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Posted: 7/26/2001 5:23:32 AM EST
Los Angeles Times: Navajos Honored for War of Words http://latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-072601code.story Navajos Honored for War of Words By TOM GORMAN Times Staff Writer July 26 2001 ALBUQUERQUE -- As a young boy in the 1920s, Chester Nez was punished for speaking in his native Navajo language, his mouth washed out with soap by the administrators of the government boarding school he attended. Today, President Bush will present Nez with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, because of his skillful use of the Navajo language as a World War II leatherneck to confound the Japanese in the Pacific. Nez and 28 fellow Navajos formed the original U.S. Marine platoon of the so-called Navajo code talkers, an elite band of radio operators who, speaking in their own complex tongue, passed critical messages between commanders and front-line troops that proved indecipherable to the enemy. Using the Navajo word for "bird" to talk of aircraft, "eggs" for bombs, "beavers" for minesweepers and "tortoises" for tanks, Nez and the others created a code that was written nowhere and recognizable only in the American desert Southwest. "It was all up here," he says, tapping his temple. Use of the Navajo code remained a military secret for more than 20 years, delaying any recognition the Navajo code talkers might have received for their critical role in the Pacific theater. On returning from battle, they told their families only that they were infantrymen. Stoically, they kept their secret until 1968, when the Pentagon finally declassified the tactic. At the behest of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Congress has now taken note of the role of the Navajo men. At today's ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, Nez, three of the four other surviving members of the original platoon and the families of the 25 other Navajo code talkers--most of them long dead--will formally receive the nation's thanks. Nez, now 80 and living in Albuquerque, where he creates pencil and charcoal drawings of animals and Navajo figures, can only ponder the irony of it all. "We often think of how, back in the '20s and '30s, we were told, 'Don't speak Navajo.' They washed our mouths out with soap. It was a bitter, brown soap, and they used toothbrushes to scrub our tongues with it. Then Uncle Sam came along and told us to use our language in World War II. We were very proud. We spoke to each other of how we were the chosen ones, how we were asked to use our language to help win World War II." Nez and the others had no idea what was in store for them when Marine Corps recruiters scoured the Indian schools of Arizona and New Mexico during the spring of 1942. The military had used various Indian languages as code in limited fashion during World War I. Resurrecting and refining the strategy was urgent because the
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 5:24:24 AM EST
Japanese had broken every other code employed by the Allies. The unwritten Navajo language, called Dine', was chosen for its complex syntax and tonal qualities--sometimes nasal, sometimes a gurgling sound that makes it virtually unintelligible to those not steeped in the culture. The Army similarly was recruiting Comanches to serve as code talkers for battlefields in Europe, and Hopis in the Pacific. The Navajo recruits were told nothing of their mission. But to teenagers looking to escape the reservation, the notion of a uniform and a military adventure was all they needed to hear. Nez, approaching his 18th birthday, had figured his future was growing corn, pinto beans and squash like his father, or herding sheep. "The Navajo feeling is to go to the top of the hill and see what's on the other side," Nez said. The 29 young Navajos were sent to the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego for basic training and then to nearby Camp Elliott, where they learned what their mission would be. "The brass came by and told us to use our language to come up with words representing the letters A to Z, and to come up with a code for military terms," Nez said. "They put us all in a room to work it out and, at first, everybody thought we'd never make it. It seemed impossible because even among ourselves, we didn't agree on all the right Navajo words." In some instances, they created Navajo words unknown even to their parents. To this day he can still recite the coded alphabet--dibeh-yazzi (lamb) for L, ca-yeilth (quiver) for Q, gloe-ih (weasel) for W. For 13 weeks, the young enlistees drilled themselves on the evolving code. They showed they could encode, transmit and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds--at a time when code machines would take 30 minutes to perform the same task. "We knew nobody in the world could decipher our code," he said. "It made us feel real proud." In October 1942, Nez and his colleagues shipped out to the South Pacific. Sometimes they performed their radio code work aboard ship, but he said he preferred wading ashore with fellow Marines, "where you could act more independently." He participated in the amphibious assaults at Bougainville, Guadalcanal and Peleliu, and recalls in horrific detail--spawning nightmares to this day--the terror of the combat he and the other Marines encountered. "The bullets are flying behind you, in front of you, beside you," he said. "A buddy of yours gets killed. His body floats beside you in the water." Ashore, the job for him and his Navajo partner was to advance as far as possible and radio back to their counterparts aboard ship what was known of the enemy force, gun placements, and American advances, casualties and other intelligence.
