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The Navajo Code Talkers

Painting by Teddy Draper, Sr.

America's Secret Weapon in Defeating the Japanese in World War Two.

By Gerald Knowles
Laying in the hot humid black sands of Iwo Jima the marine extended his hand into the sand. He felt cold steel several inches below the surface. He froze with intense fear. He knew that few of his fellow marines had survived the blast of the dread Japanese land mines. Corporal Teddy Draper, a Navajo from the towering red canyons of Chinle, Arizona was a long way from home. Yet, his presence and that of other Navajo Americans on Iwo Jima and many other islands on the road to Japan played a key role in the ultimate victory of the U.S. forces in the Pacific theater of the war.

The war in the Pacific had just begun and the American forces were experiencing great difficulty in preventing the Japanese from anticipating their every move. The tenacity of the Japanese and the natural obstacles faced by the marines posed almost insurmountable problems to the retaking of those islands. It was critical to allied victory. Every communications code set up by the marines was eventually broken by the Japanese. It was only a matter of time. Most of the radio communications, essential to the direction of critical combat operations were being intercepted by the Japanese, many of whom could both understand English and sound like an American marine.

When the frustration and concern of the American command was reaching its most critical point, in walked a Navajo named Philip Johnson. As a boy, Philip had gone to Washington as a translator with a of Navajo and Hopi group to petition President Theodore Roosevelt for better resources for their tribes. In early 1942 Philip Johnson met with high ranking Marines at Camp Eliot in San Diego and presented the idea of using the Navajo language as a code. The American officers gave the project skeptical go ahead. It seemed too simple and vulnerable to have two soldiers talking back and forth to each other.

The initial reaction to recruiters who began circulating within one of the largest Color and most remote Indian nations in the United States was one of great suspicion. It was up to Chairman of the Navajo Nation, Chee Dodge, who sent word out about the mission of Navajo marines acting as special communication agents to assist the war effort. Notices were put up in trading posts all over the Navajo Reservation. Once the objective was understood, Navajo men, some of them only fifteen years old, rose to the occasion to assist the war effort and defend their country. Carl Gorman, Sr., the oldest of the Code Talkers is the father of famous Navajo artist R.C. Gorman of Taos, New Mexico. The first thirty recruits were selected. The first cadre of Navajo recruits coming from all directions in there faded jeans and dusty boots, some by horse back and some by wagon to board the trains at Flagstaff, Arizona and Gallup, New Mexico for marine base training camp in California. The Navajos arrived at boot camp . In 1943 there were 191 Navajo Code Talkers serving. Eventually 450 Code Talkers would serve in World War Two in the Pacific.

The Navajo marine recruiters distinguished themselves in boot camp as having superior agility, endurance and marksmanship. Such skills would later be expressed in the war campaign in the form of remarkable night maneuvers and the ability to operate behind enemy lines.

Commanders in the field were confused about the function of the Navajo marines. The initial role of the Navajo marines in the battle zones was that of runner to carry messages from one position to another. At the same time, many of the top intelligence officers had doubt about the value and security of soldiers talking back and forth in thick of battle. Fortunately for the U.S. war efforts in the Pacific, such a misconception was to be abruptly reversed.

King Mike at end of war celebration
King Mike at end of war celebration
Even today, after fifty years, many people have the wrong idea about the use of the Navajo language as a code. While the agility, endurance and courage of the Navajo soldier in the Pacific campaigns are legendary, only a passing notion of the use of Navajo as code is understood. It was mistakenly seen as a simple process of two Navajos talking to each other. On the contrary the major contribution of the Navajo marine was cerebral. The Navajo marines had literally created an alternative Navajo language. They changed around and substituted words. The result was mixed up Navajo. Not even native Navajo speakers tested with the new code talk knew what these Navajo marines were talking about. "That's crazy Navajo," one remarked. In addition, none of the Navajo code was written down. It was all committed to memory! The Navajo Code Talk was born and became one of the most potent weapons used by the United States in the Pacific campaign.

Yet, military intelligence, still skeptical, and demanded a demonstration. Two of the top intelligence officers who were specialists in breaking codes were called in to test the Navajo Code Talk. They couldn't even transcribe the sounds they were hearing much less decipher its meaning. The potency and practicality of the code was firmly established. When the Japanese first heard Navajo code talk, they were totally confused, and it was decades after the war that the source of the code was revealed. The Navajo Code Talk was top secret and retained a classified status until 1968.

