Young Marines Meet Living History During Navajo Code Talkers Day

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More than 100 members of the Young Marines traveled to Window Rock, AZ, to be part of Navajo Code Talkers Day. The Young Marines not only met code talkers, they participated for three days acting as escorts for the very special Word War II veterans.

Samuel Tom Holiday, a Navajo Code Talker marches in the parade in front of the Young Marines at Navajo Code Talkers Day in Window Rock, AZ

Samuel Tom Holiday, a Navajo Code Talker marches in the parade in front of the Young Marines at Navajo Code Talkers Day in Window Rock, AZ

More than 100 youth members of the Young Marines traveled to Window Rock, AZ, to be part of Navajo Code Talkers Day which was Wednesday, Aug. 14. Twenty four veteran Navajo code talkers attended.

Every year since 2006, Young Marines from across the country gather in Window Rock, AZ, to honor and give praise to the Navajo code talkers from WWII. The Young Marines’ theme for 2013 was “Teaching Today’s Youth about Yesterday’s Heroes.”

“It was a privilege to educate the Young Marines about the role of the Navajo code talkers and give them the opportunity to meet these living heroes,” said Michael Smith, coordinator of Navajo Code Talker Day and son of Samuel Smith, Navajo code talker.

The Young Marines not only met code talkers, they participated for three days acting as escorts for the very special veterans. They also cleaned up Veteran’s Memorial Park, attended a class about the Navajo code talkers, set up flags and marched in the Navajo Nation parade as well as provided gifts for the Navajo code talkers and their wives. The Navajo Nation put on a cultural class especially for the Young Marines, and the next day, the Young Marines visited the Navajo Nation Zoo and the Navajo Museum.

The following units attended:

  •     Hamilton – Nottingham, MD
  •     Quantico – Manassas, VA
  •     South East County - Seal Beach, CA
  •     Col. Wesley Fox – Sterling, VA
  •     Mountain View – Highlands Ranch, CO
  •     Douglas County – Aurora, CO
  •     Monument – Colorado Springs, CO
  •     Temecula Valley – Winchester, CA
  •     Chandler Mustang - Chandler, AZ
  •     Southland – Montclair, CA
  •     Columbia River – Kennewick, WA
  •     Flat Irons – Thornton, CO
  •     Poudre River – Greeley, CO
  •     Mile High – Aurora, CO
  •     Pueblo – Pueblo, CO
  •     LCpl Kenneth Worley – Costa Mesa, CA
  •     Pikes Peak – Colorado Springs, CO

“It’s rare to meet people who have had such an impact on our lives,” said Brenda McNulty, Unit Commander, Mountain View unit of the Young Marines and organizer of the event. “These men are more than just WWII heroes. They are dear friends to the Young Marines.”

Top secret

During the early months of WWII, Japanese intelligence experts broke every code the U.S. forces devised. They were able to anticipate American actions at an alarming rate. With plenty of fluent English speakers at their disposal, they sabotaged messages and issued false commands in order to ambush Allied troops.

To combat this, increasingly complex codes were initiated. At Guadalcanal, military leaders complained that sending and receiving these codes required hours of encryption and decryption—up to two and a half hours for a single message. They rightly argued the military needed a better way to communicate.

World War I veteran Philip Johnston suggested that the U.S. military develop a code based on the Navajo language which was unwritten. The son of a missionary to the Navajos, Johnston was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently.

Johnston had been brought up on a Navajo reservation, and he knew that many Navajo words have different meanings depending on context. Once he demonstrated to the Marine Corps how effective a Navajo-based code would be in thwarting intelligence breaches, the Marines set out to sign up Navajos as radio operators.

In 1942, 29 Navajos ranging in age from 15 to 35, created the first U.S. military code based on their indigenous language. It started with a vocabulary of 200 terms but tripled in quantity by the time World War II ended. The Navajo code talkers could pass messages in as little as 20 seconds.

The code was so complex that not even native Navajo speakers could comprehend it. The code also proved unique, because once they were on frontlines of the war, the Navajo soldiers weren’t allowed to write it down. Everything was memorized.

During the first two days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the code talkers transmitted 800 messages with no mistakes. Their efforts played a key role in the U.S. winning the Battle of Iwo Jima as well as the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Okinawa.

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, 540 Navajos served as Marines, 420 as code talkers.

The Navajo soldiers’ unbreakable code saved thousands of lives and helped end WWII. The Navajo code talkers may have been World War II heroes, but the public didn’t realize it, because the code remained a top military secret for decades following the war.

The Navajo code talkers’ contributions to the U.S. military during World War II became better known with the release of the 2002 movie, “Windtalkers,” starring Nicolas Cage. Although the movie received mixed reviews, it exposed the public to World War II’s Native American heroes.

Reactions from participating Young Marines

“I am so grateful that my son, Young Marines PFC. Matthew Slater, had an opportunity to experience a living part of our national history,” said Joanne Slater, parent of a Douglas County Young Marine. “These are memories that he will be able to share with his family and friends and someday maybe even his own children.”

“I have two grandfathers who served in WWII, so I have always been interested the war’s history,” said PFC Carson Hague, Douglas County Young Marines and a 7th grader at Ave Maria Catholic School in Parker, Colorado .

“I also have a second cousin who is a Navajo Indian. The Navajo Code Talker Day was the perfect opportunity for me to explore not only part of my own family history but also a rare opportunity to meet with the few WWII Code Talkers that remain. Also, I got to meet many Young Marines for around the country.”

“I will always remember this trip. It changed my life,” said Young Marine PFC Noah Anderson, Douglas County, Aurora, CO, Young Marines.

“The reason I enjoyed the weekend was seeing the smiles on the Navajo code talkers faces and letting them know how much they are still appreciated,” said YM LCpl Xander Tamblyn, 9, Mountain View, Highlands Ranch, CO, Young Marines.

The Young Marines is a national non-profit 501c(3) youth education and service program for boys and girls, age eight through the completion of high school. The Young Marines promotes the mental, moral and physical development of its members. The program focuses on teaching the values of leadership, teamwork and self-discipline so its members can live and promote a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.

Since the Young Marines' humble beginnings in 1959 with one unit and a handful of boys, the organization has grown to over 300 units with 10,000 youth and 3,000 adult volunteers in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Germany, Japan and affiliates in a host of other countries.

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