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The Code Talkers

Tuesday is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled America into World War II.

CBS News Correspondent Hattie Kauffman takes a look at a special group of aging veterans who helped the United States win the war in the Pacific on The Early Show.

The Navajo code talkers were instrumental to U.S. victory over Japan. But for a very long time, they were unsung heroes. Their mission was top secret. Their weapon? Their language.

After the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese dominated the Pacific. A weakened U.S. military fought back but was greatly hampered by the Japanese repeatedly intercepting and decoding its messages.

Then the Marine Corps discovered it had a secret weapon within its ranks.

"He asked me, 'What tribe [of] Indian are you?' " recalls code talker Harry Benally.

"Then I said, 'I'm Navajo, sir.' [He then asked,] 'Can you talk Navajo?' 'Yes sir,'" Benally adds.

Sam Billison remembers being asked similar questions.

And Jimmy Begay recalls being told, "We've got special duty for you."

The Navajo recruits were asked to create and memorize a military code based on the complex Navajo language.

The code talkers were quickly deployed to the areas with the hottest fighting in the Pacific: Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Okinawa.

"We got strafed in Okinawa. The closest [a] bullet ever [came] close to me was on my combat boots, on my heel. I think our corporal was killed; our sergeant was wounded; one code talker got wounded," Billison says.

But the messages flew back and forth, clear and undecipherable to the Japanese, 800 of them in 48 hours of battle on Iwo Jima. One Marine captain said were it not for the code talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.

In fact, the code became so valuable each Navajo was assigned a guard with orders to assassinate the code talker if he fell into enemy hands.

Billison says they did not know that, but what he did know was that "all the Japanese were assigned to kill me," he notes.

America did not celebrate the code talkers as heroes when the war ended. Even when they returned to the reservation, they could not tell their families or loved ones about the role they played. The military had sworn them to secrecy.

After years of secrecy, their mission was finally declassified. Now all they want is to be appreciated for their contributions.

Sam Billison says the Navajo language is very powerful, very sacred and should not be eradicated.

"I didn't realize how important my language was going to be," Benally says.

Most of the code talkers are deceased. But those still alive send a message of patriotism.

"After the war, after I came back, it used to really get [to] me when I['d] see the American flag. When they'd raise the flag or do the national anthem, it'd really get me inside. It still does sometime," notes Billison.

And on their own, the code talkers translated the Marine hymn into Navajo.

"The Navajo language is very powerful, very sacred, and we should keep it, and not lose it," he adds.

But there is a great irony: At one time it was U.S. policy to eradicate native languages. So as children, many code talkers were forced to attend missionary or U.S. government boarding schools where speaking Navajo was strictly forbidden.

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