) using them as code talkers would give the U.S. an incredible advantage over the enemy. In 1942, Johnston went to an American navy base in San Diego, California to introduce his plan. Although General Holcomb of the U.S. navy was skeptical of his idea, he ordered for thirty Navajo men to report to the San Diego base for training after he witnessed a successful and quick trial run. 
Johnston knew that the American government was having a hard time with Japanese intelligence breaking United States codes and sending false messages back. Sally McClain, author of Navajo Code Talkers: Navajo Weapons states that, “A good portion of Japan’s military intelligence were educated in the United States and therefore understood the English language and were readily able to break codes that U.S. military divisions would send to one another on the battlefield.” Not only did this create frustration within the United States army, but Japanese code breakers were so good that they would send false codes to the U.S. army divisions telling them to attack a division that they said were Japanese but which turned out to be other American soldiers. “During this conflict a select group of The People (Dine), who were the Navajo people, undertook a special assignment for the Marine Corps which helped to shorten the war in the Pacific Theater.” With the help of Philip Johnston, the Marines now had a secret weapon that would allow them to gain the upper hand and perhaps a victory.
Stationed in Camp Pendleton, code talkers were trained in Morse code, semaphore signals, military message writing, wire laying, and learning the operation of the different kinds of radios that would be used on the field. In addition to knowing how to use these different kinds of equipment, Navajo code talkers actually had to establish their own code words. Code talkers followed four basic rules in creating the code words. Nathan Aaseng states that, “1st the code words had to have some logical connection with the terms for which they stood. 2nd, memorization would be far easier if the code words were unusually descriptive or creative. 3rd, code words had to be relatively short. 4th, accuracy was essential so code talkers needed to avoid words that might be confused with other similar words.” Following these four basic steps gave the code talkers a quick and easy way to send and decode messages without any errors, as well as a huge advantage over the enemy. Of the thirty Navajo Marines that went to Camp Pendleton for communications training, all but one passed. These men would later be called the “Original 29.”
After the code talkers graduated from Camp Pendleton, the first stop for most of the original 29 was Guadalcanal in 1942. It was their first time in battle and they were naturally scared. “Under fire for the first time, they were frightened and unsure of themselves. And they found out very early that bullets went through the coconut trees that they were hiding behind.” The code talkers, though frightened, managed to muster up some courage and report to a General on Guadalcanal for duty. Although the General was first skeptical about using code talkers for translations, after a short experiment where they decoded a message in two minutes while a machine took four hours, he knew that he had found an important weapon and ordered them to start at once. Code talkers then had the complicated task of sending and decoding messages with gunfire, grenades, and bombs going off all around them.
Many of the code talkers on Guadalcanal complained that they were not allowed to do anything but “talk” the enemy to death. Code talker William McCabe noted in Bixler’s book, Winds of Freedom: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII that, “We’re just a walking coding machine …that’s all. Whatever the other guy says it goes through his ears. It comes out uncoded.” Most Navajo who enlisted voluntarily for the Marines did it with the understanding that they were going to be able to fight. They joined because they wanted to defend their family and nation against the enemy, and saw it as an embarrassment to their masculinity that they could only talk on a phone and not participate in battle. Although they wanted to fight, they did their duty with extreme bravery and accuracy.
With a great deal of help from the code talkers, Guadalcanal became the first major island that the United States secured. A sergeant who fought in Guadalcanal notes that, “If it was not for the code talkers, we may not have been able to take the island.” When the fighting was over, the code talkers did not take a break like the other Marines, but trained and retrained now knowing what it was like to send messages under fire. The capturing of a Japanese stronghold was very important for the United States. Not only did it show the U.S. that the Japanese were not invincible, but it showed the Japanese the strength and the determination of the American people. “The code was used time and time again throughout the war without any recorded mistakes in transmission. The San Diego Union commented in September, 1945: “America has found the only foolproof, unbreakable code in the history of warfare.”
