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Unsung Heroes: The Navajo Code Talkers
Alex Lysenko
Professor Cannon
December 7, 2011
An unsung hero is defined as, “a person who makes a substantive yet unrecognized
contribution or a person whose bravery is...
Navajos to return to their reservation, however, the hardships and miseries endured on The Long
Walk were passed down from...
subversive and armed conflict,” (Aaseng). Thousands of Navajo young men answered the call
and enlisted to join the war eff...
authenticity of the message that were received created a serious advantage for the Japanese army
in the beginning phases o...
Bomber” they said the Navajo word “Gini” which literally translated to “chicken hawk” in
American, (Bixler). The original ...
signalmen. They gave us both 10 messages to send and decipher. Theirs took
almost five minutes to cipher and decode, ours ...
him to fill another roll he was obedient and did as he was ordered, (Paul). Some of these roles
included machine gunners, ...
casualties then Japanese casualties, however without the Navajo Code talkers the American
casualties would have been even ...
involved him being stripped naked and forced to stand outside in 27-degree weather until he
gave up the code. Finally, aft...
Work Cited
Aaseng, Nathan. Navajo Code Talkers. New York: Walker, 1992. Print.
Bixler, Margaret T. Winds of Freedom: the S...
Ringle, Ken. "The Navajos' Incredible, Indecipherable Weapon; Pentagon Commemorates The
WWII `Code Talkers':." The Washing...
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Unsung heroes navajo code talkers

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Unsung heroes navajo code talkers

  1. 1. Unsung Heroes: The Navajo Code Talkers Alex Lysenko Professor Cannon December 7, 2011
  2. 2. An unsung hero is defined as, “a person who makes a substantive yet unrecognized contribution or a person whose bravery is unknown or unacknowledged,” (Unsung Hero). There have been many unsung heroes throughout history, especially during times of war. One such example is the Navajo Code Talkers. In 1942, World War II was in full swing with thousands of lives lost everyday. Back on the American home front in the state of Utah, Navajo Indians started their training in communication with the hopes of being able to improve the information exchange on the War frontline. Very few have heard of the Navajo code talkers, yet thousands of American soldiers owe their lives to these brave men. Despite Utah’s early misdeeds against their ancestors, members of the Navajo tribe answered the call during World War II and through their language and dedication significantly contributed to the victorious outcome of the war. Relations between the Navajo tribe and Americans were filled with missteps from the very beginning. Americans migrated west into Navajo land during the mid 1800s and the two cultures clashed resulting in many disputes, raids, and deaths. The U.S. army decided to deal with the Navajos once and for all. In 1863 the order was given for U.S. troops to trample and destroy the Navajo’s fields and crops, kill the Navajo’s wild game, burn the Navajo’s villages to the ground, and kill any Navajos who put up a fight, (Aaseng). This left the Navajos without food and homes for the winter arriving in a couple months, forcing many Navajos to surrender and walk 350 miles southwest towards Fort Sumner. The walk was fatal and American soldiers provided no mercy. “If someone stopped because he was tired, hungry, or thirsty, the soldiers killed him. If a women stopped to have a baby, the soldiers killed her and anyone who tired to help.” (McClain). When totaling up the deaths that resulted from the walk plus life in the fort, 2,000 Indians lost during the 4-year exile. The US government issued an order that allowed the
  3. 3. Navajos to return to their reservation, however, the hardships and miseries endured on The Long Walk were passed down from generation to generation, never to be forgotten. A generation or two later, Americans and Navajo’s relationship continued to suffer. Americans sought to educate the children of the Navajo people, hoping that through Americanizing the younger generation it would result in the Americanization of an entire people. This happened through sending the children miles away to Indian Boarding Schools in order to teach them English and Christianity. In an interview with Keith M. Little, a Navajo code talker who served in the 4th Marine Division, he talked about his experience in the boarding schools: “We were restricted from talking Navajo with each other at school. If you spoke out in Navajo, even secretly, there were people watching you all the time and tattling on you, you would get whipped or punished for it. That’s how the Christian mission was. The mission was to get the savages civilized and fit them in with American society.” (Selections) Clearly, the American teachers attempted to beat the Navajo language out of the students. The students were taught that English was the only option to succeed in life. Our country is very lucky that many of these students found ways to protest and secretly learn English without losing their native language and culture. Even after the trials the Navajo tribe were forced to face by the US government, when America needed help the most, members of the tribe were able and willing to forgive and serve. In 1940, the Navajo council released a statement that read, “we resolve that the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our government and constitution against all
