Unbreakable Navajo Marines: WWII Code-Talkers

Do you ever have those moments where you suddenly realize what you have? You’re holding something in your hand or are looking out the window when a House-like epiphany reveals itself and you run to tell someone about the discovery. That exuberant rush of excitement at the realization you’ve got something that others would certainly be impressed with. In the history field, that moment occurs more than one would think especially since it’s in our nature as historians to find what’s been overlooked or connect the missing dots. Suddenly we find it right there; history in our hands. That’s what happened to me again recently (See Entombed But Never Truly Gone)

While responding to the normal queue of requests, a peculiar name appeared on a WWII-era Marine Corps record; ‘Adolph Nagurski’. Interesting name, yeah? German-Japanese? Sino-Polish? Being born in Arizona at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the possibilities are endless. I begin my standard operating procedure of assessing the record, extracting information, and all the rest. That is until I noticed something on the discharge paperwork. The primary occupation specialty was ‘code-talker’. That only meant one thing to me (and to all other WWII history buffs): a Navajo code-talker. Confirmation was swiftly needed to satiate my intellectual curiosity. The service record book was intact and after reviewing the enlistment contract, training courses, overseas deployment, battles, campaign participation, and that crowning moment: ‘Special Skills: Navajo language’. Right there in my hand was the service record of a U.S. Marine Navajo code-talker.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Peter Nahaidinae Joseph P Gatewood and Corporal Lloyd Oliver, June 1, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Now there are two versions of the Navajo code-talkers story. You could watch the 2002 film ‘Windtalkers’ and receive a heavily fictionalized accounting where the Navajo Marines are sidelined as secondary characters beneath the shadow of superstar Nicolas Cage. The second version is how Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who once lived on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, pitched the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that the Navajo language could be used to encrypt and transmit valuable intelligence throughout the Pacific Theater. Precedence existence for such a project; during WWI, the U.S. enlisted the aid of several Choctaw recruits who spoke their native language to relay radio messages on the Western Front in France (See Little Gun Shoot Fast). The complexity of Navajo grammar combined with its non-written feature made it ideal for transmitting encoded messages. The only drawback however was because of cultural suppression and Anglicization that there were relatively few native speakers of the Navajo language remaining.

First 29 Navajo US Marine Corps CodeTalker Recruits being Sworn in at Fort Wingate NM (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

By the spring of 1942 as the United States mobilized for war in the Pacific Theater, Marine Corps General Clayton Vogel recommended that Navajo Indians attend signals combat training. The military made a concerted effort to divert as many Native Americans with special language skills into these courses. The first batch of twenty-nine recruits arrived at Camp Pendleton in May 1942. This group paved the way for future code talkers as they developed the system for encoding messages. For weeks they learned how to operate radio equipment, memorize coded messages, survey terrain for enemy positions, and learn how to transmit and receive messages under fire. Each recruit was tested on how many messages they could translate during a firefight. If a recruit could successfully decode a three line message in under twenty seconds, they were ready for the front.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, January 21, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As any cryptologist will tell you, having a key to unlock encoded messages is the vital component of any secure communication. The uniqueness of the Navajo language (or any Native American language) was its oral tradition. Nothing in Native American languages are written. There also exists a vast array of dialects and accents within each language tree, creating overlapping layers of complexity. The code talkers utilized the spelling alphabet system designating certain words with letters and improvising when they didn’t exist in the Navajo language. Words like ‘airplane’ ‘torpedo’ and ‘submarine’ had no Navajo counterpart and so the code talkers improvised. A ‘shark’ was a destroyer vessel, ‘silver oak’ was a lieutenant colonel, ‘buzzard’ was a bomber plane, and ‘iron fish’ was a submarine. These are just some examples of the Navajo code that the talkers had to memorize. Codebooks were written to train each group of recruits, but the books wouldn’t be taken into the theater. Enemy codebreakers could potentially decipher the code, but fortunately for the code talkers, small nuances and changes in the dialect and tonal inflection could result in a entirely different translated message. Nearly four hundred Navajo Marines served as code talkers throughout the Pacific. Despite being an indispensable part of American forces, they faced racial prejudices from their fellow Marines. A handful of recorded instances depict them being mistaken for enemy Japanese soldiers; by 1943, code talkers were assigned personal bodyguards. After they reported to their units, code talkers were assigned in pairs. During battle, one operated the radio while the second relayed and received messages in Navajo and then translate them. Many code talkers also performed duties as runners. Their work was especially dangerous in the Pacific as Japanese soldiers deliberately targeted officers, medics, radiomen, and code talkers. Their survival rate was considerably lower when compared to a Marine Corps rifleman, machine gunner, or mortarman.