Iwo Jima was another hard battle for the U.S. Marines and took almost a month for United States forces to secure the tiny island. Toledo vividly depicts this battle. “Our air planes bombed the island for four days trying to soften it up before a landing. The Japanese had underground connecting tunnels on the island that we did not know about. As a result, when the 4th and 5th division landed on the island, they were gunned down by the Japanese enemy that quickly came out of hiding. “The 3rd division, which was my division, landed to help them out. It took thirty-six days to capture the island. The reason why Japanese soldiers defended Iwo Jima so fiercely is because the Japanese Emperor believed that the island held the “key to Japan’s future.” Since Iwo Jima was so close to the Japanese mainland, many Japanese officials believed that if it were taken over by United States, it would give them the foothold that they needed to invade the country and begin air raid campaigns.
As soon as Iwo Jima was secured, the U.S. Marines did indeed use the airstrips already present on Mt. Cerabachi to perform bombing campaigns of their own. Iwo Jima was a crucial island to occupy because it allowed for the bombing of such islands as Guam and Okinawa, as well as an attack on the nation of Japan itself. Iwo Jima was successfully secured by the United States due to the heroism of code talkers like Bill Toledo. They used their code to give aid to battalions that were being overwhelmed, but they also performed other dangerous tasks. “Besides code talking, I went to the frontlines to give messages about enemy troop movement and hidden mortars, weapons, and rations. We did this to protect the Marines.” The code and the men who performed it were crucial to the victory on Iwo Jima. Without them, that battle might have never been won. Navajo Marines were under extreme fire and were scared, but they still did their duty to save American lives. In an interview Dr. William Meadows, an historian/friend of code talkers, as well as a guest speaker for a Senate Hearing on American Indian Affairs in 2004, said that, “The amazing thing about the battle of Iwo Jima is that code talkers were able to send and decode 800 messages in 24 hours without one mistake. The battle could not have been won without them.” Due to the help of code talkers, the United States Marines took Iwo Jima, which was one of the last island battles to be fought marking the closing of the war.
Code talkers not only had to protect themselves from the enemy, but from their own men as well. American Indians have strong physical similarities with the Japanese, and many Anglo soldiers thought that the code talkers were actually Japanese spies. Their color, eyes, built, and stature easily confused white Marines during battle as to whether they were American soldiers or the enemy. In a code talker reunion back in 1971, William McCabe, a Navajo code talker, depicts a time where fellow American soldiers on Guadalcanal captured him in 1942. McCabe states,
“I got captured by my own men. We were waiting out on the beach and the army was coming in. They put a gun to my head and took me to the Provost Marshal. And the Provost Marshall said I don’t want the Jap, go shoot him. And the Sergeant, he said, “Well, he’s got a Marine Corps thing on there, and he talks good English.” The Provost Marshall said, “That don’t make any difference, let’s shoot him”. But just then I say, “My outfit is down there. Finally they sent me back to my outfit. I had 15 men around me and a gun pointed to my head. I got down to the beach and I got back to my outfit, where they were sitting around playing cards and the sergeant says, “Is this your man?” And one guy, his name was Bonner says, “Yeah, he’s one of our men.” “And so they got me back and they got this guy, Charlie, Charlie Woods or Charlie somebody to watch me. They gave me him as a bodyguard. And I went everywhere. I go everywhere and he came right behind me.”
McCabe’s story was not unique. Many code talkers during the war were suspected of being Japanese spies. Although it has never been proven if a code talker was actually killed by an American soldier, some were subjected to imprisonment, beatings, starvation, and much more. Although this would have a tendency to provoke resentment, the code talkers still continued to do their duty bravely, never worrying about their own safety, but the safety of the other Marines.
In order for these unfortunate acts to stop, many code talkers like McCabe were assigned white bodyguards to protect them from the enemy and American soldiers. Bixler notes that, “Bodyguards were ordered by high officials to follow code talkers around and make sure that they were not captured by the enemy, or imprisoned by American soldiers.” They acted like guardians to the code talkers, which many of the Navajo found embarrassing and resented it. Although it is still disputed by many historians, Bixler states that, “One important job of the bodyguard was to not allow the code to get into enemy hands by whatever means possible. This went as far as killing a code talker if they were going to be captured by the enemy.” The code was very important in the Pacific Theater because it gave the United States a huge advantage over Japan. Having a bodyguard assigned to each code talker was an essential innovation because after 1943, there were very few cases of false imprisonment.
