Twenty-nine Navajo men were recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 to develop an unbreakable code using their native language. The code talkers transmitted more than 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period during the Pacific Theater battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest sorties of the war. Their work was vital elsewhere, too.
Only five of those 29 men are still living. But they and their dead comrades are getting the highest civilian award Congress can bestow.
Why the secret of this project was kept so long is difficult to fathom. Perhaps the goal was to keep the talkers for use against some potential 1940s-1950s adversary such as the Soviet Union.
Whatever the case, the Navajos were not allowed to discuss their work when they returned home after the war.
"When we were being discharged, the Marines told us, 'If anybody asks you what you did with the Marines, just say you fought. Don't say anything about radio, about code or communication.' And we did that," says Sam Billison, who was in the project.
It wasn't until 1968 that the Defense Department released information on the code talkers; up to now they never have been officially honored by the military.
"I wish they had done that right after the war," says Billison. "We only have five of the original 29 left and only four of them can make it to the ceremony. It's too bad that declassification of the code was done 20 years after the war, and they never had time to tell their relatives or kids about what they actually did in the war."
Fortunately, about 300 Navajos, including Billison, who eventually joined the original 29 "talkers" will be honored this fall. There soon will be a motion picture on local screens to describe this project and tell about the able, intelligent men who made it work with their Native American talents.
Although the soldiers were treated shabbily, some rectification now will be made. How sad so few of the original Navajos will be able to enjoy an honor they should have received many years ago.