Navajo Code Talkers Honored

Bush fawning over embarrassed Navajo veteran.

BBC Photo

One of the "code talkers," Sam Billison, had mixed feelings: "We're happy but we're also kind of sad. It's taken so long to do this."

He remembers being punished at school for speaking Navajo.

BBC Story

The story of Washington's recognition of the American Indian Code Talkers is a case study of our cultural problems when it comes to Native American peoples. It made BBC online when President Bush's kid had a ceremony honoring the most celebrated of them, fifty-six years late.

The ceremony singled out the twenty-nine Navajos who developed the code used by about three hundred Navajo radiomen to communicate in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Only five of the twenty-nine survive; four attended the ceremony. For Indian peoples, it was a belated, overdue recognition, and less than was warranted.
Photo of same event

CNN photo reprinted in The Navajo Times

As Senator Jeff Bingaman (Dem., New Mexico) stated, explaining the legislation he sponsored to bestow this honor, "These unsung heroes returned to their homes on buses – no parades, no fanfare, no special recognition for what they had accomplished" (NY Post, July 28, 2001).

The least of the issues worthy of note is Washington's insensitivity to cultural values. The picture that the BBC chose to accompany the story is a case in point. The soldier being "honored" is not even identified. Is he Sam Billison, quoted in a sidebar? And there is the spectacle of the President of the United States shoving his grin into the respectfully downcast face of the honoree. The Navajo Times chose to share a moment less degrading for the Navajo veteran.

Equally frustrating, I suspect, is the singling out of the Navajos for a contribution that many other tribes also made to the war effort. The use of Indian languages as a military code dates at least back to WWI,

I haven't seen these, but they sound very good. Navajo Code Talkers, a 1994 documentary, appears to be the same 50-minute video offered in VHS and DVD formats on The History Channel.

However, if you go to VisionMaker, you will also find another half-hour video with the same title, produced in 1996 by Native Film and Video from archival footage of WWII. This web site includes a clip from the video, but unfortunately only in RealNetworks (RAM) format.

VisionMakers is a real treat. In their offerings your will find Uncle Sam's Men, the story of the Alaskan Territorial Guard, the predominantly "Eskimo" soldiers, men and women, who protected Alaska from the threat of Japanese invasion during WWII.

when Choctaw soldiers created a code to send messages that could not be understood by their German enemies. And while the Navajos were providing a vital service to the Marine Corps in the Pacific, "the Comanche Signal Corps" was baffling Hitler's German military intelligence. The Comanches are the subject of The Comanche Code Talkers in World War II.

You can find the official story of the Navajo Code Talkers at the web site of the Naval Historical Center, as well as other official military sites. The National Security Agency museum actually has an exhibit dedicated to them. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D, New Mexico), who spearheaded the drive to recognize the Navajos, maintains an elegant tribute to them at his official site. An excellent summary article on the code talkers, with a bibliography, can be found at John Shepler's online magazine. CBS News provided a good article on the honor ceremony with solid background information.

For a more personal view, check out the site maintained by Harrison Lapahie, Jr., a Navajo whose father served in the Code Talker units. The newspaper Indian Country has done a feature on Lapahie that tells the story of the code talkers.
Carl Gorman, USMC code talker

Carl Gorman,
USMC Code Talker

Another personal site tells the story of Samuel Tom Holiday, a code talker from Kayenta.

Online Indian magazine Cantu Ota has done a feature on the code talkers as well as a news story on the ceremony with a great photo spread. In November of 2001, this obscure bit of WWII history got some national attention in that peculiarly effective American way, through the release of a feature film, starring Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach. Inexplicably, the film is called Windtalkers. For a documentary on the Code Talkers, try Navajo Code Talkers: The Epic Story; the exit wounds won't be as exciting as in the Hollywood version, but the story is true.

The largest group of code talkers were Navajos who provided the U. S. Marines with an unbreakable code credited with winning them the Battle of Iwo Jima. (A battle also significant in Indian military history because Pima soldier Ira Hayes helped raise the U. S. flag there and thus became part of what may be the most well-known image of that war.) There were Choctaw code talkers instrumental in battles of WWI, and Comanches, among other tribes – Hopis, Kiowas, Winnebagos, Seminoles, and Cherokees– contributed to both world wars in Europe.