  4. 4. subversive and armed conflict,” (Aaseng). Thousands of Navajo young men answered the call and enlisted to join the war efforts. These men put the past behind them and served a country that two generations earlier disrespected and killed many of their ancestors. In an interview, Keith M. Little mentions that he is aware that his ancestors were abused, however he was just grateful that they were able to return. He loved his home and his family and would do everything to protect it. (Selections). Harold Y. Foster, a Navajo code talker who fought as a marine at Iwo Jima, tells of his enlistment experience when he said, “I was seventeen and in high school at Fort Wingate in 1942. I wanted to protect my country,” (Kawano). This expression of loyalty to their country is a testament to the type of people the Navajos are. Their ability to forgive and put their lives in harms way to protect their country, changed the course of the war and saved thousands of lives. Little did the Navajo soldiers know, but problems were arising in the war; problems only the nation of Navajo soldiers could solve. A key aspect of war is the ability to transmit information to the different areas where the soldiers were stationed. The Americans struggled with this aspect of the war due to the German and Japanese’s advance ability in breaking codes. This inability to transmit codes without it being deciphered by the enemy hampered the American progression in the war, especially in the War of the Pacific, where the Americans soldiers were more spread out and scattered (Marder). The Japanese not only broke the codes but they also used the codes to send fake messages to US troops stationed in the islands. American troops could not figure out how the Japanese learned to speak English with perfect American accents. The answer came when they found dead Japanese soldier wearing their American high school rings, and when they discovered many Japanese soldiers attended American Universities, (Paul). Obviously, the combination of ineffective transmission of messages to a broadly scatter troop pollution, combined with a fear of the
  5. 5. authenticity of the message that were received created a serious advantage for the Japanese army in the beginning phases of the war. However, things were soon to change. In 1942, Philip Johnson approached the US Marine Corps with a plan to use the Navajo language as a code to transmit information over the radio without fear of it being decoded. Philip Johnson grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and was one of very few Americans who spoke the complex language. The US Marine corps was skeptical of the prospects of success with this idea because they had tried a similar idea with a past war with a different tribe of Indians; however, Johnson was very confident in his idea for two reasons. First Johnson knew that the Navajo language is virtually impossible for an adult to master. The language was so complex due to the fact that every syllable had to be pronounced exactly or else you would be saying a different word then you meant, (Aaseng). The other reason this idea was believed to succeed was because the Navajo tribe was the only Indian group in the US that was never touched by the Germans. Throughout the twenty years before 1941, German immigrants flocked to the US Native American tribes secretly studying their language and culture while using the excuse of being Anthropologists and artists, (Marder). These two reasons combined with a very successful demonstration, persuaded the Marines to allow Johnson to recruit 29 Navajos and begin training them to be, what we now refer to them as, The Navajo Code Talkers. These 29 soldiers never realized what they were signing up for when they enlisted into the Marines with only the knowledge of having a “special assignment”. When beginning the creation process of the code Johnson stated, “my plan is not to use translations of an Indian language, but to build up a code of Indian words,” (Paul). This meant the code involved taking a military word and then creating a code for that word in English and then translating that word into Navajo. An example of this being, when the soldiers wanted to say the military word “Dive
  6. 6. Bomber” they said the Navajo word “Gini” which literally translated to “chicken hawk” in American, (Bixler). The original plan was to take 211 of the most common military words and create the code. They also created a system that allowed them to spell out words if they did not have a code word for it. This method was created using common words, like animals, and taking their first letter to represent the code, for example, ant (Wol-la-chee) for A and mouse (Na-as- tso-si) for M, (Paul). The code became even more complex when they created multiple words that could be used to represent the alphabet. This method was used to eliminate the possibly of the German army seeing the frequency of certain words to break the code, (Purdum). If the code was not already hard enough, to top it off, the Navajo soldiers had to memorize everything, none of this was written down. They did not want to take the chance of the enemy getting hold of a written copy of the code. These 29 soldiers spent countless hours creating and then memorizing this complex code. As the war progressed, because the code continued to prove successful and reliable in training camp, the