Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

6-15 Code Talkers

WED, 6-15-05

SOLOMON ISLANDS � Tomorrow, we visit Guadalcanal, the deepest penetration of the Japanese into the South Pacific. The Solomons lie a few hundred miles east of northern Australia.
Guadalcanal is where U.S. forces began their island-hopping advance toward the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal from which they could cut the supply lanes from the United States to Australia.
The time was August 1942. Four months after the U.S. military abandoned its troops on Bataan in the Philippines, it was ready to begin its first land offensive to eventually liberate those troops. And just as in the Philippines, New Mexicans played an important roll in the fighting on Guadalcanal.
Lt. Tommy Foy, a longtime state legislator from Grant County (and still going strong), was in charge of communications for New Mexico�s 200th Coast Artillery in the Philippines. He had begun using New Mexico�s Pueblo Indians as code talkers a year earlier and found it worked very well.
Foy had passed that information up the line to his superiors. When the New Mexicans were surrendered, Foy was asked by the Japanese what kind of code his unit was using. Evidently the enemy had experienced no luck breaking it.
So when the Marines began using Navajos from New Mexico and Arizona as radiomen, the results again were highly successful. The Navajo code talking operation was used extensively throughout the Pacific for over three years and generally was considered the only wartime code never to be broken.
It was a very sophisticated system. Code talkers had to be fluent in both English and Navajo and had to speak clearly. Since the Navajo language did not include military terms, the Navajo Marines devised their own words for military terms. It worked well. By the end of the war, the Japanese had figured out that Navajo was the language, but that still did not help.
The enemy kept a close watch for Navajos among their captives. When they found one, they would have him start translating. But the messages still made no sense.
And, of course, the Japanese would have loved to capture a code talker. It was known that code talkers had bodyguards wherever they went, in battle or on leave. There even were unconfirmed reports that the bodyguards were ordered to shoot a code talker if they were unable to prevent his capture.
But it appears the main reason for the bodyguards was to protect the Navajos from our own troops. The problem was that they looked too much like Japanese, so they kept getting arrested and thrown in jail. It was very difficult for code talkers to do their job while sitting in the brig.
The Navajos did their job valiantly for three years as they fought their way, island by island, toward Japan. They were well-prepared for the job, not only because of their bilingualism but because they were accustomed to the hardships of a meager existence. Many young recruits washed out of Marine boot camp. But many Navajos wrote home that it was fun.
When the war ended, the code talkers were told never to reveal their role in our victory. So while others were being honored for their exploits, the code talkers remained deep under cover. Apparently Uncle Sam thought he might need to use them again.
Finally, in 1968, the Pentagon acknowledged the existence of the code talkers and declassified the code. But it wasn�t until 2001 that they were belatedly awarded special Congressional medals for their contribution to our victory.
Less than 100 of the 420 code talkers are still with us. That includes state Sen. John Pinto, a longtime member of the New Mexico Legislature and one of the more colorful figures it has known.
This is an all-too-brief accounting of the contributions of New Mexico�s code talkers. For more information, read �Silent Voices of World War II,� by Nancy Bartlit and Everett Rogers, from which much of this information is taken. It is a new book from Sunstone Press, about which we will have much more to say.



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