Windtalkers, a John Woo offering long on cartoon heroics, short on facts, and focused on the interesting white guys of course rather than the Indians, is to be missed.
It seems the code talkers were so important to the war effort that superhero white guys (Nicholas Cage, somebody Slater) were assigned to each of them as bodyguards, with instructions to kill them rather than let them be captured by the Japanese. In other words, the usual Hollywood crock, with USMC and MSG.
If you buy it anyway, get the Collector's Edition DVD for a 23-minute extra that includes conversations with the real code talkers, including Sam Billison, and a 9-minute clip honoring the surviving Navajo veterans.

Professor William C. Meadows' The Comanche Code Talkers in World War II (University of Texas Press) documents the tribes that participated in this aspect of our military history.

The Navajo code was simple enough. Using a combination of word substitutions, simple letter keys, and the main ingredient, the Navajo language, strategically positioned radio operators were able to relay information in a way that the Japanese found uncrackable. Even when they managed, eventually, to determine that the language base was Navajo, they couldn't get past the simple codes because they couldn't find a Navajo speaker with experience breaking codes. Navajo, contrary to folk wisdom, is no more related to Japanese than English, Spanish, or French are.

The Navajo code talkers played an essential role in the war in the Pacific, and their fellow American Indian patriots served similarly in other theaters of the war. Yet, as with many ethnic groups, their unique role has been lost in the history books and the commemorative events of our government. And now that they have been "discovered," they are being singled out at the expense of the men of other tribes who made similar contributions.

Go to the Indian sites, and you will find encomiums to these patriots. It is another of the peculiar ironies of our history, the depth of American Indian patriotism.
Corporal Lloyd Oliver, USMC. From Sen. Bingaman's tribute site

Corporal Lloyd Oliver,
USMC, Navajo Code Talker

To the canting liberal, there seems to be a terrible irony in the spectacle of Indian Viet Nam vets in uniform parading the colors at a powwow. It's a matter of clarifying what you mean by "country." For Indian people, the "country" is the land itself, their land, currently occupied by an invading force. As Purple Heart recipient Wallace McGilbert Sr., cousin of code talker William Dean Wilson, said, speaking at the Washington ceremony, "This was our country, too. We wanted to defend our people, our freedom and our religion. I hope the American people will remember us."

Related Links:

Click here The Comanche Code Talkers of WWII.

Click here  The Dictionary of the Navajo Code.

Click here The Navajo Code Talkers Room at the Gallup Cultural Center.

Click here The statue honoring the Navajo code talkers in Phoenix, Arizona.

Click here A brief article on the WWII Comanche code talkers.

Click here Interview with code talker Carol Gorman at USC [requires RealAudio plugin].

Click here The Naval History Center maintains a valuable bibliography of publications on the code talkers, including newstories from the WW II era.

To Read About the Code Talkers (books at

Click here Navajo Weapon, by Sally McClain. A new book, including some discussion of contemporary recognition of the Code Talkers.

Doris Paul's ground-breaking history of the Navajo code talkers.

Click here The Navajo Code Talkers (25th Anniversary Edition), by Doris A. Paul. The definitive history.

Click here Navajo Code Talkers, by Nathan Aaseng. For young adult audiences.

Click here Winds of Freedom: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, by Margaret T. Bixler.

Click here Unsung Heroes of World War II: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers, by Deanne Durrett. Young Adult.

Click here Philip Johnston and the Navaho Code Talkers, by Syble Lagerquist. Johnston is credited with the idea of using the Navajo language as a code.

Click here Navajo Code Talkers: Native American Heroes, by Catherine Jones.

Most current history of the code talkers.
Warriors, by Kenji Kawano with Carl Gorman

Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, by Kenji Kawano.

Kenji Kawano's father served in the Japanese Army in WWII. He met code talker Carl Gorman on a trip to Arizona.

This book is the result of their friendship and collaboration. Kawano honors the surviving Navajo code talkers with a photographic record of their patriotic service.

A comprehensive site on the Code Talkers,, appears to belong to the author as well.

Top Dancing Badger Home Book Reviews [mainly]
Go to Powell's Books
Search for out-of-print titles on the code talkers at Powells.