WASHINGTON - The upbeat sounds of a Marine band played as congressmen, senators, celebrities and even the president gathered in the Capitol Rotunda for a ceremony rarely held and for a group of men hardly known until they changed the course of world history.
They are ordinary men, older in their years but full of pride for what was accomplished halfway across the world, on Pacific islands unfamiliar to a Navajo who grew up in the deserts of Southwest America.
They are the famous "code talkers," drafted during World War II for a mission to develop and implement an unbreakable code in America's fight against the Japanese, a code many say played a major part in winning the war, saving the lives of thousands.
Now, nearly 60 years later, they have finally been honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the U.S. Congress can bestow.
"It's been a long time coming, but I believe this is the right time because we are still around, a few of us," said John Brown Jr., one of the original code talkers. "Maybe it was meant to happen now."
The ceremony resulted from efforts by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to formally honor the code talkers. He introduced a bill to award the medals last year. It passed both the Senate and the House and was signed by President Clinton just before he left office. President Bush was on hand to issue the awards, offering words of thanks from a country which has long ignored their contributions.
"Today America honors 29 Native Americans who in a desperate hour gave their country a service only they could give," said Bush. "They relayed secret messages that turned the course of battle, while at home they carried for decades the secret of their heroism."
From Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, the Navajo Code Talkers were at every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in Din?, their native language. The idea to use Din? or Navajo came from Philip Johnson, son of a missionary on the Navajo reservation.
Johnson, who served in the military during World War I, remembered that Native languages such as Choctaw had been used to encode messages during his service. He felt the Navajo language could work on a much larger scale since it was unwritten and extremely complex. He met with top military officials and finally convinced them after field tests that showed that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines at the time required 30 minutes to perform the same task.
In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp where they developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words then had to be memorized during training. Once a Navajo Code Talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific Theater.
Throughout the war the code talkers achieved results beyond what anyone had expected, playing a central role in every victory over the Japanese. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, Signal Officer with the 5th Marine Division, said, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
There were six Navajo Code Talkers working around the clock for the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, with no mistakes.
While they served bravely during the war, the role of the code talkers was kept secret by the United States government for 23 years. Officials with the Marines say it was in the interest of national security to keep the code talkers story a secret. However, some who served say it was still too long for a few.
"What makes me sad is that it took them so long to do this that many of the original 29 who came in with us to code talk are know gone," said Peter McDonald, a code talker who served with the original group. "There are also those who died on the beaches with radios in their hands and M-1s over their shoulder that are not able to be here today. This is for them, too."
As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. More than 300 of those trained as "code talkers." A movie called "Windtalkers," staring Nicolas Cage and Adam Beech, tells one story of the code talkers and is set for release in November.