Bill Toledo reflects on an interesting story that happened to him almost twenty years ago. Toledo notes that, “The first time I knew that I had a bodyguard was at a San Diego Marine reunion in 1988. He saw me at the reunion and told me that someone told him that I had died a couple of years ago. He was so happy to see me that he told me that he was my bodyguard.” Few code talkers knew that they were assigned bodyguards, but instead were protected in secret. The happiness that this Marine felt showed that he had a close bond with Mr. Toledo, although hidden during the war, and he was extremely happy to see him alive. Jungle warfare always put the code talkers at risk, which is why a bodyguard was so essential to have. Code talkers had to endure a lot and they were very valuable men in their divisions. By having bodyguards look out for them, it gave them some kind of protection from the enemy.
When Japan surrendered in 1945, there was no ticker tape parade for the code talkers like there was for their Anglo counterparts. Toledo notes that, “After the war was over, I had to hitch a ride from a truck driver on my way home. There were no telephones in the area so I could not call my family to pick me up.” Native Americans did not receive any recognition for their courageous acts, but instead went back to their regular life, feeling ignored and forgotten. “I went back to mining and living my old life. Just went back to my old routine.” These same code talkers who risked their lives to save countless American soldiers thousands of miles away from there home were honorably discharged from the Marines, and went home without even so much as a thank you. How could this happen to such patriots?
One reason why Navajo code talkers were unrecognized for so many years is due to the secrecy of the code. Toledo spoke on his discharge in 1945 and said that, “When I was leaving, a colonel came up to me and told me to keep my mouth shut about the code. The colonel told me not to tell anybody and I didn’t.” Having a powerful secret weapon like the code was dangerous if it leaked out and fell into the wrong hands. Not only would the code become useless, but other nations might try the same thing. Dr. Meadows notes that, “The code had to be kept secret for the protection of the United States. The American government believed that the code might be used again in the future against the Soviet Union, so did not want it to become public.” Dr. Meadows also stated that, “The code was so confidential that they were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their family or friends about what they did.” This secret psychologically hurt the code talkers because not being able to talk about their feelings in the war, or the jobs that they performed, made them feel very lonely and frustrated.
Keith Little, a former code talker and now Vice-President of the National Navajo Code Talkers Association, concurs with Bill Toledo that the lack of recognition he received after WWII was due to the secrecy of the code. He says that, “When I was leaving the Marines to go home, they instructed me to never repeat anything to anybody on what I did. The code was highly valuable and it might be used again in the future.” As a result, the United States public knew nothing about the code until it was finally declassified in 1968. Little states that, “In order for me not to tell anyone, I pretended like it just didn’t happen.” As a result, many code talkers had no sense of accomplishment in serving in the war because the job they performed was so confidential. Secrecy did in fact hinder recognition.
Linda Yazzie offers a good insight on the secrecy of the code and the influence that it had on her dad’s life. Yazzie states that, “My dad (Jerry Salabiye), never told us anything besides that he fought in WWII. We did not even know about the program until it was no longer a secret.” Due to the secrecy of the code, these heroes were unrecognized for their bravery until almost a quarter of a century after the war. She remarks that, “Although the code was secret, I wish I could have learned more about my father’s contributions before he passed away.” The protection of the code did not allow the families to understand the importance of these veterans and the sacrifices that they made.
An important practice of the Navajo people is to have a cleansing ceremony after warriors return from battle. Since code talkers were not allowed to discuss the tasks they performed due to the veil of secrecy over the code, they were deprived of this ceremony. Begaii, a Navajo code talker reflects on this, “The Navajo tradition is that when a warrior returns from battle, you go through a cleansing ceremony. When you go through that type of cleansing ceremony you have to tell all.” Begaii and other code talkers could not talk about what they did, resulting in them not being able to go through this cherished ritual. The secrecy of the code robbed the code talkers of religious consolation, and it was not until 1968 that they were allowed to relinquish their experience. Keeping a secret like this from their family and tribe mentally and physically drained the code talkers and they had no one to turn to or relate with.
The code was finally declassified in 1968 because of the technological advancement of the United States army. Jeff Bingaman, a senator of New Mexico gives a good account of why the code was finally declassified. “After 1968, the code became obsolete. At this time, the United States government found quicker methods to use on the battlefield.” The methods he is talking about are faster decoding machines as well as long-range radios to get the message across longer lines of battle. Until 1968, the code used during WWII was the only viable instrument the United States military had in war.
