Until 1968, the military contributions of a select group of American Indian World War II veterans was classified information. Only now is the full significance of their role in World War I and II coming to light.
As a 19-year-old Marine recruit, Samuel Tom Holiday remembers well the bus ride from his school in Provo, Utah, to Phoenix, Ariz., in 1943. He was traveling farther from his home than he ever had before.
The young Navajo was filled with a loyalty to his land and a young man’s desire to explore new horizons.
After arriving in Phoenix, Holiday took a train to San Diego, Calif., where he entered the grueling challenges of Marine Corps boot camp. “Sometimes you could hear people crying at night because the training was hard,” he recalls. “We (Navajo) were used to hard times because we lived out on the reservation, so it didn’t seem so hard for us.”
Upon his transfer to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., he made an exciting discovery. “There was a whole bunch of Navajo Marines. The first day, a Navajo instructor told me that the reason I was there was to learn the code of the Navajo,” he says.
Philip Johnston, whose parents were missionaries to the Navajos, had convinced military leaders that messages transmitted in Navajo would baffle Japanese code breakers, just as Choctaw soldiers and members of other American Indian nations had done in World War I.
Unlike most languages, Navajo was unwritten and virtually impossible for an adult to learn. Every syllable carries meaning, and sometimes a single word can have four different meanings depending upon intonation. Dialects vary from region to region and even within Navajo clans.
To further confound enemy eavesdroppers, the 29 Navajo soldiers originally recruited for this assignment created a code within their language. They invented new words or combined words to communicate 211 essential military terms. As the war progressed, new terms were added which practically doubled the vocabulary from which they operated, and more Navajos joined the original 29.
“You had to be fluent in Navajo and English,” says Dr. Samuel Billison, a member of the Navajo Code Talkers Association based in Kayenta, Ariz. “A lot of them who took the course on the Navajo code didn’t make it.” About 400 eventually did qualify.
When they completed their training, they were shipped out to the Pacific Theater. “I was up in the front lines a lot of times,” says Holiday, who served in the 4th Marine Division in Saipan, Iwo Jima, the Marshall Islands, and Tinian. “Whenever they needed something—more weapons or more ammunition or even water—we would get on the radio and send messages night and day.”
In the thick of battle, they would send practically nonstop messages for 15-18 hours, passing vital information about enemy fire, troop movement, and the need for medical help. Military historians note that during the first 48 hours of the invasion of Iwo Jima, Navajo radio units sent and received more than 800 messages with 100 percent accuracy.
“My language became a secret weapon,” Holiday says.
Dangers for Holiday were not limited to enemy fire and harrowing island invasions. Twice he was captured by fellow Marines who mistook him as Japanese. “On Saipan, a Marine pointed a bayonet in my back,” he recalls. “I told him, ‘Hey, wait. I’m a radioman. I’m a Marine.’”
On another occasion, he was surrounded by five or six angry Marines who believed him to be a Japanese soldier who had sneaked into camp. Both tense situations required soldiers from his own company to verify his identity.
Valor finally revealed
When the war was over, these “radiomen” were given strict orders from their commanding officers to keep silent about the code because military leaders wanted to maintain the option of using the Navajo language again. “I was told, ‘Don’t ever talk about using the Navajo language in the war.’ I never talked about it for about 30 years,” Holiday says.
When he would be asked about his role in the war, he replied as directed. “I told them that I served with the Marines.”
Finally, information related to the Navajo code was declassified in 1968, allowing the nation to learn about the valor and courage displayed by these American Indians. It was then the term “code talker” was coined.
“Neither my mom nor any of us never knew anything about it until 1968,” confirms Helena Begaii, Holiday’s daughter.
The revelation allowed Holiday and other Navajos to finally undergo their culture’s cleansing ceremony.
“The Navajo tradition is that when a warrior returns from battle, you go through a purification with medicine men,” Begaii says. “When you go through that type of cleansing ceremony, you have to tell all. He couldn’t until 1968. It was still several years later that he finally had the cleansing ceremony done and a few years after that before he felt comfortable telling his side of the story.”
Since then, accolades and honors have been awarded belatedly. In 1971, President Richard Nixon issued Certificates of Appreciation; in 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing Aug. 14 of each year as National Navajo Code Talker Day; and 10 years later, the Pentagon created an exhibit to commemorate their valor.
The 29 original Navajo code talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001—a posthumous honor for all but a handful of these veterans. Other recognized Navajo code talkers received the Congressional Silver Medal. And in recent years, the efforts of code talkers have been lauded at numerous military reunions and special festivities.
“After ’68, everybody said, ‘C’mon over, we want to honor you.’ We were surprised,” Holiday says.
The movie Windtalkers, released this summer, also has dramatically increased the world’s understanding of American Indians’ invaluable service. Holiday and other families whose husbands, fathers, and grandfathers served as code talkers attended a special screening of the film. “I never knew how devastating it was until I saw these older men crying,” Begaii says.
Holiday’s perspective of rising attention is characteristically humble. “(Until 1968), we never knew the magnitude that we contributed to the war,” he says. “We just thought we went in there and fought with the Marines.”
Although some 400 Navajos served in the Marine signal corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II and are perhaps best known as code talkers, American Indian military men have used their native languages since World War I.
A small group of Choctaw soldiers used a code created from their language that baffled German cryptologists during Germany’s final attacks in France. Members of Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage, and Yankton Sioux tribes were known to simply transmit messages via field phone or radio in their native tongue to confuse enemies who were listening in.
During World War II, American Indians in communications proliferated. Hopi, Dakota, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Seminole, and Cherokee soldiers, among others, were known to send and receive messages in the tribal tongues.
Charles Chibitty was one of 17 Comanches who served in the Army’s 4th Signal Company. “They would give me a message, tell me to ‘send it in Indian,’ and they would get it on the other end of the radio or telephone and give it to the commanding officer,” recalls Chibitty of Tulsa, Okla., the lone surviving member of the group. “There wasn’t a soul who could understand what we were saying anyway.”
Although it was believed that German cryptologists could translate some American Indian languages, the Comanche messages never were decoded. This became a powerful secret weapon as U.S. troops prepared for major offensives including Utah Beach and Normandy Beach.
Chibitty, who accepted the Knowlton Award for Army intelligence from the Military Intelligence Corps Association on behalf of his comrades, finds their belated recognition a source of sadness. “I’m the only one getting all the enjoyment of it,” he says.
The notoriety brought because of his service is providing Chibitty a platform for him to affirm the importance of carrying on the Comanche heritage. “I speak my tribe fluently, I still speak it fluently, and I will never leave it,” he says. “I’m teaching my kids it, too.”