I have always been fascinated by and admired a group of brave men who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II: Native Americans who used their ancient Navajo language as an unbreakable code to transmit secret messages, stymieing the enemy.
From a 2008 CIA piece:
The Navajo language seemed to be the perfect option as a code because it is not written and very few people who aren’t of Navajo origin can speak it.
However, the Marine Corps took the code to the next level and made it virtually unbreakable by further encoding the language with word substitution.
From 1942 to 1945, the code talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language — a code that the Japanese never deciphered.
Six Navajo Code Talkers were operating continuously during the invasion of Iwo Jima, a battle that yielded 27 Medals of Honor. They sent more than 800 messages with perfect accuracy.
Navajo Code Talkers Marine Corps Cpl. Henry Bake, Jr. and Pfc. George H. Kirk use a portable radio near enemy lines to communicate with fellow Marines in December 1943. National Archives and Records Administration photo.
While the Native American “code talkers” are generally associated with Navajo speakers, it is reported that “code talking” was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving in the U.S. Army during World War I and that, in addition to the Navajo code talkers, Cherokee, Choctaw and Comanche soldiers were also used as code talkers during World War II.
So valuable and vulnerable were these code talkers and their “codes,” that the Marine Corps assigned additional personnel to protect the code talkers and to ensure that they would never be captured alive.
It was one of WWII’s best kept secrets, not revealed until the late 1960s.
But in recent years, the code talkers have been celebrated in numerous books, movies and documentaries.
The move “Windtalkers” is perhaps the most memorable one.
Periodically, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of some of these men.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 Code Talkers.
In 2001, President George W. Bush presented the medals to four surviving Code Talkers.
President Barack Obama, on several occasions, honored Native Americans and the Code Talkers.
In September 2016, in one of his last official ceremonies, President Obama honored Thomas Begay, one of the last surviving Navajo Code Talkers, at the Eighth White House Tribal Nations Conference.
There were approximately 450 Navajo code talkers. Today, only a few are still with us, all in their 90s. It is thus sad, yet not unexpected, that eulogies to these men are becoming more commonplace than accolades.
In “Last of South Dakota’s ‘Code Talkers’ Dies” we reported the death of Clarence Wolf Guts at age 86. He died on June 16, 2010 and was the nation’s last “Oglala Lakota code talker.”
Several more have left us since then.
In June 2016, Chester Nez, “the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers,” died in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 93.
Because the code talkers come from different groups, tribes, regions, and states, their passing is frequently noted as “one of the last of…” or even “the last of…”
Today, AZCentral announced, “Alfred K. Newman, one of the last of the Navajo Code Talkers, has died in New Mexico at age 94.”
Newman served in the Pacific with the U.S. Marines 3rd Marine Division and saw duty at Guam, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein Atoll, Enewetak Atoll, New Georgia and New Caledonia.
Tribal president Russell Begaye said, “Navajo Code Talker Alfred Newman was a hero, and he stood amongst giants…We will be forever grateful for his contributions and bravery, as well as that of each and every one of our Navajo Code Talkers. They are national treasures.”
National treasures for sure as, according to AZCentral, Newman’s death leaves only eight surviving code talkers.
Lead image: Alfred K. Newman. Courtesy Navajo Nation.