Racism by the United States to the Navajo is another reason why code talkers were not awarded medals until long after the war. Although some white Marines looked at the Navajo as equals during the war, most of them thought that they were inferior and often harassed them. Sally McClain cites that, “Many Navajo were called Chief, Crazy Horse, Savage, or Red Man by the Americans, while others were sometimes but rarely beaten.” Anglo soldiers remembered hearing false horror stories (but real to them) about Native Americans raping white women and killing men, women, and children, which produced hate and prejudice. Linda Yazzie illustrates that, “My dad was subjected to racism, but he never really said much about it. My mom told us more after he died in 1984. My dad was an intellectual and wanted us to study at American universities to receive quality education. He wanted to ensure our future.” Jerry Salabiye did not want to discourage his kids from participating in the American way of life so he spoke very little about his experience with racism, hoping to encourage them to
become involved in American culture.
Bill Toledo was also immersed in racism. He notes that, “Marines used to call me “Chief,” never Bill or Toledo.” White Marines would see Hollywood movies about Cowboys and Indians, and use the words that they would hear on the screen to make fun of the code talkers. “I guess some of the movies showed Indians carrying blankets around because they use to ask me where my blanket was. They would also say “Unk” before speaking to me because they also saw that in movies and thought it was how Indians spoke.” Although this would anger most people, Bill continued to do his duty and did not pay attention to them. He further explains that, “There were some nice guys in my division. Some guys in the communications team that knew what I did and had a lot of respect for me.” Although he was regularly subjected to verbal abuse, there were some Marines who treated him as an equal, which allowed him to feel a sense of honor for the grueling task he performed.
Mr. Toledo also reflects on the problems that the code had in the first year of the program due to officers being skeptical of its use and the people performing it. “At first my commander did not like to use me to decode messages. He would have a machine do it. One night while I was in Bouganville, a code came in during the late night. The military and the machines could not decode it. My commander finally said, “Let Toledo try it.” I deciphered the code in less then five minutes.” Although Toledo does not blatantly state the reason for non-recognition is due to racism, this story he tells portrays that racism was very much a part of life in the Marines. Only when a white communications specialist or a machine could not decipher the code, were code talkers used. This racism in the Marines might have been a factor in not recognizing the code talkers when they returned home.
Meadows argues that it was not racism, but “Unconscious Racism” which led to lack of recognition. He notes that, “The American government thought it was the duty of Native Americans to fight for their country. The Navajo might be used again in a future war with the Soviets, and the smaller Indian groups got forgotten because they had no organization to reach for recognition.” Although Meadows claim is strong, I disagree with his argument because it was not the duty of the war heroes or veterans organizations to strive for recognition after they already had done so much. Also, for the United States government to forget about the code talkers that were few in number like the Hopi, Cheyenne Sioux, Sac and Fox, Comanche, and more, is not an unconscious slight, but a lack of regard for the accomplishments and bravery of these people.
If it was not racism, but “unconscious racism” like Dr. Meadows states, then why did code talkers not receive recognition from the few top-ranking officials who knew about the program? The code still would have been kept a secret, but at least the code talkers would have had a small ceremony to distinguish their services and give them a sense of accomplishment. Racism has beleaguered Native Americans for centuries and the lack of recognition for the code talkers is just another example.
Linda Yazzie, who is a former schoolteacher and now sits on the Board of Education, believes that “Racism is so blatant in the reason for non-recognition. Just look at our history books. Very seldom if ever, do you see any remarks about Native Americans in WWII.” Not giving the code talkers this small token of appreciation for so many years portrays a lack of respect by the American government to the code talkers. Racism played a key part in code talkers not receiving recognition for many years.
Modesty of the code talkers was also a reason for their lack of recognition after the war. In Navajo culture, it is extremely rude to talk about your own accomplishments. People who do can be looked at as egotistical and shunned from the tribe for “bragging.” Dr. Meadows states that, “In Navajo culture, someone else has to talk about you before you can talk. It is a cultural belief and is extremely sacred.” Since the Navajo considers bragging about yourself a cardinal sin, code talkers could not openly talk about their war experience or the duties they performed. According to a 1981 newspaper article, “There are those who refuse to talk about it. Albert Smith’s (code talker) wife says his comments for this story constitute the first time he has spoken openly with anyone. Jack Morgan (code talker), was also at first reluctant to talk about his experiences.” Modesty is a strong cultural belief of the Navajo people, and when they were finally recognized for their services, it was their tribe and some U.S. politicians that reached for it, not the code talkers themselves. Modesty of the code talkers hurt the recognition process for a long time and a lot of these men died unrecognized.