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 5:25:17 AM EST
Once, when the radio broke down and Nez had to run his message to another location, he was detained for two hours by American troops who mistook him for a Japanese soldier. Three of the 29 original code talkers died in combat. Nez escaped injury. "Just lucky," he said. Four members of the original platoon had remained at Camp Elliott after the initial training, to teach the code to other Navajo Marines. By the end of the war, about 400 had been deployed overseas. Nez said he ended his combat tour of duty and returned home before the assault on Iwo Jima. As he left Guam, he watched the formation of the invasion armada, which included replacement code talkers. In the first 48 hours of the battle, the Navajos processed 800 messages without error. Recalled one Marine officer, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." For his part, Nez was assigned to an ordnance depot in Idaho. After the war, he returned home to sheepherding and later pursued art lessons at the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan. Finally, in 1968, he was allowed to tell his family about the role he had played overseas. Said his son, Michael: "As kids, we played army, and Dad never mentioned what he had done. Finally he spoke up, matter-of-factly." Until his retirement, Nez worked as a commercial painter in Albuquerque and, at home, created his own artworks depicting Navajo culture. None of them depicted war. He is eager, Nez said, to see three other surviving code pioneers today in Washington: John Brown Jr. of Crystal, N.M.; Allen Dale June of West Valley City, Utah; and Lloyd Oliver of Phoenix. The fifth survivor, Joe Palmer of Leupp, Ariz., is in poor health and was unable to attend today's ceremony. The code talkers who followed Nez and his buddies into combat will receive the Congressional Silver Medal later this year. The story of the Navajo code talkers is now the stuff of lore. A G.I. Joe Navajo Code Talker action figure, speaking seven Navajo phrases, was released last year; a motion picture about the secret program, "Windtalkers," is being readied by MGM for November release. Nez said he is thrilled by all the attention. But mostly, he said, he is happy that he was able to contribute to the war effort, his nation--and his Navajo people. "It is an honor to be one of the 29," he said. "At one time, I thought we would never be honored, but I hoped. We helped win the war. This is important for the Navajo nation." --- Times researcher Belen Rodriguez in Denver contributed to this story. Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 5:33:04 AM EST
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 5:50:39 AM EST
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 6:21:18 AM EST
Why would they give a Marine a civilian award?
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 6:31:12 AM EST
Originally Posted By garden weasel: Why would they give a Marine a civilian award?
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My thought exactly.
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 6:39:59 AM EST
They deseerve it, the best part of America is all of us.
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 9:56:45 AM EST
Originally Posted By garden weasel: Why would they give a Marine a civilian award?
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While the service was vital, the war would have been won without it. It doesn't rate a high medal for bravery such as the CMH or the Navy Cross or even Silver Star. In my opinion it rates something higher than a Navy Achiement Medal. I think this award is appropriate. For that matter maybe we should give all combat veterans something like this. They put their asses way out on the line for this country and many of them were draftees. I think my old man would prefer cash though, something a little higher than the $51.00 a month they paid him to do it.
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 9:58:36 AM EST
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 10:25:14 AM EST
Read the same article...Amazing. I mostly agree with Goatboy on the second point. However, financial reparations is not going to solve the problem. In an earlier Times there was a feature about a small tribe in a remote area living without electricity and plumbing. I think where our government can make some amends is to improve the lives of these folks in municipal ways. It's much better to take measure that would improve their present and future rather than a one-time payoff. I'm always amazed by proponents on either side of reparation issues not being able arrive at a middle.
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 10:44:08 AM EST
[:O] Hey UB, There is no C in the title of the military Medal of Honor.
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 10:57:29 AM EST
[Last Edit: 7/26/2001 11:03:36 AM EST by gardenWeasel]
Originally Posted By GoatBoy: 2) When are we going to give them back their lands and freedom?
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Originally posted by Buddah:I think where our government can make some amends is to improve the lives of these folks in municipal ways.
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Stop by Foxwoods some time. I can guarantee that the Pequots will give the government zero credit for the success that they have created by themselves. [url]http://www.foxwoods.com/[/url]
Link Posted: 7/26/2001 11:46:11 AM EST
[smoke]
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