Navajo Code Talkers
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.
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.