Bringing history to life: Navajo Code Talkers share WWII experiences with high school students

28 Aug 2002 |

Marine Corps history recently came to life when two World War II Navaho Code Talkers visited Fond du Lac, Wis., to talk with high school students from the Fond du Lac Area Catholic Education System (FACES).Roy Hawthorne and Bill Toldeo are two of the few remaining 400 Navajo men recruited by the Corps to help win key battles in the Pacific Theater and save countless lives through the use of their unbreakable code based on their native language, according to Mike Marks, history teacher, FACES.?They (Hawthorne and Toledo) came here to share their story,? explained Marks. ?It?s a unique and very interesting one that needs to be told. These men really deserve recognition for the key role they played in our winning the war in the Pacific.? Unfortunately, that recognition has been a long time coming. That?s because the Navajo code was classified until 1968, according to Hawthorne, a native of Houck, Ariz. ?Until it was declassified, no one knew what we really did during the war,? explained Hawthorne, a veteran of such battles as Guadalcanal, Guam and Okinawa. ?Some of the Marines I fought with during the war still don?t know what my real job was.? Toledo, a native of Laguna, N.M., agrees.?I didn't even talk about the code with my brothers & cousins who were also code talkers,? said Toledo, who fought in such battles as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima. ?Each of us saw some very intense action during the war, but we never talked about it when we returned home. We pretty much went back to the reservation and started farming and tended to our flock of sheep.?Fortunately, times have changed and their story is more well known, according to Marks. ?It?s important for students to hear about history from the men and women who lived it,? said Marks. ?However, that?s becoming more and more difficult each year considering America?s World War II veterans are dying at an average rate of 1,500 per week.?Before too long, the only source students will have to get these stories from will be history books, according to Marks.Public awareness of the Navajos? contribution to the Corps has steadily risen over the years, according to Hawthorne. ?Public awareness of what we accomplished started to grow considerably after President Reagan declared Aug. 14, National Navajo Code Talkers Day in 1982,? said Hawthorne.Since then the Code Talkers have been further honored by two other presidents.?President Clinton signed the Navajo Code Talkers Recognition Act into law in December of 2000, as well as presented Medals of Honor to the only 5 surviving Code Talkers who were part of the original 29 recruited to developed the code and teach it to the rest of us.? explained Hawthorne. ?And then in November of 2001 President Bush presented myself and the rest of us with Congressional Gold Medals in a ceremony at the White House.?Most recently the code talker?s story has become part of American movie pop culture thanks to the recent release of Windtalkers, a movie based loosely on actual code talker wartime experiences.Promotion buzz surrounding the release of the movie has further shined a spotlight on their accomplishments, according to Marks. This helped peak student interest in hearing the code talker?s story. ?Hearing their (Hawthorne and Toledo?s) stories was really cool,? said Stephanie Puetz, a FACES sophomore. ?I never realized how difficult it was for us to keep secret information out of the hands of our enemies during the war.??It?s really neat that the men (Navajos) were able to create an unbreakable code just buy using their native language,? added Puetz. ?I was also impressed with how long they kept their code talking a secret. I can?t keep anything a secret for very long.?Both Hawthorne and Toledo also shared detailed stories with the students at FACES about the difficulties they faced when learning and using the code.?Although the code was based on our Navajo language, it was still very difficult for us to learn,? said Hawthorne. ?There were no Navajo words for many of the things we were asked to describe (i.e. submarine activity, airplane descriptions, etc. ?) in our coded messages. So we had to use other Navajo words and phrases which described characteristics of those things we had no words for in Navajo.??For instance we used the words ?steel fish? when describing a submarine,? explained Hawthorne. ?Each of us had to memorize the entire code,? said Hawthorne. ?No text books were used to teach it to us, or for reference when we were sending messages on the battlefield. The idea was that it would be more secure in our heads rather than on paper where someone might steal it or copy it.? Throughout the visit, Hawthorne and Toledo explained how they and other code talkers had to overcome numerous cultural differences in order to make the coding of message traffic possible. ?They provided us with a comprehensive, complete and personal look at their portion of World War II history,? said Marks. ?It was great that we were able to get the community involved in helping us get them here.?-30-
9th Marine Corps District