Code Talkers WWII heroes get late recognition
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – For the first time in half a century,
the Navajo Code Talkers find themselves standing at the edge of
Researchers seek them for interviews. Schools invite them to
speak. Hollywood producers want to film action movies about them.
All the attention is linked to a longtime secret: the Code
Talkers’ use of Dine, the complex, tonal Navajo language, to help
the United States win World War II.
As boys in U.S. government-run boarding schools, the Code
Talkers would be punished for speaking Navajo. But when the war
flared, the government that banned their unique language suddenly
valued it as the base for a code to flummox the Japanese. The
Marines enlisted 420 Navajos, many of them teenagers, for combat
A code was developed using Navajo words to represent each
English letter. The Navajos also borrowed from nature for military
terms, translating battleships as “whales,” fighter jets as
“hummingbirds,” bombers as “buzzards,” bombs as “eggs.”
For years, only military historians knew much about the
special mission in which Code Talkers transmitted thousands of
messages on World War II’s bloodiest beaches, from Guadalcanal to
Iwo Jima. U.S. officials long failed to recognize this unusual
Now in their 70s, with etched, weary faces, the men are
unsure what to make of the recent sudden attention. Some are
“We just think it’s kind of late,” said their leader Sam
Billison, 74, president of the Navajo Code Talkers’ Association
and a member of the Navajo Tribal Council. Shaking his head in the
doorway of his one-story home, Billison noted that one Hollywood
thriller in the works may use Anglo actors to play the leading
Code Talker roles.
Surviving Code Talkers, in recent interviews, tried to convey
their experience, starting with their move to assimilate in the
modern world, then later to conserve the Navajo language for the
future. Many are still physically active, chopping trees,
attending political meetings. Going into the 21st century, the men
are an emblem for Native Americans – struggling for survival
within the nation they served, the nation that has all but
obliterated their world.
From boarding schools to battlefields
The story began when the Code Talkers were boys, sent out from
round cedar-log hogans across the Navajo reservation. It’s a high
desert land, a fourth the size of Colorado, where blue skies
blanket natural wonders from the blood-red buttes of the Monument
Valley to echoing Canyon de Chelly.
Their parents herded sheep and grew corn. There was no
electricity or running water.
Many parents wanted their sons to be educated at boarding
schools the U.S. government had established around reservations.
“Son, you should go to school,” Billison recalled his mother
saying every morning. “She used to say: “Look at the way we live.
Look at the hogan. Look, we don’t have any car. We don’t have
anything. I don’t want you to grow up and be like this. … I
don’t want you to live the way we are living now.'” Sheep prices
were falling. Anglo cattlemen encroached on their land.
Thomas Begay, 73, remembers his father telling him: “I want
you to be like that white man over there in that suit and tie. I
want you to be in that position,” he said. “Never again will my
family live off livestock.”
But boarding school often was brutal.
Administrators changed Navajo names to Christian ones. They
forbade the students from speaking Navajo. Transgressors were
punished – grounded, ordered to write sentences over and over,
humiliated as teachers washed their mouths out with soap.
“They’d line us up, march us around,” said Wilford Buck, 73,
who attended a school near Ship-rock, N.M. “You missed your
parents. You wanted to see your parents.”
The idea of Navajo-based code took hold in 1942. Philip
Johnston, who grew up on the reservation as the son of a
missionary, suggested to military leaders that Navajos might give
the United States an advantage in sending secure battlefield
U.S. recruiters set up on the reservation. Thousands of
Navajos volunteered to fight, eager for off-reservation work. The
Marines chose 420 who seemed particularly bright to be Code
After breezing through basic training, they worked secretly
in military classrooms in California. The initial code they
memorized included 26 Navajo words – one for each English letter.
There were 211 other words for military phenomena. Observation
planes became “owls.” Submarines were “iron fish.” Grenades were
At the time, U.S. troops relied on complicated combinations
of numbers and letters that they changed daily. Still, Japanese
cryptographers were cracking U.S. codes regularly – learning what
troop movements to expect.
