My Interview With One of the Last Surviving Navajo Code Talkers
Robert Bluestein, 2015©
I first met World War II hero Master Sergeant Jack Jones and the last dozen Navajo Code-Breakers in September of 2007. The spirit of my mother was with me that day, for her love of Native American culture and my love of History intersected just a day after her funeral. My brothers and I were walking around the square in downtown Albuquerque when we saw this table with all of these wonderful men, completely by themselves. They were just waiting for someone to come and speak to them, for they had some amazing stories to tell.
Me and Navajo Code-Breaker Jack Jones, the day after my mother's funeral. Her love of Native American Culture was one of the great gifts she handed down to me
The Incredible Story of World War II Hero Navajo Code Breaker, Jack Jones
They call themselves the ''Din-e'' and they are among the earliest settlers in North America. They are better known to us as the Navajo Nation. And, when one thinks about the Native American contribution to both World Wars, it's impossible not to think about the Navajo. Their contribution to the American war effort has been recognized by the President and Congress, a long overdue acknowledgement.
The idea that the Navajo language would be instrumental in winning the Pacific theater for America has a touch of irony. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, many American Indian children attended government or church-operated boarding schools. Families were often forced to send their children to these schools, where they were forbidden to speak their Native languages. Many Code Talkers attended boarding schools. As adults, they found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service.
The Navajo weren't the only Indian Nations to contribute to the war effort. The Hopi, Comanche, Choktaw and the Meskwakis all contributed their own languages and unique culture to help America accomplish initiatives without detection.
If you were to visit the Navajo Nation Official website, you would find a proud account of the contribution of their peoples to the American war effort.
''...Navajo Code Talkers At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error....''
In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. Then, at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside , California , this first group created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training. Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Approximately 400 Navajos were trained as code talkers.
Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima: the Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language -- a code that the Japanese never broke.
Long unrecognized because of the continued value of their language as a security classified code, the Navajo code talkers of World War II were honored for their contributions to defense on Sept. 17, 1992, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. Excerpts taken from a Fact Sheet prepared by the Navy & Marine Corps WWII Commemorative Committee.
Vintage Photographs of the Proud Navajo Peoples
The art of decoding in the day could take as long as thirty minutes. A message sent just ten miles would have to be carefully decoded and replied to. In a war that was moving at a Blitzkreig speed, time wouldn't allow so long. Instead, it was to the credit of a Navajo missionary who had fought in World War I to propose the idea. Phillip Johnston met his first Navajo on a covered wagon trip his parents made into Arizona territory. There wasn't another American alive who could speak Navajo. Even today, it is considered one of the hardest languages one can learn.
World War II was a war with few secrets. Allied Intelligence had broken the German and Japanese communications codes. But the Japanese had also broken every code the Americans thought up. Many of the top Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States and were savvy even to local references and slang that the American forces tried to use to disguise their intentions. Their love of baseball and an American boy's love of baseball often got in the way of one another when trying to pass secret codes. The Japanese knew our players as well as we did.
Throughout World War I, the Japanese had proven adept at listening in and deciphering our codes. In World War II. The Japanese cracked every code that the Army and Navy came up with, but not the Navajo. Navajo is a spoken language handed down orally from generation to generation. It was at Camp Elliott that the initial recruits, along with communications personnel, designed the first Navajo code.
This code consisted of 211 words, most of which were Navajo terms that had been imbued with new, distinctly military meanings in order to compensate for the lack of military terminology in the Navajo vocabulary. For example, "fighter plane" was called "da-ha-tih-hi," which means "humming bird" in Navajo, and "dive bomber" was called "gini," which means "chicken hawk." In addition, the code talkers also designed a system that signified the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. For example, the letter A was "wol-la-chee," which means "ant" in Navajo, and the letter E was "dzeh," which means "elk.
The Code Talkers created a system of native words to represent characters of the English alphabet, so that they could spell out English words that had no Navajo equivalent. They also assigned their own expressions, like iron-fish to mean submarine, for over 400 important military terms. Each Code Talker memorized these special words. There were no written materials that could be captured.
Jones was part of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 77 and one of the distinguished Navajo Code Breakers, Winner of a Congressional Medal of Honor in 2001, he and his comrades were instrumental in helping to turn the tide of the Pacific War in the favor of the Americans. He was assigned to the 382nd Platoon at Camp Pendleton.
