It was May 1942, and U.S. Marines fighting in the South Pacific were repeatedly having their secret codes broken by the Japanese. The military brass, at first skeptical, had agreed to a proposal by Philip Johnston, a civil engineer and missionary's son who'd grown up on a Navajo reservation and was fluent in Navajo. Johnston knew that the unwritten language was known by few outsiders and was convinced that, with its complex pitch and pronunciation, it would baffle the Japanese. He suggested to officers at Camp Elliot in San Diego County that the Marines should recruit Navajos to relay messages between the commanders and the men on the front lines.
Nez, now 80 and living in Albuquerque, N.M., was among the first Navajos who eventually found themselves in the spy business. When Marine recruiters came to his reservation boarding school, "I told my buddy [Roy Begay], 'Let's get the heck out of here, climb that mountain up there and see what's on the other side.' " At the time, all they knew was that they were joining the Marine Corps; only later would they learn their mission. Nez, Begay and 27 other recruits were shipped to boot camp in San Diego, and then to train at Camp Elliot. "They put us in a big room," Nez says, "and told us to make a code in our own language that related to military terms, like planes, tanks, bullets. That took us almost 13 weeks."
The code, which they had to memorize, was based on a system in which the Navajos used their own words to substitute for the 26 letters in the English alphabet; for example, the word "wol-la-chee" means "ant" and it might have stood for the letter A in a coded message. What's more, the Navajos had no words applicable to modern warfare, so they settled on hundreds of descriptive words in their own language. A tank was a tortoise; a submarine, an iron fish; a dive bomber, a chicken hawk; a grenade, a potato; a battleship, a whale. Bombs were eggs, and the commanding general a war chief.
Eventually, 420 Navajo Code Talkers, as they came to be known, served in the South Pacific during World War II, relaying vital messages about troop movements, casualties and enemy emplacements by radio and walkie-talkie. Thirteen Code Talkers were killed in action, and many were wounded, but their code remained unbroken.
Samuel Jesse Smith, now 76 and living in San Fidel, N.M., was 17 when he signed up for duty. "My grandpa performed an all-night prayer ceremony for me," he says. "The first thing he did was feel my bones. He said, 'You're not a man yet. You haven't caught a coyote pup.' " But Smith was eager to avenge the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He'd seen a newspaper photo of elderly Navajos gathered at their trading post, wanting to go to war. "They brought their .22 rifles. Some brought bows and arrows. I thought of my grandpa. I said, 'They should stay home. . . . I'll go.' "
Merril Sandoval, also 17 when he signed up, says the young Navajos felt a surge of patriotism, "just the way nowadays people reacted to the [Sept. 11] terrorist attack. We were so young. We didn't really realize all the history about how we'd been treated." Roy Hawthorne had wanted to go into the submarine service, "but they said, 'No, you can't do that. All Navajos have to go into the Marine Corps.' They didn't say why. It was top secret." Hawthorne was soon on his way to Camp Pendleton to learn the code, then to Guadalcanal.
On Guadalcanal, commanding officers were hesitant about using the Code Talkers, until the recruits demonstrated that they could send and decode in two minutes a message that previously had taken two hours. Then, according to Samuel Billison, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Assn., "an officer said, 'Let's keep those damned Indians.' "
The Talkers worked as four-man teams, Nez says. "Every time we'd make a landing, two would go ashore" with the first wave and the other two would stay aboard ship. "We sent messages back and forth telling the big brass what was going on." In addition to Guadalcanal, they served on Okinawa, New Britain, Saipan, Bougainville, Peleliu and in the thick of the Iwo Jima invasion. Sandoval, now 76 and living in Tuba City, Ariz., was "right under the mountain. Our division was the one that took it." When the American flag was finally raised on Mt. Suribachi, it was the Code Talkers who relayed the news in Navajo: Sheep-Uncle-Ram-Ice-Bear-Ant-Cat-Horse-Itch.
The operation did not always run smoothly. "Quite a few Navajo guys were mistaken for Japanese," says Nez. Once, as he and a buddy were working out of a Sherman tank on the front line on Peleliu, there was a communications glitch, and "we had to deliver a message on foot. These two guys mistook us for Japanese and kept us there for almost two hours, looking down the barrel of a .45." On Iwo Jima, Sandoval and a buddy "got captured by our own Marines," already on edge because the enemy was "coming through with Marine equipment they'd been getting off of dead Marines. We almost got shot."
At war's end, there was no heroes' welcome for the Code Talkers. Most returned to reservation lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, sworn to secrecy about what they'd done, in the event their code was needed in another war. Not even their families knew until the operation was declassified in 1968.
Now the nation knows. In July, President Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Nez and three others from the original group of 29: John Brown Jr. of Navajo, N.M.; Allen Dale June of West Valley City, Utah, and Lloyd Oliver of Phoenix. Family members accepted medals on behalf of the other 25. The Code Talkers who followed the first 29 will be honored with Congressional Silver Medals at a Nov. 24 ceremony in Window Rock, Ariz. And there are other acknowledgments of their heroics: Last year Hasbro introduced a G.I. Joe Navajo Code Talker action figure that speaks in Navajo, dubbed by Billison. Next June, MGM is scheduled to release "Windtalkers," the story of the Code Talkers, starring Nicolas Cage.
"Within our ranks, we consider every man to be equal," says Hawthorne, who is 75 and lives in Houck, Ariz. "The honors are nice, but the privilege of serving my country was a reward."