At Guadalcanal, a U.S. colonel grumbled that it took 21/2
hours to send and decode a single message.
In a test, Navajo Code Talkers relayed that same message in
From then on, the Navajos were considered essential. Or at
least their code was. Security guards assigned to each Code Talker
reportedly had orders to execute them if necessary to keep them
out of Japanese hands.
First on beaches and in foxholes
The Navajos were among the first Americans crawling on the
bloody beaches at Saipan, Tarawa, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa – flash
points in the South Pacific.
Attached to invading ground units, they lugged M-1 rifles or
carbines and 2-foot-tall radios. In their warrior tradition, many
also carried pouches of sacred corn pollen, arrowheads and
feathers for protection. They knew that medicine men and their
elders were praying back on the reservation.
At war, the Code Talkers prayed, too, calling on Navajo holy
“Anywhere. In the foxhole. To survive,” said Jimmy Begay, 76,
who still wears the handmade necklace he clutched during the war.
“That’s what my grandfather told me: “When you go, if you get
stuck, say the prayers,'” Begay said. “Then I’d feel all right.”
On the steamy islands, prompt radio communication was crucial
for troops to receive effective artillery and bombing support. One
Code Talker would be given a message written in English to
translate into code. Another Code Talker would read it into the
radio. Other Code Talkers on command boats would receive the code
and translate it back into English.
An island named Iwo Jima
One island Code Talkers know too well is Iwo Jima, where
fighting in 1945 left 6,000 Americans and 22,000 Japanese dead.
Iwo Jima was a Japanese stronghold. Before the U.S. invasion,
bombers blistered the island for 72 days. Yet Japanese troops
retained their hold, massed in tunnels.
That’s when Thomas Begay and his unit approached, in a
rocking iron boat. They leapt into waves, he recounted, and fought
their way forward under heavy fire.
Other boats “were all torn to pieces,” Begay said. “There
were bodies. … I was numb. You know, you came to some places
where you got so scared you didn’t have feelings.”
As for Billison, he worked at first on the flagship offshore
with commanders. “We saw the machines – tanks, weasels – bogged
down on the beach.” Then he was ordered to join the invasion.
At night, climbing down the rope ladder on the side of the
ship, he remembered hesitating. Was his training sufficient, he
wondered, “to save myself?” He made himself move on into a boat
and then into the deep, black, sandy morass.
“You couldn’t walk, you couldn’t run, because of that sand.
The only way you could move ahead was to crawl on all fours.”
A Japanese fighter plane roared overhead. Bullets and mortars
rained down from Mount Suribachi.
“You knew they were targeting everybody,” Billison said.
Jimmy Begay was there, too, crawling through the black sand.
“They’d pin you down,” Jimmy Begay said. “Can’t go no more.
Then you’d send a message to bring in a bomb. Anything.”
The coded messages moved, flawlessly, more than 800 of them
during the first 48 hours, according to military records. And this
time, the Japanese couldn’t crack the code. Maj. Howard Conner,
signal officer for the 5th Marine Division in the battle, was
quoted later as saying, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines
would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Most Code Talkers came home from that ordeal and the war.
Today, an estimated 190 of the 420 who served are still alive.
Many prefer not to talk about what happened.
“When you are out there, you don’t feel it that much,” Buck
said. “Afterward, that’s when it gets you. People being shot at.
The real thing. Not just pictures made in Hollywood. People being
shot at and dying. Later on, it scares you.”
Forgotten by nation they fought for
After the war, the Navajos went home on buses.
Elders arranged purification rituals – a four-day “Enemy Way”
ceremony – designed to get each man’s mind off the war. Jimmy
Begay remembers a medicine man bathing him in yucca soap, then
rolling him in white corn meal to dry. The elders chanted prayers.
They “took the shield off,” Begay said, “a shield that protects
you during the war.”
Begay felt “a sort of cool feeling inside me,” he said, “and
I started to cry. It was a strong prayer. Then I felt all right.