When I interviewed him, I hadn't cultivated the skills I would develop when it comes down to the art of the interview. It is a short and poignant first hand account that provides a fantastic insight as to what life was like for our nations Navajo code talkers.
Official Letter regarding the introduction of the Native Americans. You can see what the concerns were and how they were addressed in Phillip Johnston's insistence that this was a great move for America to make.
################################################# Eyewitness to History, US Marine Private First Class and Navajo Code Breaker Jack Jones
“Chicken Eggs and Ash Cans"
I was born in Montezuma Creek, Utah. It's quite out of the way but we have been there for generations. Our ancestors belong to the mountains. I was just nineteen but I really didn't know what to do with my life. For the Navajo back then, there wasn't much opportunity. Now I had the chance to see the world and fight alongside my brothers.
Left: Montezuma Creek ''The Ancestors Belong to the Mountains''
When I was drafted, a sergeant came up to me and asked if I was a Navajo. I told him that I was indeed a Navajo and he told me to come with him. We were treated very well actually. But to get through that six-eight weeks of basics was the hardest thing I know I had ever been through. But I am proud to say, the Navajo men in that first group showed bravery and passed easily. Later recruits had a more difficult time. For starters, the language was being put into letters and symbols we had never seen before. A written language didn’t exist!
And secondly, the military often rounded up men from different Indian Nations and assigned them as Navajos. The Hopi and the Yuma peoples weren’t happy about that! Those who didn’t pass were sent out to other branches of the military where they were no less courageous. I run into many people who seem surprised at how many members of the Navajo nation fought in World War II. I think there was probably around 300 of us. The Cherokee, Sioux, Creek, and the Utes were well represented as well. We have always been loyal to the United States, even when they weren't always good to us.
After we went through the Marine Corps' basic training course, we came to Johnston for an extremely intensive eight-week messenger training course Fleet Marine Force Training Center at Camp Elliott.
When I look back on my years of service, I tend to think of the experiences a nineteen year old kid who grew up in the sparsely populated lands of the Navajo and how I got to see so many interesting things.
My longest lasting memory is getting to see the world. Getting to meet people from other parts of the world really opened my eyes. I was in awe of the Australians, the way they spoke. It didn't sound like true English, but it was you know. I could listen to them all day, and they were curious about me. They made the mistake of thinking I was hispanic. ''No, I told them, but we all come from one God.'' One of them kind of laughed and said, ''I guess they do mate.'' And so I thought that was so funny. ''Mate'' I said it all the time then and I guess I say it now. ''Hello Mate!''
You never knew what to believe with them. They would say the craziest things and you would be thinking, 'that is so crazy I might just believe it.'' So you know what they tried to pull over our heads? They said that the Seabees (Navy construction forces) had black people and they told the women that they were American Indians, Some other women, the Seabees told them the military gave them some pills to turn black so they could use them for night fighters. We received many different stories from those people there.
I'll tell you, New Guinea is awe-inspiring. Dense Jungles as far as the eye could see, exotic birds everywhere. While there was always a mission to do, you couldn't help but notice that there are sights here you will never see anywhere else. The fact that there were Japanese on the island, trying to extract its resources, just didn't make sense. It was one of these places too beautiful to think that there could be a war here.
Our moment in the war was the ability to help the American forces in moving to the right places without being detected. We knew the Japanese would barely understand the Native Americans as it was about as far away from their own culture and history as anything they could have imagined. They had such an old and ancient civilization but it is the same now as it has ever been. The Japanese tried but they never could figure out the Navajo language.
I don’t know whose idea it was to use Navajo as a language for military communication but they couldn’t have chosen a harder language. It is even hard for us to learn, and we were raised around it. My children don’t speak it and other than a few of the elders, the language is all-but-disappeared. But they couldn’t have picked a more difficult language. If you weren’t a Navajo, the language was nearly impossible to decipher.
The Marines we served with couldn’t figure out what our role was and they were a little resentful because we were getting special treatment. Some of them singled us out for some pretty rough-neck treatment, but that would all change as the war moved on to its conclusIon. Regardless, we couldn’t tell them, we couldn’t tell anyone for that matter, what we were doing. It was top secret. Our families didn’t even know.
The whole thing was a learning process. We sometimes missed opportunities. We didn’t have military terms in the Navajo code. Getting all of us on the same page was time-consuming and it showed itself at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Because Navajos had trained at different times and worked in different locales, the development of certain dialects and modified vocabularies was inevitable. It also happened that to the white-man in the 1940s, people of Native American descent were lumped together. Our nation is spread out over a wide area and even amongst ourselves the language can have differences.