Marine Corps finally gave the program the stamp of approval and permission to recruit more Navajos in order to expand the project. When believed ready, the code talkers were sent to change the course of the war in the pacific islands. Upon first arriving to the battlefield, the Navajos proved little assistance. The commanding generals did not trust the program, therefore they used the Navajos as regular soldiers rather than the secret weapons they truly were. Chester Nez, one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers who developed the code, relates his experience when first arriving in the pacific islands and one of the events that led to the commanding officers change of heart: “At first there were quite a few generals and commanders who didn't think it was going to work. So they set up two communications centers, one run by white
  7. 7. signalmen. They gave us both 10 messages to send and decipher. Theirs took almost five minutes to cipher and decode, ours took one to two minutes,” (Chester). After experiences like these, which were common in the beginning usage of the Navajos, the code talkers began gaining the recognition and usage in which they deserved while out in battle. The Navajo code was by far the fastest and most accurate code the Americans used throughout the war and the only one the Japanese could not decode. The code was created so beautifully that not only the Japanese failed to break it, but English and Non-code-talking Navajos could not make sense of it as well, (Ringle). The code also proved effective because it could be modified and adapted to special needs while out in the field. As the war continued, advancements in military weapons and methods resulted in the need for new words in the Navajo code. The code talkers took this challenge and effectively expanded the code in order to meet the required needs in the war, (Paul). This exemplifies the masterpiece of this invented code and the foresight the original creators had to create a complex by adaptable code. From this we see benefits of the code talker’s presence in the pacific islands. Interestingly the Navajo soldiers did more then just man the communication posts; they also proved beneficial to the war efforts through their dedication and determination while participating in regular combat. The Navajo soldiers attended a boot camp before receiving training with the code. This allowed the soldiers to participate in regular combat as well as participate as radio communicators. The Navajo code talkers knew how important their job was in the war however; this did not keep them from filling other roles that were needed in battle. One soldier recalls being sent to an area to be in charge of a radio station however, when his commander assigned
  8. 8. him to fill another roll he was obedient and did as he was ordered, (Paul). Some of these roles included machine gunners, infantrymen, and stretcher-bearers, all essential to the maintenance of the frontline. Many times as the soldiers engaged in combat they would hear the words “Arizona” or “New Mexico” transmitted over the radio which signaled the transmission of a Navajo message. No matter what they were doing and no matter how far away they were, these Navajo code talkers would drop what they were doing and make their way over to the communication post to receive and decode the message. This took courage and dedication because, for the most part, the code talkers were positioned on the frontlines with the rest of their battalion. Many Navajo Code Talkers lost their lives on the front lines. They participated as runners to carry messages from headquarters to the frontlines, many times while just carrying the radio and no weapon, (Kawano). This was a highly dangerous job; however, they courageously ran back and forth day and night showing bravery and dedication to the war effort. The Navajo code talkers were a special type of soldier who, because of their culture and the way they were raised, went above and beyond in their assigned labors. It is clear that they enhanced the war effort through their hard work and determination; however, the real impact they left on the war was through their unbreakable code. By the end of the war, every American battalion in the pacific islands had Navajo code talkers transferring messages. They had become such essential resources to the war efforts that commanding officers assigned bodyguards to protect them everywhere they went. Unlike the average soldier, they had a weapon that was irreplaceable, thus requiring extra protection and caution on the battlefield, (Paul). More and more Code Talkers received protection as their code continued to make a difference in battles such as Iwo Jima and military expeditions involving the air force. Iwo Jima was the only battle in the Pacific islands that resulted in more American
