The Code Talkers

Codetalkers in World War II

Not long ago, President Bush awarded some U.S. veterans a congressional medal for their heroism during wartime - in a war that ended almost 60 years ago.

Correspondent Vicky Mabrey looks back at World War II and the Navajo Indians, many of them teen-agers at the time, who turned their language into the only oral code that the Japanese, ace code breakers, could never crack.

Now, Hollywood has taken notice, with a big budget war picture starring Nicolas Cage due out in a couple of weeks. But there's a quieter heroism to be found in the true life version.

In 1942, the U.S. Marine Corps went to Navajo reservation, looking to sign up young men like Chester Nez, one of the original 29, recruited ironically in the government schools that were designed to "Americanize" them.

Remembering how the teachers wouldn't let them use their native language in school, Nez says, "They turn around and say, 'Hey, we're gonna use your language against the enemy, you know?' And we did. We won the war with it."

Navajo, it turns out, is ideal for a secret code - it's a complex language very few people could speak outside of the isolated reservation. The only things missing were modern military terms, like radar and hand grenade, so they had to be creative. Radar was an owl, a bird that can see far away. A hand grenade was a potato, because that's what many of them looked like.

Everything was memorized; they became a walking code, shipped out to Marine combat units to relay secure messages back and forth in Navajo.

Existing codes, some so old they dated back to the Civil War, were regularly broken by the Japanese. "It was taken for granted they could interpret whatever we were transmitting," says Richard Bonham, a World War II radio operator.

Within Bonham's unit was another young Marine, who arrived at camp later than the others, and who kept to himself.

"He looked no more than 12 or 13 years old, honestly," Bonham recalls. "And our officer in charge of communications says, "Now, don't be askin' him any questions about exactly what he does.'"

Bill Toledo was a codetalker, one of the second wave who came after the original 29. Only his commanding officers knew what his job was, and even he was skeptical, preferring to use existing codes.

In desperation during one battle, he sent for Toledo. So successful was the mission that Toledo was used through the rest of the campaign.

Some 400 Navajo, like Bill Toledo and Chester Nez, were on the job throughout the rest of the war. But with features similar to the Japanese, the Navajo faced an additional danger: They were sometimes mistaken for the enemy by their own men.

After Bill Toledo had such a run-in, his commanding officer gave Richard Bonham a new assignment as Toledo's bodyguard.

Bonham says they protected each other. "We were always together," Toldeo says. "We shared foxhole together. While I sleep, he's awake. And then we take turns, you know?"

Eventually, all the Navajo had bodyguards, but there was one disturbing part of the job description that Toledo heard from other codetalkers. "They were told that if - if a code talker was captured to shoot him," he says.

No direct orders were ever given, Bonham says, and the Marines have always denied they would ever give orders for one Marine to kill another. But the story has circulated among the codetalkers for years. Chester Nez heard it from a codetalker who heard it from his bodyguard.

Some Navajo say they would have preferred it that way, given that the Japanese were were noted for torture.

"They caught one of our squads out from I Company," Bonham says, "and all through the night, they let us know that they were having their fun." In morning, the Marines saw the butchered results.

That's the moral dilemma that is the focus of the Hollywood version of the codetalkers. In the new film, Cage plays the bodyguard who struggles with that unimaginable choice.

Luckily, in real life, no bodyguard was ever put in that position, and the Navajo confounded the Japanese to the end of the war. When the American flag finally was raised on Iwo Jima, the first news went out in Navajo code.

When the war ended, the American G.I.s came home to a hero's jubilant welcome, but the Navajo returned to the reservation - and silence. For more than 20 years after the war, the Navajo code remained top secret, in case it was needed again.

"They just told me to keep my mouth shut about what I did," says Toledo. Even after it was declassified, Bill Toledo took his orders so seriously that he kept silent. His family only found out years after that, when his daughter came across his discharge papers.

Now, everyone wants to shake hands with the codetalkers, including an elite crowd at the U.S. Capitol rotunda, where the original 29 were awarded their gold Congressional Medals last July. Only five of the original 29 are still alive, and not all of them can get around these days. But Nez, now 81, traveled to Washington to personally accept his medal from President Bush.

"A lot of people didn't think it was gonna work," he says. "But we, the 29, we knew it was gonna work and it did work. The Japanese pull up all their hair and they got baldy, but they never could break it."

  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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