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August 14: A Day to Honor the Navajo Code Talkers

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The Navajo Nation has planned a day of celebration and remembrance to honor Navajo soldiers who created a code the Japanese couldn’t crack in World War II, thereby helping the United States emerge victorious – the Navajo Code Talkers.

"Our Navajo Code Talkers have inspired an entire generation. For decades, boarding schools tried to silence our Native tongue. But when we found out our Diné language had defeated the Japanese, we rejoiced in happiness because we now had heroes who were our own. Our language is sacred, and used by heroes," Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said.

Erny Zah, spokesman for Shelly, said a packed agenda features ceremonies across the Navajo government headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona. The state’s governor, Jan Brewer, will attend a luncheon honoring the code talkers, which in itself underscores the importance of the occasion, Zah said.

“This is the first governor visit since June, when we had governor Gary Herbert from Utah here,” he said. “Before that, there hadn’t been any since I started back in November.”

In all, just over 400 Navajo soldiers were enlisted in the U.S. military, after a non-Navajo who was fluent in the language recognized that it had the potential to contribute to an unbreakable code.

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According to the U.S. Marine Corps Code Talkers website, the Navajo soldiers – some as young as 15 – overcame initial skepticism by their commanding officers and “quickly gained a distinguished reputation for their remarkable abilities. In the field, they were not allowed to write any part of the code down as a reference. They became living codes, and even under harried battle conditions, had to rapidly recall every word with utmost precision or risk hundreds or thousands of lives.”

After their mission was declassified in the late 1960s, popular culture became enamored with the heroes. Code talkers were featured in hundreds of books, a handful of TV documentaries and “Windtalkers,” a 2002 movie starring Nicholas Cage.

Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first annual National Navajo Code Talkers Day on August 14, 1982.

The code talkers’ legacy is alive and well in Navajo country. Relics appear in several memorials across the reservation, including a Code Talkers Museum that opened in Tuba City, Arizona in 2007.

Many World War II veterans are in their 80s and 90s, and only about 70 code talkers are still living including the last of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers Chester Nez. In the past year, Shelly has ordered flags at half-mast to honor six who passed. They included:

  • U.S. Marine Private First Class Jimmy Lee Benally, of Teec Nos Pos, Arizona
  • Sgt. Jimmie Begay, 1st Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, of Sawmill, Arizona
  • Code Talker Samuel Tso, 5th Marine Division, from the area near Many Farms, Arizona
  • Code Talker Frank Chee Willeto, 6th Marine Division, of Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico
  • Code Talker Reuben Curley, 2nd Marine Division, of Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Code Talker Keith M. Little, 6th Marine Division, of Crystal, New Mexico
  • Billy Crosby, Corporal from the 1st Separation Company, Marine Corps Battalion, of Chinle, Arizona