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How Tlingit and Navajo code-talkers helped win World War II
Talking in code 113016 AE 1 Capital City Weekly How Tlingit and Navajo code-talkers helped win World War II

Michael Penn

Ozzie Sheakley, left, commander of Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, shows a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Tlingit Tribe for code talking service during World War II to Veteran Harold Martin and his wife, Jackie, during a lecture about Tlingit and Navajo code talkers at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. The lecture is part of a month-long series sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Story last updated at 11/29/2016 - 9:00 pm

Talking in code

 Thirty-three Native American tribes had members who served as World War II code talkers, amounting to between 400 and 500 men. But for decades, it was classified information and kept secret, even from the code talkers’ families. It wasn’t until 2013 that the role of the Tlingit language, and the men who spoke it, became public knowledge.

The outcome of the war might have been vastly different without these men, said Ozzie Sheakley, a member of the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Association, in a phone interview.

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska didn’t learn that Tlingits served as code talkers in WWII until 2008, Sheakley said — something they kept a secret, as the Code Talkers Recognition Act passed that year, and the U.S. Mint contacted CCTHITA to design the gold Congressional Medal of Honor for the Tlingit people and silver duplicates for the code talkers. Sheakley was the one who was asked to design them.

After a lengthy process, in 2013, the families of the five confirmed and deceased Tlingit code talkers were notified of the long-kept secret. That same year, Sheakley went to Washington D.C. along with representatives from 33 other tribes nationwide, so the code talkers could be officially recognized for their service. Sheakley received the gold medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe and a silver medal went to each of the families of Robert Jeff David Sr., Richard Bean Sr., George Lewis Jr., and brothers Harvey Jacobs and Mark Jacobs Jr.

At the Sealaska Heritage Institute noon lecture series Nov. 22 Sheakley told the audience that the five Tlingit code talkers followed orders and never spoke of their service.

While the five men did not live long enough to be able to speak of their time as code talkers, veterans from other Native American tribes did. One of them was Chester Nez, a Navajo man who served as a code talker in the U.S. Marines. Writer Judith Avila met Nez in 2007 and helped him pen his story, “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.” He also did a book tour before he passed away. Avila spoke after Sheakley at the SHI lecture.

“I want to talk to you today about a really important contribution that Native Americans have made to their country,” Avila said.

During WWII, code talkers transmitted coded messages with military plans and tactics. Unfortunately, she said, the Japanese had been able to intercept and unlock the U.S. military’s codes. In response, the U.S. recruited Native Americans into the military and had them develop codes using their indigenous languages, relatively unknown to those outside the U.S. The code talkers used special sets of words in their native tongue so that they would sound like nonsense to everyone else.

Through Nez’s life, Avila showed the audience what life as code talker had been like.

“I’m going to ask you to set your sense of self aside,” Avila said. She spoke in the second-person, asking the audience to imagine themselves in the life of Chester Nez. Nez grew up in New Mexico on a reservation where his family worked as sheep herders. When the U.S. Marines began recruiting Navajos for a special, secret mission, hundreds of men volunteered but the Marines only needed 30. Nez was one of those chosen.

When it was revealed that they would be code talkers, the men laughed and smiled at one another, Avila said.

“You must be joking,” was the men’s reaction, according to Avila.

“Because when you went to boarding school you were beaten, kicked, had your teeth brushed with Fels-Naptha Soap if you were ever caught speaking Navajo,” Avila told the audience. “So why would they ask them to use Navajo now? Everyone had tried their best to beat it out of you.”

The code talkers spent 13 weeks developing codes, Avila said.

For the code, Native words were used in place of letters, or specific words became code for certain things. For example, they called a fighter plane a hummingbird, a destroyer a shark, and a bomb an egg.

When the code talkers were sent to Guadacanal in the South Pacific, some military personnel were skeptical of them, Avila said. But in a test with the regular code talkers, the Native code talkers proved themselves. Standard code talkers needed hours to complete messages, but their Native counterparts needed just minutes.

Avila said after the war Nez married, had children and eventually became a great-grandfather.

The son of Robert Jeff David Sr., Jeff David Jr., didn’t learn about his father’s involvement until less than two weeks before the recognition ceremony while he was at a veteran’s dinner in Haines, according to a past Juneau Empire article.

“It made me really proud of my dad,” David Jr. said, saying he wished he had known but understood why his father couldn’t speak of it. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake.”

 

• Contact reporter Clara Miller at clara.miller@morris.com.