King Mike went off to boot camp with the original group of Navajo Code Talkers. King was living in the Monument Valley area because his wife's family's sheep camp was located near there. The area is one of the most remote communities in the Navajo Nation and could only be reached by dirt road sixty miles off pavement. It was from this point that King MIke made his trek into the vast Pacific Ocean to play a decisive role in the bloodiest battles of World War Two. King MIke was the lone survivor of the 1st Provisional Brigade on Guam and was reassigned to the 6th Division of the 22nd Regiment before the invasion of Okinowa.

Navajo Code Talkers were assigned to one of two teams. One was the ship assault team and the other was regimental intelligence. King was a member of a five man regimental intelligence team. The team was composed of a demolition specialist, a Japanese speaker, a communications expert, a technician, and a Navajo Code Talker. The team would land on the beach and move inward to infiltrate behind enemy lines. Sometimes that would move in immediately after a naval bombardment of the shore. I The job of the team was to radio back the layout of fortifications, the concentration of enemy forces, and the most likely routes for invasion. The intelligence information was radioed because there was always possibility of capture and death. Code Talkers came in after bombardment to estimate the damage while the Japanese were still hiding. Intelligence was critical to success of the American forces in providing information as to where and when to attack.

Those code talkers who were part of the assault teams kept the Japanese from monitoring battlefield communications. As troops rapidly advanced on Saipan, the shells began to hit so close to the marines that they radioed headquarters to redirect fire. Headquarters felt that no Americans could have advanced that far inland and decided it was a Japanese soldier, many of whom could sound like an Iowa farmer. It wasn't until a Code Talker was given the radio that the officers at the command post were convinced that the troops at the advanced position were truly Americans.

Richard MIke, co-owner of the Kayenta Burger King and three other Burger Kings at Page, Chinle and Shiprock is King Mike's son. He relates that his father had recurrent nightmares of being chased by a Japanese soldier with a bayonet. There were constant close encounters at night and hand to hand combat behind enemy lines. Many of King's buddies were killed in such skirmishes. King Mike's first regiment was wiped out on Guam and what was left of the men not killed were incorporated into the 6th Division, 22nd Regiment. Teddy Draper, Sr. also had nightmares of setting off one of the dread Japanese land mines. Many Draper's and Mike's friends died in hand to hand combat and in encounters behind lines in the pitch black darkness behind enemy lines. When the Code Talkers finally came home, they went through special ceremonies called the "Enemy Way" to exorcise them of those painful memories of their harrowing encounters and the ghosts of the dead.

King Mike wrote home on the back of a post card of a picture Okinowa's Sugar Loaf Hill that he said was "the bloodiest and the dirtiest fight in the South Pacific was fought on this hill." The Japanese had taken the hill ten times. More marines died in the assault on Sugar Hill than in any battle in the history of the marine corps. A total of 2662 marines lost their lives in the battle for Sugar Loaf and 1289 suffered combat fatigue. Yet, few remembered the day in April, because President Roosevelt died that same day. Finally, the marines prevailed for the tenth time and secured this hill. King had directed Naval gunfire on the hill.

Code Talker Teddy Draper, Sr. relates the Code Talker role on the front lines in the battle of Iwo Jima, which he calls "Hell Island." The thirty six day ordeal was characterized by hand to hand combat and a constant stream of hand grenades, mortars, bayonet duels and deployment of flame throwers by the American forces. Comrades had to be left dead in the hot tropic sun because rescue often meant death to those who tried. As time wore on many marines felt there was no relief from the hellish battle except sudden death. Major Howard Connor was to remark after the war that "without the Navajo (Code Talker), the marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

General Setzo Avisue, head of Japanese intelligence, when told after the war about the Code Talkers sighed, "Thank you, that is a puzzle I thought would never be solved." The Navajo Code Talk may have been the only unbreakable code in the history of warfare.

The Navajo Code Talk was so top secret that it was no declassified until 1968 at a time when the country's attitude toward war thwarted any true public recognition of the significance of the Code Talk as a major weapon in the defeat of the Japanese. The top secret nature of the Code Talker system played a significant role in the fact that no Navajo Code Talker was awarded a Medal of Honor. No parades have been held to recognize them.

President Ronald Regean in December of 1981 recognized the Navajo Code talkers for their "dedicates service, unique achievement, patriotism, resourcefulness and courage." April 14, 1983 proclaimed Navajo Code Talker Day through the efforts of then Senator Dennis D. Concini.

The tenacity of the Japanese soldier, the torturous terrain and climate and the defenses of the enemy could have well combined to stop the essential U.S. capture of the Pacific Islands. Many believe that is was Navajo Code Talker weapon that tipped the balance and victory for the American forces.