Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Code Talker

I had an interesting thing happen to me last Friday. I was hanging out at the Left Hand Brewery on Friday night after work, as I am apt to do. The tap room is a small place frequented by mostly beer club members where you can sit with a nicely crafted brew and some friends and lie to each other in relative peace. It is open the general public, and I encourage everyone to check it out. You should at least try to track down a six pack of Jackman’s or Milk Stout. Anyway, enough about beer, as I was sitting there regaling the fellas with my knowledge of the cast and characters of “Melrose Place” I noticed someone sitting at the bar wearing U.S. Marine WWII veteran’s hat. As I got up to get another tasty beverage I got close enough to read the writing on the side of his hat: Navjo Code Talker. Amazing. Here we were in this cruddy little bar in a crappy town in Colorado and in walks in one of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers that made it possible for us to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific corridor. Simply amazing. For those of you that do not know, I am a bit of a WWII buff. I just can’t seem to read or watch enough about it. It was a fascinating time in human history, and it has been a desire of mine to meet a Code Talker since learning about them years ago.

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. Than
kfully, 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’.

Hozo-go nayh-yeltay to
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"


aektare said...

Dan, i don't know if i had mentioned it to you before but i actually have been living/working near Chinle, AZ for the past two years -right in the heart of the Navajo Nation.
Since i go directly to elementary schools all over the rez to treat the patients i get a fairly privileged view of the culture. Navajo is taught in most schools to kids at a very early age and is supposedly making a comeback. The population also has been steadily increasing for several years. There's still a lot of poverty here but some steady progress has been made...
and I've also seen a lot of children's books about the Code Talkers- a justifiably revered group for the Navajo people.

It's surreal to live amidst a culture in this harsh, unforgiving landscape that seems almost eternal- maybe because it goes back thousands of years when even the Anasazi predate the Navajos- I'm still in awe on some long morning commutes when I realize all of this existed long before the first settlers ever set foot here...

TJ said...


Thanks for a very interesting read. I must admit, I didn't know anything about the code talkers, so not only was it well written, it was very interesting. I love learning new things!

Rock on, brother!

Anonymous said...

why doesnt stuff like that happen when we go there? i think i would of cried.maybe you being niice came from your mother........

VDG said...

Interesting article, but...

"I don’t think that even the Welsh really understand their language, but that’s another story."

That's a strange thing to say!
20 percent of the Welsh population are purely Welsh speakers, are you really suggesting they don't understand their mother tongue?

One of my great uncles was a Welsh code talker in WW2. I remember him when I was a little girl. He could speak English but said he couldn't express himself properly in English and always preferred using Welsh. The British still use Welsh signallers for communications in military situations. The only time it wasn't used was in the Falklands war, because there is a large Welsh speaking community in Argentina.

If you're interested in other minority languages, BTW, I just wrote an article about the Sicilian language:

Dan said...

VDG, welcome to The Missing Piece. I was just poking a little fun at my Welsh readers with my "strange" comment that you pointed out, but (as everyone else tends to point out) I am a strange person.