Using Their Language to Save Lives 

by BETSEY BRUNER 05/28/2004
Arizona Daily Sun 
28 May 2004

It sounded like gibberish to the Japanese in World War II -- the Navajo-inspired code used by the U.S. Marines in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. Today, the message is coming in loud and clear: Cherish and honor our last remaining code talkers while we still can.

Five local Navajo code talkers -- Arthur Hubbard Sr., Dan Akee, Alfred Peaches, Teddy Draper Sr. and Lloyd Oliver -- are being honored tonight at a public reception at 5:30 at the Little America Hotel.

The reception is part of the long weekend of festivities that mark the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, and Memorial Day on Monday.

About 540 Navajos served as Marines, and from 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers. The code talkers took part in every Marine assault -- Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima -- and were a decisive factor in the ultimate victory of the Allies in the Pacific Theater, providing a code that the Japanese never broke.

Despite their critically important service, they were not recognized for their achievements until being honored at the Pentagon on Sept. 17, 1992.

Most Navajo code talkers do not think of themselves as heroes.

Ronnie Towne knows about the modesty of the Navajo code talkers; her father, Arthur Hubbard Sr., was a code talker instructor during the war.

"He's pretty much the way most of the code talkers are," she said. "They are extremely humble. They understand the significance of what they did, but they don't see the individual as being a hero. They were just men out to do a job."

Hubbard, 92, downplays the importance of his code talker service.

"My experience as code talker was very, oh, not so exciting as those who went out to the different islands," Hubbard said in a phone interview Thursday. "I went through the boot training and combat training, and then when we lined up for assignment after combat training, one by one, the boys that I trained with got sent out to different islands. I, alone, remained at Camp Pendleton all afternoon. Next day, they sent an jeep for me and sent me to San Diego. I trained the young men, Navajo boys that were inducted at the time. I gave them an idea of what the Navajo language could do as far as being used as a code-talking facility."

Towne said her father, at 24, was one of the oldest Navajo in boot camp.

"They called him 'grandpa,'" she said.

Hubbard, who has a slight hearing problem but is otherwise in good physical condition, keeps his mind sharp by doing jigsaw and crossword puzzles, his daughter said.

Towne said there are about 350 code talkers alive today. They are in their late 70s to mid-80s and most of them live in northern Arizona and New Mexico, with a few in Utah, California and South Dakota. Towne serves as a volunteer, coordinating the public appearances of local code talkers throughout the year. About 25 men who are in good health regularly volunteers to appear at ceremonies, she said.

Although she grew up with them as a child, Towne didn't realize the significance of the code talkers' contribution to world peace until she saw the public reaction to the movie "Windtalker."

"They've become an extremely important treasure," she said. "It would be a shame if they were not recognized. It's passing along the history, which is primarily the Native American tradition, making the children realize how precious life is and how important they are as human beings. It's all part of the balance of nature, the way it's supposed to be."

Five code talkers from the Navajo reservation are going to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the memorial, Hubbard said. He will be traveling to the Flagstaff ceremonies tonight, and is enthusiastic about the national celebration.

"I think it's something that gives recognition and being that it's located in Washington D.C., why that makes it a little bit more feeling of being recognized nationally by the powers that be, not so much the general public, but the officials that work in Washington," he said.

The original 29 code talkers received gold medals, but the rest of them, including Hubbard, received silver, he said.

Hubbard attends Navajo Code Talkers Association meetings each month in Gallup, N.M. There are only about 25 code talkers at the meetings, but there are 107 dues-paying members, he said.

"I happened to know a good number of the men who were out at the islands," he said. "I knew them from contact here on the Navajo Reservation."

In attention to the Little America reception tonight, the five northern Arizona code talkers also will also participate in honor ceremonies at noon and 5 p.m. Saturday night at Fort Tuthill at the Coconino County Fairgrounds as part of "Sacred Hoop," a four-day powwow to honor and connect warriors of past and present.

"We're recognizing Native Americans who used their language to preserve democracy," said John Davison, National Dedication Day Observance powwow coordinator. "During WW II a select group of Navajo men used their language to development a code that was unbreakable at the time. In doing so, it saved the lives of countless American servicemen in the Pacific Theater. In addition, there's actually 17 tribes that used their languages in the United States military. The Choctaw were very influential during WW I, and again in WW II. There were also Comanche, Hopi, Lakota, Choctaw who used their languages for the U.S. military, not necessarily in codes."

Davison said that Native Americans also played important roles in the building of the Navajo Ordnance Depot and in the mining of uranium used in atomic bombs.

"We're going to honor veterans of all eras," he said.

The role of the warrior will be celebrated in veterans honor gourd dances, drum sessions, traditional powwow and contest powwows.

© 2004 Arizona Daily Sun


Reprinted as a historical document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.