So I went up and introduced myself and thanked him for his service to the country. He was…well…old…really old, and he was only able to communicate in Navajo. Thankfully, his wife, Virginia, was there to translate and interpret for me. As it turns out, the man sitting at the bar was Sgt. Allen Dale June, Congressional Gold Medalist, and one of two remaining Code Talkers still alive (the other, Samuel Tso, lives in Arizona). It really was fortuitous to meet in this setting, since I had the opportunity to speak with them for a little while over a glass of beer. It was a little awkward since I was half incredulous that I was speaking to a Code Talker and half trying not to barge in on their evening. Virginia assured me that I wasn’t being a bother which made me feel a bit better. June joined the Marines because there was nothing to do on the reservation, and he wanted to serve his country and represent his tribe. Sgt. June served in the Pacific Corridor from 1942 – 1945 calling in valuable military information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications.
The Navajo Nation (Diné Bikékya) covers about 26,000 square miles of the four corners area which encompasses much of the original land that the Navajos have occupied since the 16th century. In 2000, there were around 300,000 Navajos living in the U.S. with over half of them living on the reservation. In 1942 there were only 50,000 Navajos in the U.S., and pretty much all of them lived on the reservation. Because of their small population and relative isolation, it was estimated that fewer than 30 non-native people could speak the language. Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity whose syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It is a purely spoken language - it has no alphabet or symbols. All of these properties made it an ideal candidate for the basis of an uncrackable code for the military.
This wasn’t exactly a new idea. In WWI the Chocktaw language was used in a similar manner. Interestingly, the British had their own code talkers for the European theater. They used the Welsh language. I don’t think that even the Welsh really understand their language, but that’s another story. So, in 1942 the original 29 Code Talkers set about the task of creating the code at Camp Pendleton. They developed and memorized a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. You can take a look at the original code here. I find it amazing that it was basically just a direct translation from Navajo to English. Field tests were then staged under simulated combat conditions which showed that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message error-free in 20 seconds. Seems like a long time with present technology, but the code machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Even though the code appears to be simple on the surface, due to the complexity of the Navajo language Navajo speakers that were not trained in the proper inflections and tone of the code could not even decipher the messages.
So, the U.S. employed about 540 Navajos in the military in WWII, and ~300 of them became Code Talkers. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language, all during a time when Indians were punished for speaking their native language in the U.S. Sgt. June told me that he was once chained to a basement water faucet by a third-grade teacher on the reservation for speaking in Navajo rather than English. Why would a public school teacher do this? The primary goal from the beginning of European occupation of the Americas has been to assimilate the indigenous people. To achieve this goal, the government has tried to obliterate tribal languages, eradicate their religions and cultures, and as a final humiliation force them to dress and act like Europeans. In the late 1800’s boarding schools were set up for Indian children where they were taken against their parents’ and their own wishes and were systematically brainwashed into believing that American society was superior. These “schools” were deliberately located far from any Indian reservation or communities. Although this system was cruel, it was certainly effective. Native languages have been in decline ever since. However, despite the diabolical attempts at assimilation and eradication the Navajo language remains. Navajo is spoken in every state, and in 2000 there were almost 180,000 Navajo speakers. Notice that this is around half of the number of people in the Navajo tribe; so only half of all Navajos speak their native tongue. However, still more people speak Navajo in the U.S. than speak Thai or Scandanavian.
Since the code was unable to be cracked (it is believed to be the only truly unbreakable code in the history of warfare), as a final injustice the Code Talkers were forbade to even discuss their service in the military until the code was declassified nearly 25 years later. Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima: the Navajo Code Talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. It is almost certain that we would not have been able to win the war in the Pacific without the aid of these men, and we can only guess at the number of lives that they have saved. It truly was a great honor to meet Sgt. Allen Dale June and buy him a beer, but it somehow does not seem like enough to me. We are all truly indebted to their service. Ahéhee’.
A-ma-oh bi-keh de-dlihn
Ni-hi-keh di-dlini ta-etin
Yeh-wol-ye hi-he a-din
Sila-go-tsoi do chah-lakai
Ya-ansh-go das dez e e
Washindon be Akalh-bi Kosi la
May we live in peace hereafter
We have conquered all our foes,
No force in the world we cannot conquer,
We know of no fear
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
United States Marines will be
There Living in peace.
Exerpt from "The Marine Hymn"