Before Keith Little went off to World War II, speaking Navajo had only ever got him into trouble at school.
By the time he came home in 1945, it had proved decisive in winning the brutal campaign for the Pacific and earned him a niche in history.
Navajo code talkers have already been the subject of a Hollywood film and received congressional medals for their war-time service. Now, surviving members of the crack communications team are to be featured on a postage stamp, and the Arizona state legislature plans a memorial to them outside the state capitol in Phoenix.
”Recognition has been a long time in coming, so it is welcome,” said Keith Little (83), who is president of the Navajo Code Talkers’ Association.
Like several of the other code talkers, celebrated in the 2002 film Windtalkers, Little spent a childhood herding sheep on the broad juniper- and sage-covered steppe of the reservation.
When the United States was pitched in to the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941, veterans say many Navajo on the reservation took it personally and rushed to join the armed forces.
”We wanted to get even,” said Samuel Smith (82), who went to war aged 17. ”It was my intention to defend my little piece of land that I was herding sheep on.”
Smith joined the United States Marine Corps with dreams of becoming a pilot. His commanding officers, who were singling out bilingual Navajos for a secret unit, had other plans.
”When they found out I was Navajo, I had no choice. I packed my sea bag and went to Camp Pendleton [California],” Smith said.
The Marines called them Communications Specialists. They were taught Morse code, semaphore and ”blinker” — a system using lights to communicate with other ships.
Navajo who were not truly bilingual were soon shipped out to other units, and the remainder began training in a unique code that substituted Navajo words for military terms.
In the code, the native word for ”turtle”, chay-da-gahi, came to mean a tank; a ”chicken hawk”, or gini, became a dive bomber, while America simply became, ne-he-mah, ”our mother”.
Their job would be to transmit vital battlefield information including tactics, troop movements and orders using field telephones and radios throughout the Pacific War.
It was regarded as secure from Japanese code breakers as the consonant-rich language was only spoken in the US south-west, was known by fewer than 30 non-Navajo people, and had no written form.
”We had to store the code up here,” Little said, tapping his temple. ”All of us became, in essence, a walking code.”
‘Send a tank’
The code talkers served in all six Marine divisions and took part in every assault carried out in the Pacific Theatre, one of the toughest of the war.
Little recalls scrambling down a cargo net with his radio pack and rifle, leaping into a landing craft in the roiling ocean off the Marshall Islands in early 1944. Later he landed under fire on the beach head, sprinting for cover.
The Navajos sent and received messages as war planes raced overhead, artillery pounded and troops fought with fixed bayonets.
”You didn’t know if you would live through it or not,” veteran Jimmy Begay (85) said of the bloody and relentless campaign.
One message he took from a Marine unit pinned down in the Solomon Islands read simply: ”Send a tank with a flame thrower.”
The Navajos’ reputation grew as island after island fell, and was sealed at Iwo Jima, which the Marine Corps took back in a 35-day battle in which nearly 20Ã‚Â 000 Japanese and 7Ã‚Â 000 Americans died.
There, six Navajo code talkers worked around the clock, sending and receiving more than 800 vital messages without error in the first two days of the battle alone.
”Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines world never have taken Iwo Jima,” Major Howard Connor, Fifth Marine Division’s signal officer, said after the war.
Remembering the past
Thirteen code talkers died in the war. Now, more than six decades later, fewer than half of the original 420 men are still alive. The veterans differ on how they would like to be remembered.
For Smith, who went to war as a fiery youngster filled with tales of the forced relocation of Navajos in 1864 and skirmishes with neighbouring tribes, the only tribute that mattered came from his grandfather.
”When I came back he told me ‘grandson … you’re a man now, you’re a warrior’ … and I appreciated that above all the medals,” he told Reuters.
Begay’s grandfather was a medicine man who held a ceremony to cleanse him of combat when he came home from the war and urged him to leave his harrowing experiences on the battlefield.
”He told me not to talk about it, or think about it or anything. ‘If you do, you’ll go crazy’,” Begay recalled.
Little, as president of the Navajo Code Talkers’ Association, takes a special responsibility for safeguarding the memory of the veterans for posterity, and says the planned tributes are fitting.
”This was no ordinary contribution to America,” he told Reuters as he stood shoulder to shoulder with his former comrades at arms.
”The Navajo code talkers did something unique, incredible … and it should be observed.” — Reuters