Decyphering the Navajo code
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Speaker discusses the wartime cryptography effort
One of the few Navajo code talkers employed during World War II received a warm welcome from students Nov. 19 when he and other veterans spoke at a lecture at the Student Union, hosted in honor of Native American Heritage month.
The lecture began with LeRoy Spotted Eagle, a spiritual leader for the Paiute tribe, and other Native American veterans presenting the colors. Spotted Eagle spoke briefly, lending some context to the events that took place and discussing his recruitment into the armed forces.
Samuel Holiday was recruited by the United States Marine Corps when he was 19 years old, after growing up on an Indian reservation in Monument Valley, Utah and attending a government boarding school.
Now 85 years old, Holiday travels around the country educating individuals of all ages and experiences about the role Navajo code talkers played in World War II.
A student who attended the lecture asked whether Holiday was aware of the special training that awaited him when he joined the Marine Corps.
“I went to war,” he replied, citing promises made by the recruiters that his mother would have a house with electricity and running water if he joined.
It wasn’t until Holiday arrived at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. that he found out about and received the language training necessary to be a code talker.
The promise was never fulfilled.
Because the Japanese were adept at cracking American codes, U.S. forces found themselves at a disadvantage in strategizing and communicating secretly with their own soldiers.
A man named Philip Johnston, a son of a missionary to the Navajos, was one of the few non-Navajos that was fluent in the Navajo language. Johnston proposed using the language as an undecipherable military code, claiming that Navajo was ideal because at the time it used no written alphabet.
About 420 U.S. Marines received training in this code and an estimated 258 served as active “code talkers” in battle.
Holiday, one of those who did see action, explained how a coded message that he transmitted led to the fall of Japanese troops sent to reinforce Axis forces in Saipan.
Holiday also discussed his childhood, speaking highly of his upbringing on the reservation.
“I learned the traditional Navajo life… the culture,” he said.
Spotted Eagle agreed.
“We grew up and there are a lot of teachings that come from our grandmothers and our grandfathers that tell us how to become good human beings and how to treat one another,” he said. “If you had it, you offered it to somebody else.”
Helena Begaii, Holiday’s daughter, accompanied Holiday to the lecture, helped introduce her father and answer questions about his experiences in the war.
Begaii explained that because the Navajo language doesn’t have words for military-related objects —”tank” for example — any sea-, sky- or land-based vessel was assigned an animal from these three respective platforms, like “whale” or “hawk.”
Begaii related a story about how two Navajo speakers were captured by Japanese forces, tortured and held as prisoners of war because they spoke the language that the Marines were using as code.
“It didn’t help them,” Begaii said. “They didn’t understand why a hawk was in the middle of the ocean, killing a whale. Those were the words they heard.”
Ashley Smith, a member of Students Organizing Diversity Activities, spoke about the importance of educating students and the public about these contributions made to history.
“I think it’s important for the students to learn something that they might not have in their regular classes,” said Smith. “I think our job is to maybe hear what it was like from a code talker’s perspective… to be in the war but not be able to speak about what they did for 60-plus years.”
Having been deemed top-secret by the federal government, the code talkers themselves were prohibited from speaking about their experience for long after the war. The code wasn’t declassified until 1968, and shortly thereafter the code talkers received Congressional Medals of Honor for their service.
“I’m very proud of my father,” said Begaii. “I’m proud of all the Navajos that were code talkers.”