Talking in code: How the Navajo tribes helped end WWII

Thirty-three Native American tribes had members who served as World War II code talkers, amounting between 400-500 men. But for decades, it was classified information and kept secret, even from the code talkers’ families. For the Tlingits, it wasn’t until 2013 that it became public knowledge.

They had a huge impact and the outcome of the war might have been vastly different without them, said Ozzie Sheakley, a member of the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Association, in a phone interview.

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska didn’t learn that Tlingits served as code talkers in WWII until 2008, Sheakley said. The Code Talkers Recognition Act passed that year, and so the U.S. Mint contacted CCTHITA to design the gold Congressional Medal of Honor for the Tlingit people and silver duplicates for the code talkers. Sheakley was the one who was asked to design them.

After a lengthy process, in 2013, the families of the five confirmed and deceased Tlingit code talkers were notified of the long-kept secret. That same year, Sheakley went to Washington D.C. along with representatives from 33 other tribes nationwide, so the code talkers could be officially recognized for their service. Sheakley received the gold medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe and a silver medal went to each of the families of Robert Jeff David Sr., Richard Bean Sr., George Lewis Jr., and brothers Harvey Jacobs and Mark Jacobs Jr.

At the Sealaska Heritage Institute noon lecture series on Tuesday, Sheakley told the audience that the five Tlingit code talkers never breathed a word about their service, following orders. The son of Robert Jeff David Sr., Jeff David Jr., didn’t learn about his father’s involvement until less than two weeks before the recognition ceremony while he was at a veteran’s dinner in Haines, according to a past Empire article.

“It made me really proud of my dad,” David Jr. said, saying he wished he had known but understood why his father couldn’t speak of it. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake.”

While the five men did not live long enough to be able to speak of their time as code
talkers, veterans from other Native American tribes did. One of them was Chester Nez, a Navajo man who served as a code talker in the U.S. Marines. Writer Judith Avila met Nez in 2007 and helped him pen his story, “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII,” and do a book tour before he passed away. Avila spoke after Sheakley at the SHI lecture.

“I want to talk to you today about a really important contribution that Native Americans have made to their country,” Avila said.

During WWII, code talkers transmitted coded messages with military plans and tactics. Unfortunately, she said, the Japanese had been able to intercept and unlock the U.S. military’s codes. In response, the U.S. recruited Native Americans into the military and had them develop codes using their Native languages. These indigenous languages were relatively unknown to those outside the U.S., and the code talkers used their special sets of word in their native tongue so that they would sound like nonsense everyone else. At the end of the war, all of the code talkers were sworn to secrecy about their roles; many died with those secrets left untold.

Through Nez’s life, Avila showed the audience what life as code talker had been like.

“I’m going to ask you to set your sense of self aside,” Avila said. She spoke in the second-person, asking the audience to imagine themselves in the life of Chester Nez. Nez grew up in New Mexico on a reservation where his family worked as sheep herders. When the U.S. Marines began recruiting Navajos for a special, secret mission, hundreds of men volunteered but the Marines only needed 30. Nez was one of the 30 chosen.

When it was revealed that they would be code talkers, the men laughed and smiled at one another, Avila said.

“You must be joking,” was the men’s reaction, according to Avila.

“Because when you went to boarding school you were beaten, kicked, had your teeth brushed with Fels-Naptha Soap if you were ever caught speaking Navajo,” Avila told the audience. “So why would they ask them to use Navajo now? Everyone had tried their best to beat it out of you.”

The code talkers spent 13 weeks developing codes, Avila said.

For the code, Native words were used in place of letters, or specific words became code for certain things, such as calling a fighter plane a hummingbird, a destroyer a shark, or calling a bomb an egg.

When the code talkers were sent to Guadacanal in the South Pacific, some military personnel were skeptical of them, Avila said. But in a test with the regular code talkers, the Native code talkers proved themselves. Standard code talkers needed hours to complete messages, but their Native counterparts needed just minutes.

Avila said after the war Nez married, had children and eventually became a great-grandfather.

For the Navajo code talkers, Avila said, “They were lucky that some of them were still alive and were able to tell their families about what had been done.”

Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

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