Mr. Melson, a reporter for CNN, gives further detail on the modesty of the code talkers in a ceremony back in 2001: “Most of them I don’t think wanted special recognition, other than they had done their duty and survived.” Many code talkers felt that they were not owed any recognition for the duty they performed for their country. Some also felt ashamed to ask for or be awarded recognition because many of the code talkers that fought in WWII never made it home.
Keith Little agrees with the statements of Dr. Meadows and Mr. Melson. He says that, “Navajo warriors are forbidden to talk about the war after they come home. It is a very strong cultural belief and is sacred.” The code talkers who came home from war could not tell their story with the tribe due to the cultural belief of being against talking about one’s own accomplishments. Since it is seen as a blemish to talk about yourself, modesty and Navajo culture prolonged the recognition process.
Lack of proper documentation has also caused a lengthy delay in recognition of the code talkers. Campbell, a chairman for the Senate Hearing on American Indian Affairs asked about this in 2004, “Mr. Mansfield (Secretary of V.A.), obtaining documentation of American Indian code talkers is important, but I would imagine a very difficult process in their formal recognition. Does the V.A. keep certain records?” The answer to that question is no. It is very hard for some code talkers to receive recognition because there is no proper documentation from Veterans Affairs that indicates that an individual was in fact a code talker. Senator Jeff Bingaman states that, “In order for the code talkers to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, it would have taken anywhere from two to six years for the military to perform a complete investigation of their background. Instead it was decided to change the honor from congressional medal of honors to gold and silver medals.” Finding out the division that a person fought in as well as the proper documentation that states that they were a code talker is an extensive process with no guarantees of actually proving they were. Due to this lack of documentation, many code talkers have died without receiving their rightful recognition.
Dr. Meadows asserts that lack of documentation did in fact hinder the recognition process. “Their was nothing written down in military records about code talking. Code talkers did not have the proper documentation either.” The discharge papers that code talkers received never stated the task that they performed during the war. In consequence, it is very difficult for the government to identify a code talker without the proper resources. Awarding medals is extremely prestigious, and the United States government did not want to hand it to an undeserving person.
Many code talkers like Bill Toledo did not strive for recognition because they wanted to forget about their awful experiences of war. Bill notes that, “I never thought about getting a medal for what I did. When I got home, I wanted to forget about the things I went through.” For him, home was a refuge from the things that he saw during the war, and by bringing up the past with something as simple as recognition could foster feelings that he wanted to forget. Instead of fighting for recognition, Bill went back to mining and living his old life with his tribe and family.
Dr. Meadows concurs with this. He states that, “Some code talkers that I have conversed with do not like to talk about the war because of the trauma that they went through. They just want to forget.” In consequence, recognizing the code talkers for their bravery might bring back emotions that some are trying to repress, which could psychologically harm them. As a result of wanting to forget about the war, some code talkers did not want recognition, which depleted any momentum that the movement had for a long time.
Code talker Albert Smith explains why he did not wish to discuss the war. Smith states that, “Talking about war contaminates the mind of those who should not hear about the bloodshed. There is always the danger of enticement for the young.” Native Americans are very peace loving people and code talkers did not wish to influence the young with stories of battle. This statement by Albert Smith is just another example of why the code talkers did not talk about the war and did not want to receive recognition. They wanted to protect their youth from stories about bloodshed so that they would not join the military and experience the same things they did.
Another reason why code talkers did not receive recognition until many years after the war is due to their loyalty. American Indians have had a long history of being loyal to their chiefs. Some code talkers saw U.S. officers as their chiefs during WWII, and when asked to keep secret about the code, they did exactly as they were told. Deanne Durrett says that, “Code talkers considered the order to keep quiet just one more duty to perform for their country. They were not out to become famous, but to serve their country bravely.” As a result of their loyalty due to their cultural beliefs, the code and the people that performed it were covered up in the annals of history.
