During the years 2009 – 2011 I traveled with author Laura Tohe throughout the Navajo Nation and beyond to collect first hand accounts of the lives of members of the US Marines known as the Navajo Code Talkers.
These men, forbidden to speak Navajo as students, used their language to create an unbreakable code that helped win the war effort in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese. When they returned home, they were ordered to keep their mission a secret, and thus could not even acknowledge that they had skills such as radio operations or share their war experiences with their families. Nor were they accorded the parades and ceremonies that would ordinarily have welcomed returning warriors.
It was my great privilege to travel with Laura and photograph twenty of these World War II heroes during lengthy interviews that have been recorded and published in the book Code Talker Stories.
All of the quotes below are from Code Talker Stories, © 2012 by Laura Tohe. Photographs © 2012 by Deborah O’Grady, all rights reserved.
Scroll over each image below to see more Navajo Code Talker portraits.
What I used to be as a Code Talker, it was for the love of the people. Every time when I go around, people come around and ask me, “Are you a Code Talker?” “Yes.” “Well, shake hands with me. Thank you for your service and all of that.” That’s the way I like it. I said, “God, keep me until I’m one hundred years old. I want to be one hundred,” I said.
We landed there [New Britain] on December 23 at sunrise. When we landed, we got onto the land where people were fighting. In the morning, stillness. Then suddenly fighting began. We sat all night and the next day. Then the night passed again. In the morning, as we progressed, there was an airport somewhere, and it was December 29.There I was injured. Things became unclear. We spent about two nights on the water’s edge there, I think; I don’t remember.
Why in the heck didn’t they let us talk Navajo over here and now we use it over there? Some things don’t go together. You know, I didn’t even think about those things when I was over there until I came back. I was puzzled about why. And then I kept thinking about it. And then I learned how to pray a little bit, not a whole lot. I prayed for a lot of Vietnam veterans when they were leaving, like when my grandpa used to do it. So I put that thing together with the prayers. See, the animals, the insects, they were made by the Almighty. So they’re just like us, like humans. A life on Mother Earth, birds, eagles, and all those.
When we got to Okinawa, we made a fake landing toward the island and then turned around and came back to the ship. We got orders from the higher up that said you guys can go back to Saipan. We got back on the ship and took off. There were a lot of Kamikaze, the planes that dive onto the ships. We got back to Saipan and after about two weeks, the war ended. That’s when they dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then we got orders to go to Japan. We went to Nagasaki. Nobody said anything about radiation. We walked all over where they dropped the atomic bomb.
Teddy Draper, Sr.
I used the Navajo language to save myself. It is a strong language. I was born with it; it’s in my blood; it’s in my flesh. I used it against the Japanese, the enemy. The way I think of the language – it brought confidence, power and also it blocked the killing. When we used only our language the Anglos say, “It’s a hundred percent.” That’s what it’s equivalent to as it helped us in the war. When I used it, my friends, my white boys, were talking about it. Later somebody explained, “You saved all the marines in your group. And you saved the rest of them.” So it’s a language that’s strong.
[Speaking on how he maintained Navajo culture while in the marines and the power of prayer.] When you want to say something, you go to the highest place. That’s what I had in me. That’s what helped me. I went in that fashion to the war. My language helped me.
Our language was given to us as a sacred language. It was holy. That’s why our language can withstand anything, even when a person is very sick. You can feel it when you really talk to the sick person. It feels like he or she will become well from it. We are in fact medicine men. We thrive on it. We use it to speak and pray with. As another example, when someone is very upset and we continue to yell at him or her, we will greatly negatively affect that person. Even one word is powerful. This is what I was told when my father used to perform ceremonies on me. I keep our language sacred.
George James, Sr.
I think it’s good to educate the kids about where they come from using the language and what their clans are. The medicine man is a part of the tradition. Right now The People have separated themselves from Navajo [spiritual] beliefs. There are all kinds of churches having services and even peyote ceremonies. I don’t belong with that peyote. I got nothing against that. The different denomination of churches, you got them here and you can’t do anything about them. I told my son to write the history of this whole thing. He gave me part of it. I was Councilman for twelve years from here. You can see my plaque there. I had some pretty good responsibilities. These guys want me to go back into politics again, but I’m staying home and watching my sheep and my cattle and horses. I got a little farm.
What did you use to fight in the war? What did you use to kill the enemy? With all in mind, what did you value as you used your language in the war that was won? All in all, it is called “harmony is restored.” We did it for our land. We did it for our people. I stood as life when we used our language. Secrecy of words was a weapon. That same secrecy of words restored the restoration of harmony. For the good of the people, for the security purpose, and for the freedom of America and its allies, that’s what it is, Navajo weapon. From your mouth, it is this way. Not with guns. From your mouth, your words were heard to destroy the enemy; you destroyed all. With that, harmony was restored for our land. This is how it is. You write that down.
