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President Bush Honors World War II Navajo Code Talkers Receiving Congressional Gold Medal

Aired July 26, 2001 - 13:41   ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Now the president of the United States, honoring 29 Americans who helped win World War II, the Navajo code talkers -- the talkers whom the Japanese were never able to understand and who are credited with saving U.S. forces during the war. The president is honoring them. They will be receiving the Congressional Gold Medal today.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... but before all of these firsts on this continent, there were the first people. They are depicted in the background, as if extras in the story, yet their own presence here in America predates all human record. Before others arrived, the story was theirs alone.

Today, we marked a moment of shared history and shared victory. We recall a story that all Americans can celebrate and every America should know. It is a story of ancient people called to serve in a modern war. It is a story of one unbreakable oral code of the Second World War, messages travelling by field radio on Iwo Jima in the very language heard across the Colorado plateau centuries ago.

Above all it's a story of young Navajos who brought honor to their nation and victory to their country. Some of the code talkers were very young, like Albert Smith who joined the Marines at 15. In order to enlist, he said, "I had to advance my age a little bit." At least one code talker was overage, so he claimed to be younger in order to serve.

On active duty, their value was so great and their order so sensitive that they were closely guarded. By war's end, some 400 Navajos had served as code talkers. Thirteen were killed in action, and their names, too, are on today's roll of honor.

Regardless of circumstances, regardless of history, they came forward to serve America. The Navajo Code itself provides part of the reason. Late in his life, Albert Smith explained, "The code word for America was 'our mother.' Our mother stood for freedom, our religion, our ways of life, and that's why we went in."

The code talkers joined 44,000 Native Americans who wore the uniform in World War II. More than 12,000 Native Americans fought in World War I. Thousands more served in Korea, Vietnam and serve to this very day. Twenty-four Native Americans have earned the highest military distinction of all, the Medal of Honor, including Ernest Childers who was my guest at the White House last week.

In all of these wars and conflicts, Native Americans have served with the modesty and strength and quiet valor their tradition has always inspired. That tradition found full expression in the code talkers, in those absent and in those with us today.

Gentlemen, your service inspires the respect and admiration of all Americans, and our gratitude is expressed for all time in the medals it is now my honor to present. May God bless you all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would the four honorable code talkers please come forward.

WATERS: These men are the only living code talkers that could be present for today's award ceremony. There five of them living. These four will receive their medals in person. There are 29 Americans in all being honored today with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Eileen O'Connor has been covering the story on Capitol Hill. You have spoken with a couple of these men, have you not?

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I have. Right now, you're seeing one of them, Chester Nez, who was with us earlier. They talked about how they went into a room and had to literally make up this code, and time was, of course, of the essence; they were in the midst of battle. They were in the United States, made up this code of 500 words. They used Navajo words to describe things that they didn't, of course, have literal translations for: "guinea" was chicken hawk, literally, but that meant dive bomber. And as you heard the president say, the word for America was our mother.

This was so secret, they couldn't write down, so they had to keep it in their heads, and of course, out in the fields, under the stress of battle...

WATERS: Look at the reaction there, Eileen. They're getting a standing ovation now in the Capitol Rotunda.

O'CONNOR: This is really amazing. For many of them, it's long overdue. As you know, only five are left living. One of them is too ill to come here today.

It was amazing that they could remember this, bring it out during the heat of battle. Japanese did listen in on those lines. They were never able to break this code -- Lou.

WATERS: Do we know whose idea it was in the first place?

O'CONNOR: It was the Marine Corps' idea, in fact. In fact, the Army tried to do, as well, with some other Native Americans, and they never really got around to it. The Marine Corps thought this would be good idea. They needed something fast that could be, literally, interpreted on the fly, and they thought this was also something the Japanese would not have access to. WATERS: Did they tell you their emotions involved in not only getting the honor, but having it presented to them by the president of the United States?

O'CONNOR: They said it was highly emotional. And of course, they said it was bittersweet because...

WATERS: Hang, on, Eileen. We have John Brown at the podium.

O'CONNOR: This is John Brown, giving words of thanks.

JOHN BROWN, CODE TALKER: (Speaking non-English)

It is, indeed, an honor to be here today before you, representing my fellow distinguished Navajo code talkers. Only destiny has demanded my presence here, for we must never forget that these such events are made possible only by the ultimate sacrifice of thousands of American men and women who, I am certain, are watching us now. And yes, it is fitting, too, here in the Capitol Rotunda -- such a historic place, where so many heroes have been honored -- I'm proud that the Navajo code talkers today join the ranks of these great Americans.

I'd like especially to thank Senator Bingaman and all of work that he has given to make this occasion possible, to recognize the code talkers.

I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942, not to become a code talker -- that came later -- but to defend the United States of America in the war against the Japanese emperor. My mother was afraid for my safety, so my grandfather told her to take one of my shoes, place an arrowhead in it, take it to the mountain called Two Little Hills, and go there every day to pray that I would remain safe. Maybe she was more successful than she imagined because the Marine Corps soon had the Navajo Marines develop a secret code using our language. My comrade and I volunteered to become Navajo radio operators, or code talkers.

Our precious and sacred Navajo language was bestowed upon us, not a nation, but a holy people. Our language is older than the Constitution of the United States. I'm proud that, at this point in American History, our native language and the code will developed came to the aid of our country, saving American lives and helping the other U.S. armed forces ultimately to defeat the enemies.

After the original 29 code talkers, there are just five of us that live today: Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, Allen Dale June, Joe Palmer and myself. We have seen much in our lives. We have experienced war and peace. We know the value of freedom and Democracy that this great nation embodies. But our experience has also shown us how fragile these things can be and how we must stay ever vigilant to protect them, as code talkers, as Marines.

We did our part to the protect these values. It is my hope that our young people will carry on this honorable tradition as long as the grass shall grow and water shall flow. (speaking non-English)

Maybe Japan is listening.

Mr. President, we four original code talkers present this day, including the families of my comrades who aren't able to be here with us, are honored to be here to receive this award. Thank you.

WATERS: The answer to the question I asked earlier has been answered by John Brown: How does he feel about winning the Congressional Gold Medal? Very grateful, to the president of the United States and to Senator Bingaman, who was instrumental in passing the legislation to get them honored.

The Navajo code talkers, the code that could not be broken by the Japanese during World War II and largely credited for saving U.S. forces many, many years ago. The secret was kept by the Navajo code talkers these many years. Today, though, they are bona fide American heroes. We congratulate them.



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