Loyalty to the Marines and the oath that they kept to protect the code is further explained by Senator Tim Johnson from South Dakota. “For the code talkers who returned home from there were no parades or special recognition, as they were sworn to secrecy, an oath they kept and honored, but one that robbed them of the accolades and place in history that they rightfully deserved.” Code talkers believed so much in their oath, and were so loyal to their officers that they refused to talk about what they did even long after the war. Their loyalty, which is encouraging for others, kept them from being awarded recognition.
Due to Native American organizations like the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) founded in 1968, and National Navajo Code Talkers Association (N.N.C.T.A.) founded in 1977, full recognition is finally being awarded to code talkers at the end of
their years. These groups are represented by influential members of the Indian community and have spoken to the United States government about gaining recognition for these heroes. It has been a long time coming, but code talkers are finally being giving the recognition they deserve.
In 1969, one year after the code was declassified, some code talkers were awarded their first recognition at a Chicago Marine reunion for the 4th Marine Division. Durrett states that, “In that year, the Fourth Marine Division Association held its annual meeting in Chicago, and the code talkers who attended were presented with a specially minted medallion in commemoration of their services.” At that reunion, twenty code talkers showed up, received their medals and partook in a parade through the downtown of Chicago where they were finally glorified. The code talkers present at the reunion were allowed to talk about the duties they performed due to the code becoming declassified the year before. These patriots were distinguished for their incredible service and thanked for all they had done in protecting the country.
Although being awarded medallions finally gave the code talkers a sense of accomplishment, why were there only twenty code talkers present at the reunion? The explanation for this is that the United States government refused to allow the great majority of the code talkers to show up because they did not have any proper documentation that stated the tasks they performed in the war. Also, in the military’s sloppy investigation work, they left out a vast majority of the remaining code talkers because they did not bother to look them up or see if they had changed addresses before sending out the invitations. Again this lack of regard for the code talkers did not allow for all of the members to be awarded recognition, only a very small minority.
Another recognition that the code talkers were rewarded was in 1982. That year, the Senate and House of Representatives issued a request to President Reagan to make August 14th “National Navajo Code Talkers Day.” “Whereas this select group of Navajo Marines has never received national recognition for its unique and invaluable contribution to our military intelligence during WWII, we call upon all government agencies and people of the United States to observe the day with appropriate games, ceremonies and activities.” The President signed this request into law, which made it legal on August 14th. This was probably the most illustrious award that the code talkers received to date because until then, recognition was not national but only state, city, or tribe. This law made into a holiday demonstrated that the U.S. government finally understood the importance of these people, and the sadness and frustration they had felt for not being recognized or given a parade like their Anglo friends.
With the help of Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Navajo code talkers were rewarded in 2001 with congressional gold and silver medals. In December of 2000, Bingaman introduced a bill called “Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act,” which was then signed into law. Bingaman notes that, “This bill authorizes the President of the United States to reward a gold medal to each of the original 29 code talkers, as well as a silver medal to each man who later qualified as a Navajo Code Talker.” Due to the help of influential politicians such as Bingaman, code talkers were finally awarded the highest medal a civilian can earn in the United States.
President Bush, in 2001 honored the four remaining code talkers of the original 29 at a White House ceremony where he presented them with their rightfully earned gold medals. The President also gave gold medals to the families of the code talkers who either died during the war, or passed away before they were recognized. Bush stated, “Today we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago. Our gratitude is now expressed for all time in the medals you are about to receive.” The President read each of the twenty-nine code talker’s names aloud before giving them their medals, at which they received a standing ovation from the audience. This appreciation shown by the United States government gave the remaining code talkers who are all well in their 80’s, a sense of renewed pride for their part in the war.
Bill Toledo, who enlisted in the Marines in 1943, did not get a gold medal for his participation in the war. Bill notes that, “The people who came in after the original 29 were not allowed a gold medal. We received a silver medal instead.” Bill and the remaining Navajo code talkers who were awarded silver medals were honored at the Window Rock, Arizona Navajo reservation by a representative from Washington. “I was very happy to be given a medal but I never thought much about getting one.” Mr. Toledo was just happy that after Washington publicly recognized them, schools began to recognize code talkers that same year and asked them to come to speak. “Not many people know about what we did. Even today. It is good that we are able to talk about it with the young kids.” Mr. Toledo’s response reveals that what he is happy about most is not the medal, but being able to talk to kids around the nation of the importance Native Americans had in WWII.