PFC Carl Gorman of Chinle Arizona an Indian Marine who Manned an Observation Post on a Hill Overlooking the City of Garapan while the Marines were Consolidating their Positions on the Island of Saipan, Marianas, June 27, 1944 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Navajo code talkers were highly commended for their meritorious service, communications skills, and bravery under fire. They served with distinction in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division credits the Navajo code talkers for being the reason behind the successful invasion of the island. Had they not been able to transmit and receive nearly 1,000 messages from the landings, the outcome could have been far more deadly.

Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.”

Major Howard Connor

As with any military practice involving a degree of secrecy, the Navajo code talkers were prevented from sharing details about their military service from their families or the public. The code talker program was classified from its beginning and remained so until 1968. Its declassification came at the height of the Vietnam War and with anti-war sentiment and public protests demanding more civil rights for Native American tribes, recognition for the code talkers was unfortunately sidelined. Many code talker veterans kept silent about their service. By the 1980s, stories about the code talkers began entering mainstream media as books and documentary interviews with surviving code talkers started to tell their stories. In 2001, the 106th Congress passed H.R. 4527 ‘Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act’ which bestowed its highest honor on each of the surviving twenty-nine first recruits; the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented medals to the survivors, honoring them for their achievements and contributions to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific.

PFC Samuel Sandoval of Full Blooded Navajo Indian Extraction Relaxes under the Tori Gate in a Former Jap Park and Surveys the Scenic Beauties of Okinawa Shima, April 14, 1945 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration,)
President George W Bush Presents Medals to 21 Navajo Code Talkers at the US Capitol (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

So where does Adolph Nagurski fit into this story? As previously mentioned, the first twenty-nine code talkers weren’t the only ones in the entire war. As more Navajos entered the Marine Corps, their language skills were tested to see if they could perform as a code talker. Adolph Nagurski qualified following his induction in December 1943 in Flagstaff Arizona. He completed basic training in the following spring and in May 1944, he attended the Field Signal School at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. The class lasted four weeks where he and fourteen others learned every skill needed for a radio operator and memorizing the Navajo code. In December 1944, Nagurski left California for Guam, then Saipan, and Guadalcanal. On April 1, 1945, he took part in the landings on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He fought on Okinawa for the full duration of the battle; over two months of some of the worst fighting in the entire Pacific war. Thousands of Marines, Army, and enemy troops were killed every week while many more Okinawan civilians were caught in crossfires. When the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, Nagurski sailed for China where he witnessed Japanese forces formally surrender at Tsingtao that following October. There he fulfilled occupation duties with the 6th Marine Division for six months until he finally returned to the U.S. in May 1946. He passed away in 2013, but he never received the full honors for his code talker service. A stipulation in the legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal to the first group of code talkers was that the Congressional Silver Medal was granted to every Navajo code talker who served after the initial recruits. Nagurski was unable to participate in a subsequent ceremony for the silver medal recipients and passed away in 2011 before ever receiving it. The situation came to the attention of Senator Martin Henrich in 2018 when the Nagurski family petitioned to have this oversight resolved. In April 2018, Pvt. Adolph Nagurski was posthumously honored with the Congressional Silver Medal accepted on behalf of his surviving son, Benjamin. In the award speech by Senator Martin, he describes the harsh conditions and battlefield horrors endured by Nagurski and the other code talkers. With their indispensable role as transmitters of important messages and intelligence, the Navajo code talkers made their mark in history. The Navajo code remains unbroken and its secrecy lives now in the memories of those who ran the Pacific gauntlet into victory.

