Navajo code talkers receive congressional medals
President Bush presents a Congressional Gold Medal to one of the code talkers
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.
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)
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
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
"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.
|WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
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
Sorting fact from fiction in Pearl Harbor
March 17, 2000
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