It is easy to forget what the world was like in the early 1940s. With the United States being slowly pulled into the escalating conflict in Europe, they suddenly found themselves faced with a two-front war as the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, followed by the Axis Powers declaration of war just four days later.

One of the intelligence weapons the Japanese possessed was an elite group of welltrained English speaking soldiers, used to intercept U.S. communications, then sabotage the message or issue false commands to ambush American troops. Military code became more and more complex - at Guadalcanal, military leaders complained that it took two and a half hours to send and decode a single message.

The use of Native American languages in coded military communications was not new to World War II; Choctaw Indians, for example were used as Code Talkers in World War I. The idea of using Navajo as code in World War II came from a veteran of World War I, Philip Johnston. Johnston, knowledgeable in the use of Native American languages during the first world war, knew of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He was also the son of a missionary, raised on the Navajo reservation, spoke fluent Navajo, and believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an undecipherable code as it was an unwritten language of extreme complexity. After an impressive demonstration, the Marine Corps called upon the Navajo Nation to support the military effort by recruiting and enlisting Navajo men to serve as Marine Corps Radio Operators.

The "first twenty-nine," as they are sometimes referred to, are the first twenty-nine enlistees credited with the development of the original code, consisting of approximately 200 terms. It was designed to be short and concise and used or combined standard native words to create new terms for military hardware. But what proved to be most inventive, and confusing to the enemy, was the incorporation of an innovative alphabet to cover unforseen contingencies. Using this method, the Navajo Code Talker could use distinctly different words for the exact same message, making the code extremely complex, but at the same time improving the speed of vital military communications. Due to its very flexibility, development of the code continued under subsequent Navajo Code Talkers, growing to over 600 terms. By the end of the war the Navajo code, and the very technique by which it was developed, became the most innovative, successful, and closely guarded military secret code of its time.

Between the creation and the code's evolution is a distinction worthy of note. While all Navajo Code Talkers deserve recognition for their contribution to the code's use and continuing development, the original twenty-nine members gave birth to the idea, setting the standard for this living code.



The Code used by the Navajo Code Talkers created messages by first translating Navajo words into English, then using the first letter of each English word to decipher the meaning. Because different Navajo words might be translated into different English words for the same letter, the code was especially difficult to decipher. For example, for the letter "A," the Code Talker could use "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana," (apple), or "tse-nill" (ax). Some military terms that had no equivalent in Navajo were assigned their own code word. The word America, for example, was "Ne-he-mah" (Our mother). Submarine became "besh-lo" (iron fish).

Military commanders credited the Code with having saved the lives of countless American soldiers and with the successful engagements of the U.S. in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo Code Talkers working around the clock during the first forty-eight hours of the battle. Those six sent and received more than 800 messages, all without error. Major Connor declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."


(Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers)

Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced the bill, "Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act," which was signed into law on December 22, 2000. It authorizes the President of the United States to award a gold medal, on behalf of the Congress, to each of the original twentynine Navajo Code Talkers, as well as a silver medal to each man who later qualified as a Navajo Code Talker. These medals are to express recognition by the United States of America and its citizens of the Navajo Code Talkers who distinguished themselves in performing a unique, highly successful communications operation that greatly assisted in saving countless lives and in hastening the end of World War II in the Pacific theater.

The Navajo Code Talkers accomplishment was even more heroic given the cultural context in which they were operating. Subjected to alienation in their own homeland and discouraged from speaking their own language, they still stepped forward and developed the most significant and successful military code of the time.

In fact, the code was so successful that the Department of Defense kept the Code secret for 23 years after the end of World War II, when it was finally declassified in 1968 - and there lies the foundation of the problem.

If their achievements had been hailed at the conclusion of the war, proper honors would have been bestowed at that time. But the Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy, an oath they kept and honored, but at the same time, one that robbed them of the very accolades and place in history they so rightly deserved. Their ranks include veterans of Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa; they gave their lives at New Britain, Bougainville, Guam, and Peleliu. But, at the end of the war, these unsung heroes returned to their homes on buses - no parades, no fanfare, no special recognition for what they had truly accomplished - because while the war was over, their duty - their oath of secrecy - continued. When the secrecy surrounding the code was finally declassified, only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans begin to emerge. After long last, we may finally mark that place in history so long overdue the Navajo Code Talkers.



The Congressional gold medal ceremony was held in the Capitol Rotunda on July 26, 2001, witnessed by a standing-room-only audience. Members of Congress, the Marine Corps, Code Talker family members, and invited guests crowded into the chamber to participate in this historic event, at which President Bush presented gold medals to the first twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers.