Many code talkers are frustrated and sad that the recognition process has taken so many years and wonder what was the cause of it. Carl Gorman, one of the original 29 code talkers reflects on the recognition. “It’s nice that were finally getting something. But it’s a recognition that should have been given a long time ago.” All but four of the original 29 code talkers have already died and never received proper recognition. Others died on the beaches of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Guam, Bouganville, and more, to have only have been forgotten about and erased from the pages of history.
Peter McDonald, one of the original 29, states his feelings about the recognition process during the White House ceremony where he was awarded his gold medal. McDonald stated that, “What makes me sad is that it took them so long to do this and many of the original 29 who came in with us to code talk are now gone. There are also those who died on the beaches with radios in their hands and M-1s over their shoulder that are not able to be here today. This is for them too.” Being awarded recognition for the remaining code talkers was a very proud moment for them, but all of them seem to wonder why it took so many years. Most of their brothers in arms are now dead and they regret that they cannot share in this momentous occasion as well.
It could be easy to blame non-recognition on any one of the factors that I have suggested, but it is impossible to do so without biased observation. No one can know what another is thinking, and it is hard to suppose why Washington has taken this long to recognize these brave men. The best course of action is to demonstrate the many reasons that led to a lack of appreciation for so many years. With the causes that I have demonstrated in my paper, as well as the interviews conducted by Linda Yazzie, Bill Toledo, William Meadows, and Keith Little, I believe that the major reasons were secrecy of the code, racism, modesty/culture of the Navajo people, lack of documentation, some code talkers wanted to forget awful experiences of war, and loyalty of the code talkers to the Marine Corps.
The fact that code talkers were not awarded recognition for so many years is not a sign that they are undeserving. These men not only performed the code they were instructed to do under fierce fire, but created the code as well. This code was so highly complex that regular Navajo who were not code talkers were unable to decode it. Keith Little further explains this. “There were 400 Navajo code words at the end of the war. Each military code was changed to Navajo, sometimes four words meaning the same thing. The code was never written down on a piece of paper but in our head, and regular Navajo could not decipher it.” Since the code was so complex that other people in their own tribe could not break it, it was an important tool and saved the lives of many Marines.
Many code talkers like Bill Toledo enlisted in the Marines before they were done with high school. Some faked their age and others dropped out their senior year. Toledo states that, “I dropped out of high school to serve my country. I did go back though, but it was many years after the war.” Code talkers saw it as their duty to protect their land from the enemy and were not about to let school get in their way. These men went through a lot to be in the Marines and recognition is appropriate for these deserving people.
In a closing argument from William Meadows, he states that, “Native Americans are a very unique people. They still kept their culture and language even when they were forced not to speak it in school. They still secretly held onto their language and when the war came, they stepped up and spoke their language when asked.” Meadows, as well as many other historians, believe that the war in the Pacific would have been more difficult to win without the code talkers, and American casualties would have been much higher. Without their help, WWII might have turned out differently.
I feel that in the last years of these veterans lives, they finally feel a sense of accomplishment for the code that they established. They have received congressional gold and silver medals and have been honored by both their own tribe and the United States. The recognition that they are receiving now is terrific, but unfortunately it has come too late for some. Many code talkers who have already passed away before individual recognition never received medals and died with their secret. For them, recognition was too little, too late.
Albuquerque Tribune, July 2001.
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December 22, 2000. www.bingaman.senate.gov/code_talkers/legislation/
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Toledo, Bill. Telephone interview by Matthew Koenig, September 26, 2005
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1982, as “National Navaho Code Talkers Day.” 97th Cong., 3rd sess., 1982.
Yazzie, Linda. Telephone interview by Matthew Koenig, September 20, 2005
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War 2. Darien, CT.: Two Bytes Publishing Company, 1995.
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1 Navajo Code Talkers: The Epic Story, produced by Brendan Tully, 55 minutes, Tully Entertainment
2 Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Contributions of Native American Code Talkers in American Military History: Hearing before the Committee on Indians Affairs United States Senate, 108th Cong., 2nd sess., 2004, 11.
