Cryptic code

Young Marines honor Navajo World War II vets

Posted 10/23/08

At a time when text messaging has spawned a shortcut version of the English language, one local youth group is turning back the clock to give life to …

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Cryptic code

Young Marines honor Navajo World War II vets


At a time when text messaging has spawned a shortcut version of the English language, one local youth group is turning back the clock to give life to the days when the airwaves were ruled by an ancient language.

The Douglas County Young Marines gained national recognition this year when they were named Unit of the Year by the Young Marines Association, and among the unit’s outreach is a project that spans generations.

The local unit of the Young Marines was instrumental in giving life to the Navajo Nation celebration of National Code Talker Day, honoring some of the nation’s unsung World War II heroes.

The Douglas County Young Marines joined others in a three-state region to celebrate National Code Talker Day this summer with about 30 of Navajo Nation’s celebrated WWII heroes. The Navajo Code Talkers were Navajo tribe Marines who used their native language during WWII to provide secure communications to the frontlines in America’s fight against Japan.

As many tell it, the Navajo Code talkers saw their mission as more than an act of patriotism.

“We were fighting for our sacred land,” said Thomas H. Begay. “A foreign country wanted to take Mother Earth away from us.”

Begay was among the Code Talkers who descended on Iwo Jima in what is widely believed to be a turning point in the fight against the Japanese. The Code Talkers transmitted more than 800 messages during the battle of Iwo Jima. Their messages were the first to make it past Japanese infiltration.

Until the classified Code Talker operation began, the Japanese had successfully decoded every attempt at encrypted radio communication sent by U.S. troops. Historic records show a World War I veteran named Phillip Johnston, raised on a Navajo reservation by his missionary parents, recalled the complexity of the Navajo tongue from his youth and successfully lobbied the U.S. Marine Corps to establish the Code Talker program.

The first Code Talkers joined the Marines May 5, 1942, when 29 Navajos arrived in San Diego for basic training. Unbeknownst to them, they would become part of one of the military’s most powerful secret weapons.

Using a base structure of about 200 words, the Code Talkers memorized code words in their native tongue. Much like the Navajo language itself, the code was never written down — each Code Talker memorized the code.

Every military term was given a code word — the Navajo word for “hummingbird” translated in the code as “fighter plane,” “egg” meant “bomb,” “buzzard” for “bomber.” Other words were spelled out using one of three words to designate each letter of the alphabet.

Each Code Talker memorized the inventory of more than 400 words. The code was never written down until after the operation was declassified.

Only Marines were recruited as Code Talkers, whose task remained cloaked in secrecy until the late 1960s. By the end of WWII, almost 400 Navajo had served as Code Talkers.

The Japanese never broke the code.

This history languished in the cradle of Navajo culture until 2006 when Navajo Nation declared Aug. 14 of each year as National Code Talker Day, said Michael Smith.

Smith is the deputy clerk of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court and his father, Samuel Jesse Smith, is a surviving Code Talker.

The idea to celebrate Code Talker Day as a national holiday was sparked by an Iwo Jima observance in Guam, where Smith met Douglas County Young Marine staff member Brenda Moreno. Moved by the shortage of resources among the Navajo people and fueled with a desire to recognize the WWII heroes, Moreno adopted Code Talker Day as one of the Young Marines’ annual projects.

“I wanted to make [the observance] bigger and better and show we appreciated all the unique qualities of their sacrifices,” Moreno said. “We might not have won WWII without them and I don’t think people realized that. It was important to me for the kids to know what they’ve done.”

The first Young Marine-sponsored observance came in 2007 when Navajo Nation government offices closed and the Douglas County Young Marines traveled to Window Rock, Ariz., the home of Navajo Nation.

In 2008, the youth group was joined by others in Arizona and Utah to descend on Window Rock for a celebration that included a morning parade, a catered meal for nearly 400 visitors, presentations from state officials and Navajo dignitaries and a drum circle dance in honor of the ancient culture.

The day would not have been possible without the help of the Young Marines, Smith said. In addition to the financial support to provide the food, tent and supplies, about 50 Young Marines arrived in Window Rock the day before the celebration to pull weeds, clean bathrooms, mow knee-high grass and pick up trash at Navajo Veterans Memorial Park.

The park sits at the base of Window Rock, an awe-inspiring rock formation the Navajo regard as a “spiritual portal — a window to the deities,” Smith said.

The deities seemed to “smile” on the Young Marines, who worked in military precision from sun up to sun down, erecting the tent, setting up chairs and serving food — all with a generous humility rare among today’s youth.

“We couldn’t do this without the Young Marines,” Smith said.

The day served as a learning opportunity for the Young Marines, who were treated to an impromptu storytelling circle from a Code Talker who confided he joined the Marines at 15 years old, unapologetically underage. His revelation reflected as shock in the faces of many of the Young Marines, students who range in age from 8-17.

Birth records were rare in Navajo Nation and age confirmation was not among the military’s top priorities, said Samuel Smith, who has no relation to Michael or Samuel Jesse Smith.

He recalls returning home from his service as a Code Talker, to face a curious group of Navajo elders. The Code Talker program was military-classified at that time, and Samuel Smith was prohibited from sharing any part of his experience.

His elders, however, showed a fierce curiosity about his mission in Japan. It is tantamount to heresy to disobey an elder in Navajo Nation, Smith said. As he faced the elders and was at risk of showing disrespect by his inability to heed their demands, he was relieved when one sage leader shared words of wisdom that became a lifelong mantra for Samuel Smith.

“‘Leave the war behind you,’ they told me,” he said. “That’s where it belongs.”

The Young Marines returned from their trip with a new appreciation of a piece of the nation’s history.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for our Young Marines,” said Chris Proctor, commanding officer of the Douglas County Young Marines.

The unit continues to gain attention, with the 2008 Fulcrum Shield Award, a U.S. Department of Defense sponsored recognition for success in drug-demand reduction efforts. The Douglas County Young Marines will be the honored guests at the Pentagon Oct. 24, for one of the Department of Defense’s highest honors.

Proctor, his wife, staff member Nancy Proctor and Brenda Moreno will join 13 Young Marines for the trip to Washington, D.C.

Proctor is modest about the recognition for the unit, which he said aims not for accolades, but for outreach.

“I’m very excited. I feel honored,” Proctor said. “We do what we do because it’s fun and because we care about the kids. To be recognized for caring about the kids is nice but it just seems like something we should do anyway.”

For more information about the Douglas County Young Marines, visit


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