No anger. … They told me: “Now you don’t have to have fear
again.'” Many returning warriors faced poverty. The economic boom
that made the United States the world’s richest nation was
bypassing the Code Talkers and their people. To this day, income
on this semi-sovereign reservation lags far behind the U.S.
average. According to federal figures, the average income here is
about $71 a week.
And many warriors found themselves confronted with
indignities. Some weren’t allowed to vote. Some had to travel far
and haggle for medical treatment they needed. As recently as the
early 1990s, Thomas Begay said, he had trouble obtaining a
passport, with State Department officials questioning his
The Code Talker mission was declassified in 1968. Yet it
wasn’t until 1982 that President Reagan formally acknowledged the
courageous service, proclaiming Aug. 14 Code Talkers Day.
Before that, people who saw them marching in Veterans Day
parades often had no idea what they’d done.
Nevertheless, Code Talkers on the reservation remained loyal
to the United States. Many devoted their lives to federal programs
that encouraged assimilation into mainstream U.S. society.
Buck worked construction projects. Among those who earned
college degrees, Billison became a principal, teacher and
superintendent, and served for years on Navajo governing councils.
Thomas Begay at first trained young mechanics and clerks. Later he
ran the Navajo branch of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“What was in my mind when I came back was: There is a better
life out there beyond the Navajo reservation in urban centers,”
His advice to a new generation echoed that of his father
before the war: “Be like those white folks. Have a job. Earn a
The civil rights movement hadn’t begun. Assimilation was the
only option, said John Echo Hawk, a Pawnee who grew up in Navajo
country and now directs the Boulder-based Native American Rights
“But in the last generation, Indians have fought back,” Echo
Hawk said. “They’ve used the courts and politics to try to get
more control over their lives.”
New mission: Preserving language
The Code Talkers, too, grew concerned about modern culture
diluting their Navajo culture and language.
After he retired, Thomas Begay noticed that “the language was
And that gave him pause. In the Marines, he wanted “to prove
that I can be as good as anyone else.” Now he drives to schools
around the reservation where he and his wife sing traditional
He wants “to identify as being a Navajo,” he said. “Not
Buck voiced similar sentiments. “If we don’t teach the little
kids the language, I don’t know how long we’ll survive.”
Billison for years has tried to improve Navajo instruction in
But U.S. television shapes children’s thinking. Families
flip-flop between jobs in U.S. cities and communal connections at
Wary of appearing in Hollywood limelight
The Code Talkers weigh grinding poverty and the erosion of
their culture against the potential benefits of fame.
They’ve shared their war experiences recently in schools as
far away as Dallas. And Hollywood’s action movies in the works
certainly could amplify their efforts.
On the other hand, “it’s people making money off this for
themselves,” Guy Clauschee, 72, said.
“They’ll make a lot of money. And they’ll add some more
action, like in John Wayne,” Jimmy Begay said after a morning’s
work cutting wood for the winter. “I don’t care much for all that.
That’s why I don’t talk too much.”
A movie cameraman approached him recently, asking Begay how
he felt about fighting for his country. Later, Begay chuckled at
how he taunted the cameraman: “”We don’t have a country,'” he’d
said. “”You guys have it all now. We have a reservation.'” One of
the movies, “Windtalkers,” to be directed by John Woo and
distributed by MGM, will be filmed in Hawaii next summer, with
Nicolas Cage as the star, said Michael Dellheim of the New Mexico
Code Talker veterans sent a letter telling Cage “that to use
Anglos to portray Navajo Code Talkers is not the right thing to
do, and we object to it,” Billison said.
Another project won approval after Code Talkers reviewed a
script. “Whisper the Wind” boasts a $30 million budget and Gale
Anne Hurd, who produced “Armageddon,” “Aliens,” and the
“Terminator” movies. The deal included money for the Code Talkers
association. Researchers say they’re filming a documentary to be
released along with the movie.
The Hollywood action adds grist at the Code Talkers’ monthly
meetings, where they sip coffee and attend to honoring dead
The limelight could be nice, they concede. They want their
children to value tradition.
Navajo “is the most powerful and sacred language,” Billison
said. “We found out.”