Of the more than 430 Navajo men who helped generate an unbreakable code during World War II, fewer than 20 remain.
The ranks of the Navajo Code Talkers, known for their role in helping the Allied Forces triumph over the enemy 70 years ago, are dwindling. But America’s gratitude is not, U.S. Sen. John McCain told an audience of hundreds of people gathered Friday in Window Rock, Arizona.
“The history of WWII is inextricably tied to these great men,” McCain said during a morning ceremony set against the background of sloping sandstone cliffs. “Some military experts even speculate that the war may have turned out differently had it not been for their heroics.”
McCain, who was joined at the ceremony by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Arizona state Sen. Carlyle Begay and top elected Navajo leaders, called the Code Talkers “living legends” who altered the course of world history.
“Today we celebrate their remarkable sacrifice,” he said. “But today is also a day of reflection. The truth is, our time with these heroes grows shorter every year.”
A handful of Code Talkers, now in their 80s or 90s, were the guests of honor in the celebration, held on the 70th anniversary of the day the bloodiest war in world history ended. On August 14, 1945, Japan announced that it had officially surrendered to the Allies.
“When the time came for you to answer your country’s call, you came,” McCain told the Code Talkers. “You served well the country that sent you.”
The Code Talkers unit was formed in 1942 when the U.S. Marine Corps recruited 29 young, Navajo-speaking men to help develop a code. Because many of the youths lacked birth certificates, recruits as young as 15 enlisted. For many, the military offered a first look at the world beyond the reservation.
The code originated as about 200 terms, but grew to about 600 terms by the end of the war. With the code, Marines could communicate in 20 seconds what took coding machines 30 minutes to do.
The irony of the situation was that some of the Code Talkers were born in a country that didn’t recognize them as citizens. Others endured boarding school policies that punished them for speaking their Native language.
But the Navajo language survived – and thrived, said Navajo President Russell Begaye. He pointed to the Code Talkers as the first to advocate for preservation of the language, known in Navajo as Diné Bizaad.
“It was the Navajo language that won the war,” he said. “Not so much the guns and the missiles and the tanks, but it was the language, our sacred language.”
The Navajo Code Talkers weren’t always recognized as national heroes, however. Until the code was declassified in 1968, they were ordered not to speak of the details of their service in the Pacific Theater.
Fourteen years after that, in 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan declared August 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day. It wasn’t until 2001 that the U.S government formally honored the Code Talkers with Congressional Gold Medals.
In 2007, the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution declaring August 14 a Navajo holiday. And last year, Arizona officially set aside the date to honor the Code Talkers.
Recognition may be coming late, but it’s still warranted, Arizona Gov. Ducey said.
“A little over 16 million Americans came to the aid of their nation during WWII,” he said. “A little over 430 young, Navajo-speaking men would help lead us to victory.”
Ducey offered his “eternal gratitude” for the Code Talkers’ service.
“Their pride and patriotism for this country was as unbreakable as their code that helped the Allied Forces win the war,” he said. “For that, we owe them a debt that can never be fully repaid.”