WWII Navajo Code Talkers receive Silver Medal

24 Nov 2001 | Gunnery Sgt. John Cordero Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow

About 250 Navajo Code Talkers received the Congressional Silver Medal in a ceremony here Nov. 24 for their service to the United States during World War II.

The Code Talkers honored in the ceremony join the 29 Code Talkers who in July received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington for their work in creating the original code.

Family members of Code Talkers who have passed away received medals on their behalf.  Of the 375 Silver Medals produced by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, 125 remain to be awarded to people whose status as Code Talkers has yet to be confirmed.

The Navajo Code Talkers were a group of Marines who wrote and used a code made from Diné, the Navajo language, to provide rapid and reliable communication from Guadalcanal in 1942 to V-J Day in 1945.  The Code Talkers, using a code the Japanese never deciphered, are credited with helping the United States win many key battles in the Pacific during World War II. 

"This award is long overdue," said Navajo Nation President Kelsey A. Begaye, who stressed that it has been 56 years since the end of World War II and 33 years since the Department of Defense declassified the code.

"From this day forward we will continue to remember the courage and the sacrifice of the Navajo Code Talkers," said Begaye.  "Today we salute you for your bravery and your courage. ... You are our true American heroes."

What began in May 1942 with the original group of Navajos with about 200 code equivalents for more than 200 military terms, and an alphabet for spelling messages, grew to about 400 Navajos with a 614-word code by June 1945.  During the war, the Code Talkers participated in every Marine assault conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guam, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Saipan and Tarawa. 

The code consisted of using the then unwritten Navajo language to quickly send messages.  Navajo words were used for military terms that were not part of the Navajo language.  For example, Navajo clan names were given to the different Marine Corps units, and names of birds were used for airplanes.  Alternate terms were used for letters in the English alphabet to spell words that were not part of the code.

Navajo Code Talkers served in all six Marine divisions and in Marine Raider battalions, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language.

"Their contribution to the preservation of liberty and freedom during World War II will never be forgotten and can never be diminished," said Tom Udall, U.S. Representative from New Mexico, about the Code Talkers. 

The Code Talkers began their journey during World War II as Marines, tasked with an important assignment, said Udall.  Many of them left their homeland and families with prayers and ceremonies to ensure their safe return.

"Let this day be another ceremony in your life in which we as a country and government recognize your achievements and rightfully give you a place in our nation's history," said Udall.

Nelson Draper Sr. and Joe Morris were two of the 250 Navajo Code Talkers honored for their work as the walking, talking secret weapons that helped win the war.

"I'm happy and proud," said Draper about receiving the medal.  "It's important that people are finding out now about the importance of the Navajo Code Talkers."

Draper enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1943 after a Marine recruiter told him he needed to help his brother, Teddy Draper, who enlisted in 1942.  After the war he worked in civil service at Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif., until he retired in 1985.

"I'm very happy about it and appreciate the recognition," said Joe Morris, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in April 1944.  He worked in civil service for 36 years at MCLB Barstow before he retired in1984.

The Navajo Code Talkers were different than most other American service members.  When they came home, nobody knew what historic and heroic acts they performed. The Navajo code was so important that it remained classified until 1968.  It was thought it might be used again to help the United States in a time of war. 
Therefore it was kept secret. 

The role that the Code Talkers played was also kept secret.  Only 23 years after World War II could the Code Talkers say what they had actually done.  They took the Navajo language and created a new language to defeat the enemy in battle.

The Congressional Silver Medal is considered one of the most distinguished awards Congress can bestow.  Each medal is specifically designed for the recipient, with the secretary of the U.S. Treasury as the final judge of the design.  After that, the design is sculptured, a dye is made, and the medal is struck at the Philadelphia Mint.

The front of the medal features two Marine Navajo Code Talkers communicating a radio message. Centered along the top of the medal is the inscription "NAVAJO CODE TALKERS." Centered along the bottom is "BY ACT OF CONGRESS 2000." The reverse bears the Navajo Code Talkers emblem with "USMC," the Marine Corps emblem and "WWII" centered along the top of the medal. Centered along the bottom is the inscription "Diné Bizaad Yee Atah Naayéé' Yik'eh Deesdlíí" - meaning "The Navajo language was used to defeat the enemy."