Navajo code talkers: WWII’s unsung heroes

On Oct. 27, Northwest Indian College (NWIC) students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in the Log Building to hear the stories of Samuel Tso, a World War II Navajo code talker.

Code talkers were recruited by the U.S. military early in the war as a solution to Japanese intelligence. That country’s intelligence was breaking all but the most complex of codes – and the complex codes were taking U.S. soldiers too long to decipher.

The codes developed by Navajo code talkers could be communicated in 20 seconds, as opposed to the 30 minutes it took coding machines to communicate the same message, according to the Official Website of the Navajo Code Talkers.

Code talkers are credited with saving thousands of lives, but today – with only a few Navajo code talkers still with us – their stories are still largely unknown.

Tso served with the U.S. Marine Corps from February 1943 to March 1946. Now, about 65 years later, “he recalls with clarity the experience of crouching in bomb craters for cover, unable to ascertain the direction of fire until comrades on the opposite side of the crater were killed,” according to the official site.

On Oct. 27, as Tso shared his memories from the war with the community, he recalled unimaginable experiences, such as being ordered to leave another soldier to die.

But even with those hardships, he was part of something that made a difference in the world. Tso also shared a memory of a major who told him, “If not for the Navajo code talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.”

“When I heard that, it made me feel like I could lick the whole world be myself,” Tso said. “That was a real good pep talk.”

Code talkers developed a code that started out using 200 terms, which grew to more than 600 by the war’s end, according to their official website.

And all those codes couldn’t be written – they had to be memorized.

“You can’t read it. You can’t write it,” Tso said. “It’s all memory. You have to have a good memory.”

Code talkers became living codes, their official website says, “and even under harried battle conditions, had to rapidly recall every word with utmost precision or risk hundreds or thousands of lives.”

When Tso finished his stories, he invited questions from his listeners. A young Navajo man, Lowell Becenti Bahe, raised his hand and asked Tso if he knew his grandfather, Roy Lewis Becenti.

“I knew him,” Tso said. “He was at Camp Pendleton also learning to code language.”

Bahe, who is in his first year at Northwest Indian College, said Tso’s stories were very meaningful to him.

“It just reminds me of my grandpa when I hear the stories,” Bahe said. “It brought me back to memories of my grandpa.”

Bahe wishes there were more code talker presentations in Native country, and said he was happy NWIC hosted the event.

“It’s amazing,” Bahe said. “I’m really glad they did this.”

To learn more about Navajo code talkers and support a museum and project intended to preserve their stories, visit the Official Website of the Navajo Code Talkers.