A War of Words: How Lloyd Oliver's native tongue helped win WWII

Only the original 29 received gold medals. Recently Congress issued silver medals to the other code talkers.   The inscription on the back of the Congressional gold Medal reads “Dine Bizaad Yee Atah Naayee Yikeh Deesklii.” It translates to, “They were the individuals who used the Navajo Language to defeat the enemy during war.”

Only the original 29 received gold medals. Recently Congress issued silver medals to the other code talkers. The inscription on the back of the Congressional gold Medal reads “Dine Bizaad Yee Atah Naayee Yikeh Deesklii.” It translates to, “They were the individuals who used the Navajo Language to defeat the enemy during war.”

In late April 1942, two U.S. Marine Corps recruiters arrived at the Navajo Nation's government offices in Window Rock.

For reason unknown to them, the two Marines had been sent to meet with Navajo Tribal Chairman Chee Dodge.

They were told to ask Dodge to send word out across the vast reservation that the Marines were looking for a few good men, specifically healthy, fit young men who spoke both Navajo and English, fluently.

Using the Nation's preferred method of communication, short wave radio, Chee sent out the call. The response was both immediate and overwhelming.

Within a couple of weeks 30 out of more than 200 respondents were chosen. One would drop out.

On the morning of May 4, 1942, 29 young Navajos, including Lloyd Oliver a young man who had celebrated his 20th birthday just two weeks earlier, were loaded onto a bus in Fort Defiance to begin a journey into history.

As far back as the World War I, the U.S. military had used code talkers, soldiers fluent in obscure native languages, to pass on messages.

During a the second Battle of the Somme, the American Expeditionary Forces had used Choctaw code talkers to pass on information on battlefield conditions, troop movements, tactics and commands. Within hours the tide of the battle changed into a rout for the Americans.

One member of the AEF was Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary. He had been raised at a mission on the Navajo Reservation 12 miles north of Luepp and was one of less than three dozen non-Navajos who spoke the language fluently.

In early 1942, while living in Los Angeles, Johnston had heard that the Army was experimenting with Cherokee code talkers.

He contacted the Marines to spin the idea of using the Navajo language to transmit coded voice messages.

Skeptical at first, the Marines agreed to a demonstration. Johnston recruited four Navajos living in the Los Angeles area and one on active duty with the Navy.

On Feb. 25, 1942, under simulated battle conditions, Johnston showed that the Navajos could send, receive and translate a coded message that took an encoding machine 30 minutes to transmit, in just 20 seconds.

By the first week of May, the original 29 of what would one day grow to more than 400 code talkers arrived at San Diego, Calif., to begin their basic training.

Immediately after taking basic, the 29 were sent off to Camp Pendleton where they would learn the real reason why they had been recruited and spend the next few weeks perfecting the code they would use.

The code's success was based on the fact that the Navajo language has no symbols and therefore was never written. It is also a complex, yet rich language that lent itself to encryption.

The 29 young men, under the guidance of the missionary's son and Marine Corps signalmen, devised a code that used some Navajo words to represent the letters of the English alphabet and some to designate military terms.

The Navajo word "wol-la-chee," which means "ant," became the letter "A."

"Besh-lo," or "iron fish" became submarine and "dah-he-tih-hi," or hummingbird, became "fighter plane." A bomber was a "jay-sho" or buzzard.

No sooner had they perfected their code than the now all-Navajo 382nd platoon was put to the test.

On Aug. 7, the first code talkers to see action landed on a heretofore little-known south sea island in the Solomon chain for what would become the turning point in the battle for the Pacific -- Guadalcanal.

The first day on the beach, 20-year-old Lloyd Oliver and 11 other code talkers cheated death for the first time when a Japanese aircraft strafed their position.

Later in the battle a bomb blast knocked him out. When the Japanese overran his position they thought he was dead. When he woke, the bodies of both Japanese and American soldiers surrounded him.

Although unsure at first how to best use the code talkers, Marine commanders realized what an invaluable resource they had by the time the battle for Guadalcanal ended in February 1943.

For the next two and a half years, the Navajo code talkers, attached to every Marine division in the Pacific, would participate in every major assault.

For his part, Oliver would be recognized not only for his ability to confound the enemy on the radio but as a proficient sniper and a skilled scout.

When not relaying messages, the code talkers performed all the duties assigned to their fellow Marines.

After the war, the Imperial Japanese military said they had been able to break every code that came their way with the exception of the one the Marines used on their radios.

They also stated that it was their belief the Americans would never have won the most costly battle of all, the fight for Iwo Jima, without the code talkers.

It is doubtful the Japanese would have been victorious with or without the code talkers, but there is no question that they and their simple code saved thousands of American lives.

The code talkers' accomplishment would remain a secret for years following the war. So successful was the Navajo language as a code it would see use in Korea.

Oliver returned to the United States, began a family, became a renowned silversmith and eventually moved to Phoenix. Seven years ago he moved with his wife Lucial, a Yavapai, to the Yavapai-Apache Nation's Middle Verde Reservation in Camp Verde.

Today he can no longer hear with the same ears, or speak above a whisper with the same mouth, that confounded a determined enemy and ultimately saved the lives of countless Americans. Some like Oliver are still around today.

It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. government declassified the information about the code talker program and for the first time the world would see and hear one of their accomplishments and their sacrifice.

Recognition would come slowly.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan issued certificates of recognition and declared Aug. 14 as Navajo Code Talker Day.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law that issued Congressional medals to the original 29 code talkers.

On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medals to four of the five original 29 Navajo code talkers still living. One could not make the ceremony for health reasons. Family members represented those who had passed away.

John Brown, a Navajo code talker living in Crystal N. M., spoke on behalf of all.

"I am proud that the Navajo code talkers today join the ranks of great Americans. We have seen much in our lives; we have experienced war and peace; we know the value of freedom and democracy that this great nation embodies.

"But, our experiences have also shown us how fragile these things can be, and how we must stay ever vigilant to protect them.

"As Code Talkers -- as Marines -- we did our part to protect these values. It is my hope that our young people will carry on this honorable tradition as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow."

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