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Navajo code talkers honored after 56 years

Bush presents one of the Congressional Gold Medals to a former Navajo code talker.  

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

The so-called code talkers were U.S. Marines who spoke Navajo, a Native American language 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 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.

CNN's Eileen O'Connor reports on a group of U.S. Marines honored by Congress for their efforts in World War II (July 25)

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CNN's Eileen O'Connor talks to actor Nicholas Cage who stars in an upcoming movie about the Navajo code talkers (July 26)

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Who were the code talkers?: Classroom discussion guide  from CNNfyi
CNNAccess: Nicolas Cage: Code talkers recognition overdue  

"Our gratitude is now expressed for all time in the medals you are about to receive," he said.

Before Bush presented the medals, the names of the code talkers were read aloud and those attending 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. "I'm really happy about it."

The Navajo code was so successful and valued that some code talkers were guarded by fellow Marines to protect them. According to the resolution honoring them and an upcoming movie, the guards were told to kill the code talkers in case of imminent capture by the enemy. The Marine Corps denies 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 was 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 400 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."

In February 1945 the code talkers were spread throughout the Marine division 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.

Only five of the Navajo code talkers are still alive; four were at the ceremony.
Only five of the Navajo code talkers are still alive; four were at the ceremony.  

"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."

"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," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, who sponsored the congressional resolution to honor the code talkers. The Navajo reservation is in New Mexico and Arizona.

• Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary
• Cryptology: Navajo Code Talkers in World War II
• Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage (IMDB)

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