3 Linda Yazzie, telephone interview by Matthew Koenig, September 20, 2005.
4 Linda Yazzie, interview.
5 Bill Toledo, telephone interview by Matthew Koenig, September 26, 2005.
6 Bill Toledo, interview.
7 William C. Meadows, The Comanche Code Talkers of WWII (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 37.
8 Deanne Durrett, Unsung Heroes of WWII (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1998), 33.
9 Nathan Aaseng, Navajo Code Talkers (New York: Walker and Company, 1992), 20.
10 Brendan Tully, Navajo Code Talkers: The Epic Story.
11 Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon: Navajo Code Talkers (Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2001), 23.
12 Gregory Crampton, They Talked Navajo (Salt Lake City: Duke Indian Oral History Project, 1977), 11.
13 Aaseng, 29.
14 Aaseng, 30-31.
15 Margaret T. Bixler, Winds Of Freedom: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII (Darien, CT.: Two Bytes Publishing Company, 1992), 85.
16 Bixler, 86.
17 Aaseng, 122.
18 Bixler, 86.
19 As cited in Crampton, 13.
20 Bill Toledo, interview.
21 Bill Toledo, interview.
22 McClain, 83.
23 Bill Toledo, interview.
24 Bill Toledo, interview.
25 William C. Meadows, interview by Matthew Koenig, September 14, 2005.
26 Crampton, 26-27.
27 Bixler, 98.
28 Bixler, 108.
29 Bill Toledo, interview.
30 Bill Toledo, interview.
31 Bill Toledo, interview.
32 Bill Toledo, interview.
33 William Meadows, interview.
34 William Meadows, interview.
35 Keith Little, interview by Matthew Koenig, September 29, 2005.
36 Keith Little, interview.
37 Linda Yazzie, interview.
38 Linda Yazzie, interview.
39 Michael Nolan, “Code Talkers: The Unsung Heroes of WWII,” Albuquerque Journal 121, no. 4 (2001): 9.
40 “Bingaman Seeks To Honor Navajo Code Talkers With Congressional Gold Medals,” New Mexico Press Clipping Bureau, April 14, 2000.
41 McClain, 53.
42 Linda Yazzie, interview.
43 Bill Toledo, interview.
44 Bill Toledo, interview.
45 Bill Toledo, interview.
46 Bill Toledo, interview.
47 William Meadows, interview.
48 Linda Yazzie, interview.
49 William Meadows, interview.
50 Fritz Thompson, “The Navajo Code Talkers,” Albuquerque Journal Magazine, June 1981, 8.
51 Eileen O’Connor, “Navajo code talkers honored after 56 years,” CNN.com, July 27, 2001, www.archives.cnn.com/2001/US/07/26/code.talkers/.
52 Keith Little, interview.
53 Hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs, 7.
54 Nathan J. Tohtsoni, “Navajo Code Talkers,” Navajo Times, September 6, 2001, 1st edition.
55 Meadows, interview.
56 Toledo, interview.
57 Meadows, interview.
58 Durrett, Unsung Heroes of WWII, 97.
59 Durrett, 96.
60 Hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs, 10.
61 Crampton, They Talked Navajo, 13.
62 U.S. Congress, House and Senate Committee on National Navaho Code Talkers Day, “Joint Resolution to Authorize and Request the President to Designate August 14, 1982, as “National Navaho Code Talkers Day,” 97th Congress, 3rd sess., July 28, 1982, 1.
63 Jeff Bingaman, “Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers,” Legislation, February 3, 2001, www.bingaman.senate.gov/code_talkers/legislation/legislation.html.
64 O’Connor, “Navajo code talkers honored”, 1.
65 Toledo, interview.
66 Toledo, interview.
67 Toledo, interview.
68 Mary Perea, “Bittersweet medal ceremony honor code talkers,” Albuquerque Tribune, July 25, 2001, 1st edition.
69 Brian Stokes, “Navajo Codetalkers Honored at White House ceremony,” IndianCountryToday.com, August 6, 2001, www.aipc.osmre.gov/notes%20from%20Native%20America/3_2001.htm.
70 Keith Little, interview
71 Bill Toledo, interview.
72 William Meadow, interview.