The landing on Okinawa may have been a cakewalk, but Japanese resistance stiffened as the Marines located and then assaulted the Japanese main force. The strategy here would be the same as it was on the islands of Saipan, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima —kill as many Americans as possible; weaken their resolve to invade the home islands. The American advance came to a halt and one Marine, thinking back to the Navajo ceremony on Pavuvu, asked a Navajo what he thought about his prayers now. The Navajo replied, “This is completely different. We only prayed for help during the landings.”
Over time, Navajo Code Talkers served with all six Marine Corps divisions in the Pacific. They also served with Raider and Parachute Battalions. Praise for their work became lavish and endless as they participated in every major assault … from the Solomon Islands campaigns to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Major Howard Conner, who served as the 5th Marine Division Signals Officer, reported that Navajo code directed the entire landing at Iwo Jima. “During the two days that followed the initial landing, I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock. They sent and received over 800 messages without a single error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The Navajo Code Talkers were among the first to receive the news in August 1945 that Emperor Hirohito had urged the Japanese people to “endure the unendurable.” The war was over. Atomic weapons employed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had perhaps saved as many as one million additional American lives.
In all, 421 Navajos had completed wartime training at Camp Pendleton’s code talker school; most of these served in combat. Following Japan’s official surrender ceremony on 2 September 1945, several code talkers volunteered for duty with U.S. occupation forces in Japan. Others served with the Marines in China. Wilson Henry Price remained in the Marine Corps for thirty years, finally retiring in 1972.
As the Navajo Marines returned to their homes, tribal rites were performed. These were combinations of purification ceremonies, thanksgiving, mother’s tearful prayers, and askance for protection of the son’s return from harmful or toxic influences. Surprisingly, the Navajo exhibited little evidence of serious psychological problems or combat fatigue. In spite of this, life proved difficult after years away from home. Many of the Navajo missed the excitement of Marine Corps combat service, but most realized that they must go forward. Many returned to school to finish high school, others enrolled in colleges and universities under the GI Bill. Ted Draper remained on occupational duty in Japan. During off-duty hours, he studied Japanese and learned it so well that he eventually served as an interpreter. Draper eventually returned home to become a language teacher. He said, “When I was going to boarding school before the war, the government old us not to speak Navajo. But during the war, they wanted us to speak it. One day, if I return to the reservation safely, I want to become a Navajo language teacher and educate young Navajos.”
Jobs back home were scarce. Many banks refused to make GI loans, even to honorably discharged veterans because many of the Navajo held land parcels on the reservation in trust, with no proof of title. Many Navajo felt this was a shameful way to treat men who had served their country in combat —and they were right.
Almost 25 years passed before the 4th Marine Division honored Navajo Code Talkers at its 1969 annual reunion. Each Code Talker received an especially minted medallion. Why did it take so long to recognize these men? It was because the government did not declassify the Code Talker Operation until 1968. The Navajo Code Talkers hardly ever spoke of it until then.
These fine men were true American heroes, without exception. Sadly, we have come to the end of this especially glorious history: the last of the original code talkers was Chester Nez, who passed away in June 2014, aged 93.
As previously mentioned, there were more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers in the Marine Corps … I would like to mention a couple here with my deepest respect and admiration:
Jimmy Kelly King, Sr.
Each of these Marines gave all they had to give for the United States of America. After the end of World War II, a Japanese general admitted that not even the most highly skilled Japanese cryptographers were able to decipher the Marine messages. After he was told that it was a code based on an Native American language, he said, “Thank you; that is a puzzle I thought would never be solved.”
I have this one additional note. I want to offer my deepest respects also to another fine American (now 95 years old), the father of Koji Kanemoto who served in the US Army as an interpreter with the Military Intelligence Service.