  9. 9. casualties then Japanese casualties, however without the Navajo Code talkers the American casualties would have been even more fatal. The entire operation was directed by Navajo code and throughout the two days following the landing on the island, six Navajo code talkers worked nonstop to receive and send messages. In that time, they sent and received over 800 messages without a single mistake. Commenting on the overall battle, Major Howard Conner, the Fifth Marine Division's Signal Officer said, “Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima,” (Wilson). Another situation in which the usage of the Navajo code saved lives was in the Naval Air Force communication post. Bombers were being sent to attack islands in the pacific, however the Japanese were able to break the codes. This gave the Japanese a superior advantage as they deciphered exactly where the US planes were going to hit allowing them the foreknowledge to be ready to defend. Many bombers and other planes were gunned down never to return to safety. Finally, the Air force brought in eleven code talkers to man the communication post and prevent the Japanese from gaining any knowledge of their planned attacks, (Paul). The Navajos ability to code the planned attacks saved hundreds of US soldier lives and helped to turn the tide in favor of the US Military as it fought the war of the Pacific against Japan. Overall, the greatest example of the extent in which the Navajo Code influenced and changed World War II is found in one man’s experience. Sgt. Joe Kieyoomia was a Navajo Native American who fought in the army and was captured in 1942 resulting in him spending 43 horrific months in the hands of the Japanese. When the Japanese learned that he was Navajo, they brought him words written in Navajo and told him to translate. He was able to tell them the literal translation into English however; this was of little use to them because Kieyoomia did not know the Navajo code. The Japanese tried to beat the code out of him. One such beating
  10. 10. involved him being stripped naked and forced to stand outside in 27-degree weather until he gave up the code. Finally, after an hour he was allowed to come inside, the soles of his feet were ripped off when he was shoved inside because they had frozen to the ground. He was beaten daily and when telling about the experience he stated, “I wanted to die…many times, I thought I was close, (Korte). From Kieyoomia’s experience, it is clear how effective the code was against the Japanese. The Japanese no longer had the advantage and they were doing everything in their power, including torturing US soldiers, to gain the advantage back. The Navajo code completely changed the dynamics of the war. Looking back on his experience Kieyoomia said, “I salute the Code Talkers…and even if I knew about their code, I wouldn't tell the Japanese," (Korte). Thousands of American soldiers who served along side the Navajo Code Talkers share similar feelings and owe their lives to these valiant and dedicated soldiers. Quietly and silently, the unsung heroes altered the effectiveness of the U.S. Military during World War II and earned the honor and respect of their fellow marines and leaders. Most Marines and Army personnel never had a clue what the ‘coders’ were and what major part they played in the war. Davey Baker, a fellow solider who worked along side the Code Talkers stated, “If God alone may know, they saved thousands of American lives, yet their tale had been hidden by the very role they played: Talk silent, speak swift, stay alive,” (McClain). Although it took the U.S. government 40 years to recognize the Navajos for their contribution, those who served along side them never forgot the sacrificing service that was rendered by the Navajo Code Talkers. Grateful we are for the integrity of these fine soldiers, which allowed them to serve this nation with Honor and Valor.
  11. 11. Work Cited Aaseng, Nathan. Navajo Code Talkers. New York: Walker, 1992. Print. Bixler, Margaret T. Winds of Freedom: the Story of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. Darien, CT: Two Bytes Pub., 1992. Print. “Chester Nez, a Navajo Code Talker, Interview by Peter Lennon. Spartacus Educational. 23 Aug. 2002. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWnavajo .htm>. Kawano, Kenji. Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Pub., 1990. Print. Korte, Tim. "How Effective Was Navajo Code? "One Former Captive Knows"" "the People's Paths Home Site" North American Indian & Indigenous People. Alpha Institute, 1997. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://www.yvwiiusdinvnohii.net/articles/navcode.htm> Marder, Murrey. "Navajo Code Talk Kept Foe Guessing." New York Times 19 Sept. 1945. The New York Times. 19 Sept. 1945. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://query.nytimes.com/mem /archive/pdf?res=F60E1EFB345F1B7B93CBA81782D85F418485F9>. McClain, Sally. Navajo Weapon: the Navajo Code Talkers. Tucson, AZ: Rio Nuevo, 2001. Print. Paul, Doris A. The Navajo Code Talkers. Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1973. Print. Purdum, Todd S. "Code Talkers' Story Pops Up Everywhere." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 11 Oct. 1999. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.
  12. 12. Ringle, Ken. "The Navajos' Incredible, Indecipherable Weapon; Pentagon Commemorates The WWII `Code Talkers':." The Washington Post 18 Sept. 1992, Style sec. Print. "Selections from Interview with Keith Morrison Little." Interview. The Navajo Language: A Blessing in Disguise. BP Computer Services, 23 Jan. 2005. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://www.bpcomp.com/history/interview_transcripts.html>. "Unsung Hero." Dictionary.com. 2011. Web. 02 Dec. 2011.<http://dictionary.reference.com /browse/unsung+hero>. Wilson, William R. "Code Talkers." American History 31.6 (1997). World History Collection. Weider History Group, Jan.-Feb. 1997. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://sfx.lib.byu.edu/ sfxlcl3?genre=article>.

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