USMC Corporal Adolph Nagurski, Code Talker
(USMC awards for Adolph Nagurski, from left to right, top to bottom: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, China Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ bronze service star, World War II Victory Medal)

Untamable Tigers: A Review of ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ by Michael Booth

For the majority of 2020, China dominated mainstream media. News stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, travel bans, and subsequent blame placed for the outbreak of the disease led the nightly news and filled our social media timelines. China’s economy was growing at a blistering pace, but the export of a deadly contagion was not expected by many. Neighboring countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan quickly implemented their own quarantines and placed restrictions on Chinese products, resulting in seismic disruptions in the global supply chain. Distrust between the nations reached an all-time high. This distrust, however, was not a novel feeling. There has been animosity and suspicion between China, the Koreas, and Japan for generations. The history is long, complicated, and would take too many articles to completely deconstruct.

Despite the historical density, Michael Booth’s book, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ chronicles his personal journey of trying to understand these animosities. He travels between the nations, visiting historic landmarks, and gains a grassroots interpretation of a volatile geopolitical landscape. Apart from other history books, Booth doesn’t constantly throw specific dates or statistics at the reader. Instead he takes a tourist approach at the complex relationships, asking basic questions that many should ask themselves: Why have the three countries economies changed so drastically? What are the implications of a united Korean peninsula? Why are some offended by the Yasukuni shrine, but others revere its significance? Should we be worried if Japan is able to militarize again? Will China extinguish democratic sovereignty in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan? Booth’s opening phrase, taken from a Chinese proverb, ‘Two tigers cannot share the same mountain’ is a succinct opening to this international dilemma.

The Tree pruning incident of 1976 at the Joint Security Area within the Demilitarized Zone separating North Korea and South Korea. In this incident, two UNC guard officers were hacked to death by a gang of more than thirty North Korean Security Guards. Some of the North Korean Guards got axes that workmen were using to prune the tree and used them on the UNC Guards which resulted in the deaths of the two US Army Officers. Booth referenced this incident in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ as an example of the constant tension between the two Koreas. (Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

Booth travels by taxi, train, ferry, and car through various points of interest on his journey through the three nations. Writers, journalists, and academic scholars are his primary interviewees, but he has the occasional interaction with someone off the street that expands the grassroots feeling. He spends times interacting with expatriate communities in each country, where they deliver their interpretation of preceding histories and what it means for relationships between their birth and host countries. Major tension stems from the turn of the 20th century when Western colonial powers were waning in the Far East, resulting in a political power vacuum. Japan filled this void quickly by defeating the Russian Empire in 1905, which expanded their control over Korea, and placed the Chinese in precarious situations. In the late 1930s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria resulted in massive loss of human life and arguably started World War II (Booth doesn’t believe it began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland; it started in the Far East with Japan and I agree with him). The atrocities of World War II are, for many of Booth’s interviewees, the foundation for modern-day geopolitical animosity and grudges between people. War crimes, biological warfare, the atomic bomb; everything changed the balance of power when the war ended.

Booth does a phenomenal job explaining the complex dichotomies in direct terms. Not necessarily boiling them down because the details are incredibly important, but by showing how everyday people understand how their countries have changed over the past 70 years. He interviews a Chinese man who built his own museum dedicated to Unit 731, a weapons research department that performed lethal human experimentation on military and civilian prisoners. He states that many Chinese people today consume one of two stories; the official state version taught in school, or the heavily dramatized versions in popular entertainment. This disparity is not only limited to China because of its strict state control of the media, but is found in South Korea and Japan as well. Booth argues that accurate historical education is imperative to understanding the struggles between the Asian nations. That narrative can be distorted however, and that’s a real fear to Booth.

