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Navajo code talkers receive congressional medals

Bush and code talker
President Bush presents a Congressional Gold Medal to one of the code talkers  

July 26, 2001
Web posted at: 4:07 PM EDT (2007 GMT)


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Twenty-nine Americans were honored by Congress on Thursday for language skills that helped the United States win World War II.

The so-called code talkers were U.S. Marines who spoke in the American Indian language of Navajo, a tongue that Japanese code breakers were never able to decipher.

Stationed on the front lines of battle, the code talkers translated radio-transmitted orders issued from code talkers at command posts.

Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary

President George W. Bush presented four of the five living code talkers -- and relatives of the 24 others -- with the Congressional Gold Medal at an afternoon ceremony in the Capitol rotunda.

"Today we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago," Bush said. The president said they brought honor to the United States as well as the Navajo nation. "Our gratitude is now expressed for all time in the medals you are about to receive," he said.

Navajo code talker Harry Brown says thanks during medal ceremony in Capitol rotunda (July 26)

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Before Bush presented the medals, the names of the code talkers were read aloud and attendees of the event gave them a standing ovation.

"It is, I think, one of the greatest honors that you can bestow on the code talkers," said code talker Chester Nez, before the ceremony. "I'm really happy about it."

The Navajo code was so successful and valued by the United States that some code talkers were guarded by fellow Marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy, according to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, who sponsored a congressional resolution in their honor. The Marines deny that was the policy.

"When we went into the Marine Corps, we didn't know what it was that we were going to do," said Nez. "But after we got out of boot camp and went to a place called Camp Elliot ... and there was the first time we found out that we were to use our own language to translate in the combat area.

"All of the 29 Marines that I went in (with), we got together and made a code in our own language. There were over four or 500 words that we made up at that time. We memorized them and everything was up here," Nez said, pointing to his head.

"And nobody knew. The Japanese pulled all of their hair out trying to decipher the code. But it's one of the hardest languages to learn, that's why it was never decoded or deciphered."

"Windtalkers," a movie produced by MGM and starring Nicolas Cage, chronicles the plight of the Navajo Marines who used their native language to help the war effort. The movie is scheduled for release in early November.

History of the code

In February of 1945, the code talkers were spread throughout the Marine division that was attempting to capture the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, a key battle of the war. The code talkers were a large part of the U.S. victory there, according to Chuck Melson, chief historian for the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Navajos were not the only code talkers used by the U.S. military -- Cherokee, Comanches and perhaps others -- including Choctaws in an ad hoc World War I experiment -- also used their languages as codes, but only the Navajos are being honored at this time.

"It wasn't until 1968 that it was declassified, that they were allowed to talk about it other than a state secret. So I think that gave them an added burden that maybe their compatriots didn't carry with them," Melson said.

"They really weren't given any special recognition," Melson said. "Most of them I don't think wanted special recognition, other than that they had done their duty and they had survived, because there was a lot of people that they knew who did not survive."

Bingaman said he was glad the White House and Congress were honoring the code talkers.

"This was a chapter of our military history that has not been given sufficient attention, and there are some real genuine heroes here who deserve recognition. "



a system of signals or symbols, often used to keep messages hidden from others



interpret the meaning of a code



to provide with, give as a gift



immediate, ready to occur



remove or reduce the security protection



colleagues, fellow countrymen

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