It [the Navajo language] was a tool to do the job. On behalf of it, to win the war. That was priority. That’s how we did it. All the boys. I’m not sure about now. It was all about winning. Sometimes I think: I wonder how much a person is worth? What we defended there. Like when you do a very good job, you receive some type of bonus, World War loyalty. How much does a person cost? Consider every single person. That’s how we worked. I also think about that.
Well, the way it goes, I think they’re going to just let it [Navajo language] fade away. I know they want to keep it, but kids have to know English to get a good job. If you’re going to talk Navajo and can’t learn a trade, it’s no good. You have to learn the English. I know we’re losing our language. It’s going to be history. That’s it, so that’s okay with me. Just let it be history that we did that job. It’s good that we did the job and I don’t really ask for anything.
The first thing is to get back alive. Then cleanse your life, and then, of course, a job, education, and things like that. But when they classified [the code], the Code Talkers were told not to talk about it and never say anything about being a Code Talker. But to me, the war is over. That’s the way it is. I even forget about all of the things that I did over there after I had my ceremony. When I used to hear something blow, I hit the deck. It was still in me for a while. That’s why I had the ceremony. But I never talked about it. I never said I was a Code Talker. I was just glad to go back home to my mom.
This is how one starts thinking. When one has relatives here, when one has a mother, a father, anyone, family – for them, one will help his/her people, one will help the land and protect it. This is how it is. So the use of the Navajo language, the one that was never decoded, the secret language, was created to help. The Navajo people did it themselves, no one else. Although the Anglos were in charge, the Navajos were the ones who were asked to do it. “Do it,” they said. They documented it on paper, according to this, they said. That’s how they did it. Those that are here around us on our land – plants, sheep, cows, horses, water animals, mammals. All of their names were used – even us, our prayers that we hold sacred, our clans. And the names of many vegetations were used. That’s why things we have on our land, Navajo language, Navajo prayer, Navajo planning, we value. That’s how it is when you really think about it.
This war and the men and women who fought in the war defended their land. We defended our land. So it is profoundly appreciated. There needs to be unity; one has to believe in unity. If we don’t take care of it, we will destroy it and that destruction will return to us in the future. This is how I think about it.
I think that what the Code Talkers did is bring out, not only as Navajos but all the natives, what we are and who we are. We are examples of Mother Earth. We use all that we have. We use the plants, the animals, the minerals, and parts of our body. That is the legacy that us Indians are all a part of. We understand nature. We can’t get away from that. And we survive no matter what torments we go through; we respond. And that’s why we were stable – to be able to face the enemy, without flinching, without withdrawing. And I think that’s what we are, a tree.
These [medals] they gave to us over there. And some of these they sent to us when we came back. These they gave to us while we were there working with artillery and such. This is for just being in it, being a Code Talker and in the Second Marine Division. This is for recognition, for the work you accomplished. That’s how I participated. It wasn’t only me. I was with some Navajos, but we were not all together at once. We helped each other. That’s how it was.
Samuel Jesse Smith
I didn’t like [going back to Iwo Jima]. I didn’t like eating with the Japanese general. He’s sitting over there eating and we were sitting over here eating on this side. I didn’t like that at all. And then the island was nice and smooth like an apple. No more cliffs, no more foxholes. My son went on a walk to where they raised the flag. I told him that is not the way it was. He felt real bad about it. That’s when he joined me to tell my stories. That’s how war is. War is a dirty thing.
The things we did, using our language in the war saved our country, our people, the American people, and all our allies in the World War II. Don’t forget the Navajo language. There’s a lot that are not talking Navajo anymore like they used to a while back you know. We would want them to carry it on. Maybe some day we might lose it. Yeah, that’s why I always mention that in my presentation to the Navajo kids to keep it going. It’s a beautiful language.
I never got any letter from home, none at all until something like 1998 from the Veterans Office in Chinle. They called me and said “Would you come to the office?” I said, “What for?” “We have to give you something.” So I went over there, and then I found out there was a letter that they kept there all those years that should have come to me. But it was still there. And then I found out it was my mother. She found somebody to write for her to me, asking for help, that they really needed help with money. But by that time, I had already signed a paper that part of my military pay will go to her, whatever is left it comes to me. That was in, I believe it was in 1998, that’s when I found it and I read it. That was something way over fifty years ago. Why they never sent it earlier is beyond me and right now I just don’t know what to think about it. I could have been helping my mother, but it never came around.
Frank Chee Willetto
To our young people, I keep saying in my presentations, you can be whatever you want to be. All you need is hard work. Learn, learn, learn the Bilagáana way. If you decide to come back with your education, you can help our elders and our young people. That’s what I keep telling those [kids], wherever I make a presentation at a school. It’s hard, but the harder you work, the easier life can be. And I try to tell that to the parents – keep your children in school.