Among those honored were: John Brown Jr., Crystal, N.M.; Chester Nez, Albuquerque, N.M.; Allen Dale June, West Valley City, Utah; and Lloyd Oliver, Phoenix, Ariz. Joe Palmer, also one of the original 29, was unable to attend for health reasons. The following Code Talkers were represented at the ceremony by family members: Charlie Y. Begay, Roy L. Begay, Samuel H. Begay, John Ashi Benally, Wilsie H. Bitsie, Cosey S. Brown, John Chee, Benjamin Cleveland, Eugene R. Crawford, David Curley, Lowell S. Damon, George H. Dennison, James Dixon, Carl N. Gorman, Oscar B. Ilthma, Alfred Leonard, Johnny R. Manuelito, William McCabe, Jack Nez, Frank Denny Pete, Nelson S. Thompson, Harry Tsosie, John Willie and William Dean Wilson.

John Brown, Jr. spoke on behalf of the recipients, thanking the President and the Congress. He was interrupted several times as the audience rose to their feet to cheer and applaud. "It seems fitting to be here in the Capitol Rotunda, such a historic place, where so many heroes have been honored. I am proud that the Navajo Code Talkers today join the ranks of those great Americans" Brown said. "Of the original 29 Code Talkers" he continued, "there are just 5 of us that live today - Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, Alan Dale June, Joe Palmer, and myself. We have seen much in our lives; we have experienced war and peace; we know the value of freedom and democracy that this great nation embodies. But, our experiences have also shown us how fragile these things can be, and how we must stay ever vigilant to protect them. As Code Talkers - as Marines - we did our part to protect these values. It is my hope that our young people will carry on this honorable tradition as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow."

Senator Bingaman described the Congressional gold and silver medals as among the most distinguished honors the Congress can bestow. In this case, he added, he also considers it a celebration of human ingenuity and innovation, especially when faced with what seemed to be insurmountable odds. "As a nation," he said, "we are but a product of those who have come before us, and of their accomplishments, their contributions, and their sacrifice in the struggle for freedom and democracy. Through the presentation of this distinguished award, the Congress expresses the gratitude of an entire nation to these brave and innovative veterans."

As we face our current struggles and uncertain times ahead, we may take comfort in knowing we have such notable and excellent examples to follow.



On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented these
medals to honor the 29 Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.

The Congressional medals were designed and struck by the United States Mint.

Front View - Gold Medal

The front of the medal features two Marine Navajo Code Talkers communicating a radio message.

The reverse bears the Navajo Code Talkers emblem, with "USMC", the Marine Corps emblem, and "WWII" centered along the top of the medal.

Back View - Gold Medal

Centered along the bottom is the inscription "Dine Bizaad Yee Atah Naayee' Yik'eh Deesdlii" meaning "The Navajo Language Was Used to Defeat the Enemy."



The Navajo Nation took great interest in conducting the presentation of the silver medals to the Navajo Code Talkers as, according to President Kelsey Begaye, this was a celebration of all Navajo people. On November 24, 2001, the Nation held the ceremony at the Fair Grounds in Window Rock, Arizona, with over 3,000 people in attendance to witness this historic occasion.

The event was significant for several reasons - this is the first time in over 70 years that Congress has authorized the award of Silver Medals, as well as the first time 3-inch diameter Silver Medals have been struck. Each medal weighs 8.1 troy ounces of 99.9 percent pure silver, and is identical in design to that of the Gold. In all, approximately 225 Congressional Silver Medals were presented to Navajo Code Talker veterans or their family members.

However, the search for the remaining Navajo Code Talkers continues, as World War II service records are found and brought to the United States Marine Corps for verification. Earlier this year, Mr. David Tsosie became the most recent member officially identified as part of this heroic group of veterans and, on March 9, 2002, Senator Bingaman traveled to Bloomfield, New Mexico, to present him with this prestigious award.

"Because Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy, they were not properly honored until a few short months ago - some 50 years after the end of World War II. But for Mr. Tsosie, the wait has been even longer," Bingaman said. "I applaud the Pentagon and Marine Corps for taking a closer look at their records, and coming up with information that provides what we suspected all along: that Mr. Tsosie is very much worthy of a Congressional Silver Medal. But most of all, I thank Mr. Tsosie for his invaluable service to our country."

U.S. Army staff Sgt. Richard Boeckner wipes away the tears of his Navajo grandfather, Richard Platero, 100 years old,

Richard Platero

during a ceremony in which he was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal for his contribution as a code talker in World War II