One day an officer came in with several other men and he was in a state of high agitation. His anger was directed at us. ‘’Jones, do you realize how many people need your skills, and need them quickly? The 1st Marine Regiment, the 3rd, the 5th, the 7th- we may as well go back to the old way of radio two-way if you guys can't get a deliver.''
I never felt so bad. Talk about feeling like I had failed the guys. It made me determined to figure out our end so the guys could talk to one another without the Japanese knowing what we were saying. Well in comes Roy Hawthorne, probably the very best Navajo speaker amongst us. He quickly fixed things by using things we see around us. For instance, we would use the word “hummingbird” in Navajo to describe reconnaissance airplanes. He reasoned, it flies at night. It’s quiet, doesn’t carry any armament, and we said, ‘Well, that’s a hummingbird,'”
But we were a work in progress and the truth was that we couldn’t get things straight amongst us. Many of us were raised in state run boarding schools. Speaking Navajo was forbidden! So as a result, we weren't as fluent in it as we should have been.
In addition, our dialects were slightly different and were detrimental to communication. To offset this problem, officers frequently exchanged us from one division into another to try to endure that the Navajo be "thoroughly trained in a standard Navajo military dictionary."
In New Guinea, we found an outpost in Jayapura where we were to build a tower.
This is the northern part of New Guinea and it is beautiful. Jaya has it all. There is an inlet, a bay, great people who wanted to help us. Just when I was comfortable - we get orders to ship out to Palau. ‘’Where?’’ The guys had to look on a map. At first we couldn’t find Palau. That’s on account of the fact that map we had was cut in such a way than a narrow strip of the middle of nowhere was taken out. And that middle of nowhere was the island of Palau.
The guys talked about it. ‘Is the war really that far out into the open sea?’’ We wondered what could possibly be out there. Many of us would develop the false idea that it would be another building project on a beautiful island. Hey, this war stuff isn’t so bad. Little did I know.
The Beach at Jaya
While we are on our way, we were told to report to the
Infantry Headquarters - way on up the food chain from what I imagined. But then again, we didn’t have a normal job. Even still, we were told, ‘fighting to get there will be hard enough. But once you do, the work begins. Good luck gentlemen.’ And that’s it. Me and Bill Toledo. He's sitting right over there. We've been through everything together.
As we arrived at the islands, the battleships lined up and began firing shells, Wow, what a sight. The sound was so loud. One volley after another hit the mark. The island overlook was burning and destroyed. We watched in awe.
We believed to the last man that any Jap left on the island was probably scared to death. How could they survive that kind of attack? But, as we would learn early on that September morning, the majority of the Japanese positions were completely unharmed. As we disembarked we found ourselves surprised. Even the battalion left to defend the beaches was virtually unscathed. They never fired back as such, and they never gave up their positions. They remained holed up, firing only from their fortified positions, ready to attack the American landing troops.
The Japanese were so crazy, they would tie themselves to tree branches and hang in the trees for hours, even days, just waiting for the enemy to come along. They were almost impossible to see, like true ninja fighters in a way. We had to expend ammunition firing indiscriminately into the trees just in case they were hiding up there. Most of our bullets were wasted, but a few did hit their targets too.
When we got to the beach, some of our comrades had been killed. They were floating with their baggage on their back. I don't think I was prepared to see that. The war didn't seem as real as it did right then. There were a whole bunch of them out there before we got to the beach. Bill and I were together. We said to one another, 'we are getting through this....how we’re going to make it, we don’t know.'
Before the unit attempted to cross the beach, our commanding officer warned us to shoot into the trees, where Japanese snipers would tie themselves to branches to fire down onto the troops. We were really bogged down. We had to carry more than our ammunition. We had heavy radio gear and wires that often got tangled up in your feet if you forgot to tie your nap-sack down.
When we landed on the island, we had to dig foxholes. This was not only hard work, but dangerous too. Snipers were picking us off at will, and men were falling around me. A young soldier from, I think Alabama, was standing right next to me. We’re running through the sand carrying a lot of weight.
All of a sudden, ‘’Blam’’ I was flipped upside down and backwards. When I came to, I wasn’t sure what direction I came from or where we were going. My compass was destroyed and as I looked around, a number of bodies were falling around me. Small Arms Fire suggested that many of our guys might be close. Machine gun fire rained down on the guys trying to advance on the beach.
