In the early months of World War II, Japanese cryptographers, many of whom were graduates of American universities, had been extremely successful in unraveling U.S. military codes being used in the Pacific. At the suggestion of Philip Johnston, a Los Angeles engineer who had, as the son of missionaries, grown up on the Navajo reservation, the U.S. Marine Corps embarked on an ambitious project to devise a more secure code based on Diné Bizaad (Navajo), a complex language that, at the time, was understood by just a handful of non-Navajos.
In the spring of 1942, 29 Navajo recruits at Camp Pendleton in Southern California designed a code that eventually was used to transmit vital tactical information in almost all major Pacific island battles. Never broken, the code, which was implemented by more than 400 Navajo "code talkers," has been credited with shortening the war, saving countless lives on both sides of the line.
You would think that the code talkers would have returned home as heroes. However, that wasn't the case. The code remained classified until 1968—it was used during the Korean War and early in the Vietnam conflict—and the code talkers were admonished not to reveal, even to their families, their wartime activities. Consequently, they melted back into civilian anonymity almost as if the war had never happened.
Once the code was declassified, the code talkers' saga finally began to emerge. In 1982, President Reagan designated Aug. 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day. There has also been a spate of books—and the film Windtalkers—chronicling their exploits. Still, their story remains one of the lesser-known aspects of WWII.
In 2007, Arizona State University English professor Laura Tohe, whose father was a code talker, began an extensive search for surviving code talkers, with the goal of recording their recollections. In all, she interviewed 20 elderly code talkers and relatives of several deceased code talkers. The result is Code Talker Stories, an affecting collection of remembrances that detail in the code talkers' own words their military involvement. Infused with feeling and wisdom, these stories give readers an illuminating glimpse of Navajo culture, a way of life that helped ready the code talkers for the rigors of warfare.
Surviving code talkers are now in their 80s and 90s, an age when memory often begins to dissolve. However, the majority of those interviewed by Tohe describe their wartime experiences with remarkable, almost cinematic, clarity, providing detailed accounts of the code's creation, the pressures involved in transmitting messages quickly and accurately while under fire, and the horrific carnage they witnessed, including a graphic depiction of mayhem on the beach.
"The bullets were hailing down," says Teddy Draper Sr., of the assault on Iwo Jima. "A lot of marines died. Their positions were—sitting down, looking that way, two of them together, and some of them laying with no head. Many of them had their brains exposed. They were really white. And then the bleeding. Most of the crew were on the sand and bloody."
Only a few code talkers died in the war, but it took a toll on all of them, many returning home with PTSD and substance abuse problems. However, most maintain that they were better prepared for military service and its aftermath than many of their fellow soldiers. Physically, they were in peak condition, having grown up living the harsh, sheepherding life of the reservation. Psychologically, they were nourished by Navajo spirituality, especially by the traditional blessing ceremonies, which they believed protected them during battle and, once they returned home, cleansed them of the toxic effects of war.
As living links to an earlier era, the code talkers lament the gradual disappearance of traditional Navajo culture under the tide of modernism, especially the diminishing use of Diné Bizaad. The code talkers, many of whom, ironically, were punished as children for speaking Navajo in government-run boarding schools, see the language as more than just a distinctive linguistic system. Central to Navajo identity and worldview, it is looked upon as a living force, imbued with mystical properties, a repository of native teachings and a formidable weapon.
"It is a strong language," Draper says. "I was born with it; it's in my blood; it's in my flesh. ... I talked to a lot of leaders in (the) Marine Corps, who said that if the 'Navajo language was not used, you would not be sitting here now, my child.' The war was won because of the Navajo language."