Michael V. Smith was raised in the rich tradition of Navajo military history. His father, Samuel J. Smith Sr., served as a Code Talker in the Pacific theatre during World War II. The elder Smith served in the 4th Marine Division in the Headquarters Battalion, Communications Company, and he survived the battles of Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Though information on the Code Talkers was classified for years, Michael was a child when it became declassified in 1968, and he grew up hearing his father’s stories.
“We didn’t know he was a Code Talker until the Division he was in invited all the Navajo Code Talkers to their annual convention in Chicago,” Michael Smith said. “That’s where we started to learn about my dad’s story and history in WWII. My father’s point of view is like all Code Talkers: they were Marines first, then communications men, then Code Talkers. The language was a weapon given to them in order to preserve their way of life and to protect their people, which is the United States. It’s not like I’m Navajo and you’re white and you’re black; they were all Americans, and they were all fighting to prevent Japan from invading the United States.”
Michael Smith was born in 1962 and raised in Fort Defiance, Arizona, near the capital of the Navajo Nation in Window Rock. In 1981, on the 39th anniversary of the recruitment of the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers, in honor of their service, the Marine Corps went to the Navajo Nation and recruited another all-Navajo platoon, mostly made up of the descendants and relatives of the WWII Code Talkers. Smith enlisted in the platoon. “It was my own personal way to give honor to my Dad,” Smith said. “The Marine Corps just provided a venue for that. I don’t think I could have gotten into the Marines any other way.”
The All Navajo Platoon existed from 1981 until 1985.
Smith feels that the All Navajo Platoon excelled in boot camp because they all came from the reservation. “Because of the status of the platoon, we excelled to a far greater potential than if we hadn’t been all Navajos, I think. In boot camp, there were eight platoons that all competed with each other. Our advantage, being all Navajo, was that we grew up in a pretty tough environment; we were all from the Navajo Nation. That gave us an advantage because a lot of us were able to tolerate the discipline and the physical tests that they put you through.”
Smith was especially proud when he graduated boot camp, not just because he graduated as the honor man for his platoon, but also because the Navajo Nation bused in the surviving Code Talkers and their families for the ceremony. “To see my father at my boot camp graduation, as proud as he was, made me feel like I did the best I could to honor him as a Navajo Code Talker. He and my mother, my grandmother, and my nephew were all in attendance and the Navajo Code Talkers were all in front of the review stand on the parade deck, so the Marine Corps honored them as well. When we did eyes right, we didn’t do a salute just to the general of the base, we saluted all of the Navajo Code Talkers as we marched past.”
Smith was a peacetime soldier. He spent a year at Camp Pendleton in California, and then he had a yearlong tour in Okinawa, and then finished out his service in the 1st Field Force Battalion in California. He was honorably discharged in 1985.
Smith married after his service and had two sons, and now has one grandson. He began working as a bailiff in the judicial branch of the Navajo nation in 1989, and now works as the court clerk for the tribe’s Supreme Court.
In 2005, he got to go back to the Pacific Islands with his father. “I was able to go back to Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima with my dad and got to hear what he had to say. He told me about what the Navajo Code Talkers did in battle. They took the traditional things that they learned into battle with them and they came back and raised families and were productive men in the Navajo Nation.”