Apologies are another major trend in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’. This is especially common in the section on South Korea and Japan. For most of its history, Korea was subjugated by Japan or the Mongols. Japan is seen as the major perpetrator, especially during World War II. Comfort women and forced conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army were sticking points for the Koreans, who have been demanding official apologies from the Japanese government. While there have been public statements addressing the issue, Japan has somewhat skirted the issue or alleviate the Korean activists right up to the cusp of an apology. Older South Koreans understood the sacrifices their generations made, but Booth notes that not many of the newer generation understand that history though. Younger South Koreans put their energy into cosmetics, internet cafes, smartphones, and visiting Haesindang Park (the ‘Penis Park’; yes, that’s an actual place. Google it at your own peril). Booth highlights the importance of apologies in each section because as modern nations begin issuing official apologies for past grievances or war crimes, some are still encounter difficulties reconciling their history because the people remained divided. This is was the most poignant lesson that Booth recounts because we as U.S. citizens have our own historical demons with the subjugation and massacring of Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yasukuni Shine in Tokyo. An official Shinto shrine that remains a lightning rod for controversy in the post-WWII world.

Yasukuni Shine is another point of contention between the three nations. In a nutshell. this Shinto shrine serves as a war memorial for all deceased Japanese servicemembers. In these names are those convicted of war crimes, including fourteen Class A war criminals convicted of ordering or carrying out atrocities. Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine over the decades, which Korea and China have deemed offensive and controversies have even affected the Emperor of Japan’s actions. No emperor has visited the shrine since 1975, but this doesn’t prevent members of Japanese far-right political parties who advocate for Japan’s re-militarization. A portion of Japanese people still deny that any war crimes were committed during World War II and this leaves many Koreans and Chinese frustrated and unable to pursue future reconciliation. Throughout his interviews in Japan, Booth’s introspection kept returning to the importance of historical education. How could these nations rebuild their prestige and standing with one another if their younger generations denied what their ancestors did?

Overall, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ was a compelling and enlightening read. Booth’s combination of the grassroots history with the broader historical narrative really demonstrates how the course of history affects individual people. Some people will continue to have a burning hatred for another nation, while another embraces another cultural more than their own. All of it boils down to a well-rounded, properly informed education according to Booth. I couldn’t agree more. The ideology of one generation is undoubtedly shaped by another. If proper historical dialogue is replaced by negation and denialism, what can we expect to achieve in terms of global cooperation and cultural understanding? I take the grim view that tensions in the Far East will continue to simmer unless there’s a concerted effort for the nations to face their sordid histories and find a path to reconciliation. Otherwise, the three tigers will keeping circling one another until they all decide to pounce and see which emerges the sole survivor.

Yokohama Chinatown: one of many enclaves of expatriate communities in Japan. Some Chinese and Koreans extol Japanese social and economic virtues, but others are still unable to let go of the historical bad blood between their home countries.

Sakoku: The Isolation of Japan

Global commerce powered the economies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The mechanized march of the Industrial Revolution re-defined how societies managed and engaged with local economies. Europe was at the forefront of this development and international trade grew exponentially. New markets in the Americas, Africa, and Asia fueled much of these revamped industries. Save for one nation who for over two hundred years enforced a harsh government policy of isolation and discouraged foreign intervention. When this practice ended however, the evolution from feudal society to mechanized constitutional monarchy was the fastest in human history. The home of the Divine Emperor: Japan.

Foreign relations in Japanese history have a eclectic pattern. Adjacent neighbors like China, the Ryukyu Islands, and Korea had significant impact on Japanese culture, religion, and social class system. These connections stretch back a thousand years with the introduction of Confucianism and development of the Japanese language based on the framework of the Chinese language. In 1543, a group of Portuguese sailors and merchants were the first Europeans to set foot in Japan and were responsible for the introduction of firearms. The following sixty years saw a frantic amount of European trade, piracy, and Christian missionary work. Catholic missions actively proselytized in Kyushu, attracting thousands of converts a year. The rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600 promptly halted foreign influence following their emergence as the supreme military leaders of Japan. Christianity and European contacts were seen as subversive threats to the shogunate’s stability. With the end of the Sengoku Period (Age of Warring-States) and the dawn of the Edo Period, the new imperial government took measures to solidify domestic control and one policy was ‘sakoku’. Defined in Japanese as ‘closed country’, sakoku outlined isolationist policies dictating who could leave or enter the Japanese islands and control where they operated.

No Japanese ship … nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver and for every Christian in proportion. All Namban (Portuguese and Spanish) who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the Onra, or common jail of the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner.