The guy next to me - his face was just gone. His whole face. Oh what a terrible way to die, so far from home. I kept saying to myself, 'not now - not here,'' You would hear the men crying, they wanted their mothers. You would want to help, but you couldn’t. Some of the wounded guys would get finished off while being dragged to safety. My ears were still ringing and I was sick to my stomach, but otherwise unhurt.
In the dim light just before dawn of the second day, Japanese troops attacked our position and we successfully fought them off. But there was a lot of wounded and dead.
What seemed like weeks had barely been twelve hours. So much was happening that my senses were in overdrive. You'd see guys fall asleep standing up, only to wake up when they hit the ground. Not long thereafter, while still in shock, we had to get moving again. For the second time in a matter of hours. A large explosion, Bam! And I the next thing I knew I was out cold. This time they got me. I woke in a tent where they were trying to take care of me, but I was scared and I panicked. I got off of my cot and ran – I still had IV-bags tied to me but I was out of it you know, completely crazy.
I spent nearly six months in naval hospitals near San Francisco and San Diego, recovering. I had shrapnel in my abdomen, a loss of blood, a screaming sense of fear... and I tell you, these things don't go away just because you are healing. They stay with you and can drive you like a nail being driven into a 2-by-4.
You asked me to tell you about sights, sounds, taste, smell and touch...that’s right isn’t it? Well- a soldier experiences things that he often wants to forget. I do not get to choose what I can forget, because if I did, we probably wouldn’t have nearly the conversation we are having, right?
For me, I couldn’t get the sights, and certainly there are smells I can’t forget. I just can’t forget it. When I was released, I hitchhiked on a meandering path through Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico before he finally arrived at his home in Montezuma Creek. As long as you were in uniform, you could count-on getting picked up.
You want to know something? A soldier is a soldier. Those Japanese were cagey, they were smart, and they were brave. There is a deep respect for guys you are fighting with. I don’t hold no grudges. If I saw one of those Japanese today, I’d reach my arms and hug them like they were brothers.
There were so many Native Americans who fought in World Wars I and II. No one was more loyal to America than the collection of Navajo, Apache, Cherokee, Ute and Sioux American Natives that fought for this country. It hardly seems right, given that we were living mainly on reservations and were treated as second class citizens on our own soil.
We went through the fifties and sixties without much more than a thank you and a paltry pension. When we got word that the president wanted to give us medals of honor, I thought the recognition was nice, but the gift didn’t match our contribution.
In Navajo tradition, a gift is to last a lifetime. This medal means a great deal to me, don't misunderstand... In our tradition, we give animals. Animals procreate and they can make more animals, extending the lifetime of the gift.
And so there would be life made from these animals as a gift. They will increase and take care of them. It’s a life possession as a gift to that family and the bride. That’s the way the Navajo’s use tradition. The Congress did not act according to that system. I felt as if they didn't go too far out of their way to try and understand us.
We realize that it’s not giving enough to what our own contribution was to the war. We left our brothers and cousins and friends out there. In your tradition, they are thought of as 'the lost souls.' But we think of us who live, we are the lost souls, looking and searching to be found. It is those guys whose spirits went to the heavens during the war, their souls have been found. A medal doesn't change any of that, but it's a great gesture. That’s the way I look at it. No apologies. I think we all kind of look at it that way.”
Here in the States, we came back and we were simply the same old Indians. No changes in American culture. It was really depressing for many of us. We were still the bad guys in the movies, misunderstood rather than accepted.
That all changes when you see everyone in those same uniforms. It changes when you hear the roar of the planes, the thunder of mortar fire, the machine gun fire. Suddenly we found equality on The battlefield. Or equality found us! Black, White, Indian, Hispanic, we were all Americans at that time.
After years of being second-class citizens, we were suddenly needed. I made so many friends for life. it We left our minds, souls, and bodies on that battlefield. There is an old Apache prayer that I like to think is what my own life has become.
Looking behind I am filled with gratitude.
Looking forward I am filled with vision.
Looking above I am filled with strength.
Looking within I discover peace.
And I guess that's what its all about. ###
Note: Jack Jones passed away in 2014
This was one of the last gatherings of Navajo Code Talkers - The day after my mother's funeral in Albuquerque in September of 2007. I collected their autographs and spoke to all of them about their experiences