At a time when text messaging has spawned a shortcut version of the English language, one local youth group is turning back the clock to give life to …
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At a time when text messaging has spawned a shortcut version of
the English language, one local youth group is turning back the
clock to give life to the days when the airwaves were ruled by an
The Douglas County Young Marines gained national recognition
this year when they were named Unit of the Year by the Young
Marines Association, and among the unit’s outreach is a project
that spans generations.
The local unit of the Young Marines was instrumental in giving
life to the Navajo Nation celebration of National Code Talker Day,
honoring some of the nation’s unsung World War II heroes.
The Douglas County Young Marines joined others in a three-state
region to celebrate National Code Talker Day this summer with about
30 of Navajo Nation’s celebrated WWII heroes. The Navajo Code
Talkers were Navajo tribe Marines who used their native language
during WWII to provide secure communications to the frontlines in
America’s fight against Japan.
As many tell it, the Navajo Code talkers saw their mission as
more than an act of patriotism.
“We were fighting for our sacred land,” said Thomas H. Begay. “A
foreign country wanted to take Mother Earth away from us.”
Begay was among the Code Talkers who descended on Iwo Jima in
what is widely believed to be a turning point in the fight against
the Japanese. The Code Talkers transmitted more than 800 messages
during the battle of Iwo Jima. Their messages were the first to
make it past Japanese infiltration.
Until the classified Code Talker operation began, the Japanese
had successfully decoded every attempt at encrypted radio
communication sent by U.S. troops. Historic records show a World
War I veteran named Phillip Johnston, raised on a Navajo
reservation by his missionary parents, recalled the complexity of
the Navajo tongue from his youth and successfully lobbied the U.S.
Marine Corps to establish the Code Talker program.
The first Code Talkers joined the Marines May 5, 1942, when 29
Navajos arrived in San Diego for basic training. Unbeknownst to
them, they would become part of one of the military’s most powerful
Using a base structure of about 200 words, the Code Talkers
memorized code words in their native tongue. Much like the Navajo
language itself, the code was never written down — each Code Talker
memorized the code.
Every military term was given a code word — the Navajo word for
“hummingbird” translated in the code as “fighter plane,” “egg”
meant “bomb,” “buzzard” for “bomber.” Other words were spelled out
using one of three words to designate each letter of the
Each Code Talker memorized the inventory of more than 400 words.
The code was never written down until after the operation was
Only Marines were recruited as Code Talkers, whose task remained
cloaked in secrecy until the late 1960s. By the end of WWII, almost
400 Navajo had served as Code Talkers.
The Japanese never broke the code.
This history languished in the cradle of Navajo culture until
2006 when Navajo Nation declared Aug. 14 of each year as National
Code Talker Day, said Michael Smith.
Smith is the deputy clerk of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court and
his father, Samuel Jesse Smith, is a surviving Code Talker.
The idea to celebrate Code Talker Day as a national holiday was
sparked by an Iwo Jima observance in Guam, where Smith met Douglas
County Young Marine staff member Brenda Moreno. Moved by the
shortage of resources among the Navajo people and fueled with a
desire to recognize the WWII heroes, Moreno adopted Code Talker Day
as one of the Young Marines’ annual projects.
“I wanted to make [the observance] bigger and better and show we
appreciated all the unique qualities of their sacrifices,” Moreno
said. “We might not have won WWII without them and I don’t think
people realized that. It was important to me for the kids to know
what they’ve done.”
The first Young Marine-sponsored observance came in 2007 when
Navajo Nation government offices closed and the Douglas County
Young Marines traveled to Window Rock, Ariz., the home of Navajo
In 2008, the youth group was joined by others in Arizona and
Utah to descend on Window Rock for a celebration that included a
morning parade, a catered meal for nearly 400 visitors,
presentations from state officials and Navajo dignitaries and a
drum circle dance in honor of the ancient culture.
The day would not have been possible without the help of the
Young Marines, Smith said. In addition to the financial support to
provide the food, tent and supplies, about 50 Young Marines arrived
in Window Rock the day before the celebration to pull weeds, clean
bathrooms, mow knee-high grass and pick up trash at Navajo Veterans
The park sits at the base of Window Rock, an awe-inspiring rock
formation the Navajo regard as a “spiritual portal — a window to
the deities,” Smith said.
The deities seemed to “smile” on the Young Marines, who worked
in military precision from sun up to sun down, erecting the tent,
setting up chairs and serving food — all with a generous humility
rare among today’s youth.
“We couldn’t do this without the Young Marines,” Smith said.
The day served as a learning opportunity for the Young Marines,
who were treated to an impromptu storytelling circle from a Code
Talker who confided he joined the Marines at 15 years old,
unapologetically underage. His revelation reflected as shock in the
faces of many of the Young Marines, students who range in age from
Birth records were rare in Navajo Nation and age confirmation
was not among the military’s top priorities, said Samuel Smith, who
has no relation to Michael or Samuel Jesse Smith.
He recalls returning home from his service as a Code Talker, to
face a curious group of Navajo elders. The Code Talker program was
military-classified at that time, and Samuel Smith was prohibited
from sharing any part of his experience.
His elders, however, showed a fierce curiosity about his mission
in Japan. It is tantamount to heresy to disobey an elder in Navajo
Nation, Smith said. As he faced the elders and was at risk of
showing disrespect by his inability to heed their demands, he was
relieved when one sage leader shared words of wisdom that became a
lifelong mantra for Samuel Smith.
“‘Leave the war behind you,’ they told me,” he said. ‘That’s
where it belongs.’”
The Young Marines returned from their trip with a new
appreciation of a piece of the nation’s history.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for our Young Marines,” said
Chris Proctor, commanding officer of the Douglas County Young
The unit continues to gain attention, with the 2008 Fulcrum
Shield Award, a U.S. Department of Defense sponsored recognition
for success in drug-demand reduction efforts. The Douglas County
Young Marines will be the honored guests at the Pentagon Oct. 24,
for one of the Department of Defense’s highest honors.
Proctor, his wife, staff member Nancy Proctor and Brenda Moreno
will join 13 Young Marines for the trip to Washington, D.C.
Proctor is modest about the recognition for the unit, which he
said aims not for accolades, but for outreach.
“I’m very excited. I feel honored,” Proctor said. “We do what we
do because it’s fun and because we care about the kids. To be
recognized for caring about the kids is nice but it just seems like
something we should do anyway.”
For more information about the Douglas County Young Marines,
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