Selected Text from the Seclusion Edict of 1636

Commerce was the principle focus. Four main ports of entry were designated to regulate the frequency and national origin of foreign merchants visiting Japan. Officially, the Dutch East India Company was the only European entity authorized to conduct business inside Japan. This greatly benefitted the Dutch as it secured a monopoly on all Japanese exports delivered to Europe. Nagasaki was the busiest port as both Dutch and Chinese vessels conducted trade. As a result Nagasaki became a more cosmopolitan city that offered goods from foreign nations and was the main exposure of Japanese culture to the Dutch. Trade goods weren’t the only items that exchanged hands during ‘sakoku’ but information on foreign nations were also commonplace. The Japanese government built a rudimentary picture of other European and Asian nations through Dutch and Korean merchants and diplomats.

A depiction of a party in the house of the Dutch chief of Dejima. Long-standing customs called for inviting Japanese interpreters and civil servants from Nagasaki to parties (Image courtesy of Geheugen van Nederland, circa 1805)

Historical debate over why this isolationist policy was enforced for the duration of the shogunate continues today. The traditional argument states that outside influences such as Westernization and Catholic missionary work undermined the authority of the central government. Civil unrest such as the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-1638) are cited to support these claims. Armed religious groups were a significant threat during the Sengoku period as Buddhist monks formed militias that battled local lords. Tokugawa officials applied similar logic to Christians who they feared would instigate rebellions like the Shimbara. Christianity and Western influence were therefore identified as one in the same according to the government and European nations like the Spanish and Portuguese were routinely targeted and expelled from Japan. Catholic groups formed underground societies called Kakure Kirishitan during the Edo period as a result. This helped preserve Christianity in Japan and in 1871 under the Meiji Restoration, religious freedom legislation was passed to all groups.

Catholic priests formed the first Christian missions in Japan in the late 16th century. As persecution against Christians exploded in the Edo Period, many Jesuit priests were martyred and crucified in Japan (Image courtesy of the Society of Jesus)

Isolationism was not the ultimate aim of ‘sakoku’ however as historians later claim. By controlling foreign imports and contact with outside nations, the Tokugawa government exercised greater control over the local lords (daimyos) and increased their own domestic power. By limiting international commerce to strictly monitored ports, the Shogun controlled what came into the country and into the hands of daimyos. This practice greatly diminished the daimyos’ power as they previously relied on trade with the Chinese mainland to generate income during the Sengoku period. Without this vital link, no daimyo could become powerful enough to challenge the Shogun. Combined with this rationale was forcing the daimyos to rotate their residence at the Edo capital for a year in a practice called ‘sankin-kotai’. By alternating residences in the capital with the Shogun, the daimyos could be monitored and were placed under further control of the Shogun.

Eventually, challenges to ‘sakoku’ were brought up throughout the Edo period as Japanese nobility and European powers attempted to curtail or abolish the edict and introduce full integration of foreign contacts. The Japanese did keep themselves informed of world affairs through their Dutch mediators, but European businesses were still forbidden from operating inside Japan. A spree of Russian, British, French, and U.S. ships visited different islands requesting permission to trade or establish embassies, but they were all denied. World events like the Napoleonic and Opium Wars did result in minimal alterations to the policy (such as allowing ships to dock and resupply, but not trade). The watershed moment however occurred on July 8, 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the four warships (Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and the Susquehanna). Perry’s arrival and subsequent demand for opening trade between Japan and the United States was the first step in dismantling ‘sakoku’ and opened the path for other nations. One year later, the Convention of Kanagawa and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ paved the way for economic relations and end of Japanese isolationism. What can’t be ignored though is that as European nations finally established relations with Japan, highly unequal trade treaties and economic agreements resulted from this gunboat diplomacy. Terms and conditions like these remained a sticking point for the Japanese who feared encroaching imperialist conditions on their homeland. An industrialized West and rapidly changing domestic settings finally forced the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and signaled the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. Caption reads ‘Susquehanna, Saratoga, Saint Mary’s, Supply, Plymouth, Perry, Mississippi, Princeton-View of the vessels composing the Japanese squadron’. The mission of the second expedition was to sign the ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ which opened up trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S., circa 1854