Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The First 29

On February 28, 1942, Philip Johnston had the opportunity to test an idea he had presented to the Marine Corps. That morning, at Camp Elliott, San Diego, he and two Navajo men sat in one room and sent a message in the Navajo language via a field telephone to two other Navajo men in another building with Major General Clayton Vogel. The latter two men translated the message and read it in English to Vogel. The test was a success.

This historical test was included in a presentation "Growing Up with Heroes... The Navajo Code Talkers of WWII: A Daughter's Journey" by Zonnie Gorman. She is the daughter of Carl Gorman, one of the group of Navajos who became the first all-Navajo Marine platoon known as the "First 29." The talk was part of a Veterans' Day Program at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Zonnie spoke briefly about the history of U.S.-Indian relations through phases of Assimilation, Education, Christianization, and Relocation of the American Indians. Given their experiences of being punished for talking in the Navajo language or practicing the customs of their culture, I was surprised to learn how eagerly the Navajo enlisted and volunteered for a project that the Marine Corps would not describe until the men had completed boot camp. (The Marine Corps did not want to omit any of the training that every Marine had to complete.)

On June 27, 1942, Col. James Underhill specifically addressed the all-Navajo 382nd Platoon on boot camp graduation day by noting, ". . . Yours has been one of the outstanding platoons in the history of this Recruit Depot and a letter has gone to Washington telling of your excellence. . . . The Marine Corps is proud to have you in its ranks." But even at this point the men had no idea what the special project was for which they had specifically been recruited.

Then behind locked doors with no outside contacts, the First 29 were told of their mission: develop a combat code based on the Navajo language. The First 29 were to become known as the Navajo Code Talkers.`

Sally McLain, in her book Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers, described the reactions of the men after the realization of the enormity of the challenge faded: "The 'traditional behavior' they set aside during boot camp was allowed to radiate in that classroom. The pride of being able to use their language to aid the war effort was almost beyond description."

In addition to learning Morse Code, panel codes, and radio use and repair, the First 29 had to find words to describe military terms and develop an alphabet. Because they had to memorize the code that eventually reached 678 words, the Code Talkers used familiar Navajo words that could be relatively easily associated with the military word, for example, they used the Navajo word for Hummingbird (Da-he-tih-hi) as the word for "fighter plane." (In 1968, the code was desclassified.)

When it came to developing an alphabet comparable to the military's Able, Baker, Charlie,..., the Code Talkers used two or three words for each letter, for example, the Navajo words for Ant, Apple, and Axe were used interchangeably for "A" in order to make it difficult to identify letters by the relative frequency of its corresponding Navajo word.

Zonnie recounted anecdotes about the experiences of the First 29 as they completed the boot camp training. It was fascinating to learn about the work of the Code Talkers, whose number grew to about 400 by the end of WWII.

A resolution by Congress designated August 14, 1982 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day. Unfortunately, this was only recognized in 1982.

When the Japanese learned about the Code Talkers, the Fuji Evening wrote, "If the Japanese Imperial Intelligence Team could have decoded the Navajo messages, the outcome of the battles on Saipan and Iwo Jima might have been different. Without the activities of the Navajo tribe, the history of the Pacific War might have turned out completely different."

Thank you Carl Gorman (right) and the other Navajo Code Talkers.

I will make it a point to remember your contributions every August 14.

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