On June 3, William Tully Brown died and his death produced headlines. Mr. Brown was 96, so there was nothing unusual in his passing. Why headlines? He was one of the last remaining Navajo code talkers, and two other code talkers had died in the previous four weeks. According to most accounts, there are only five Navajo code talkers left alive.
To those unfamiliar with the history of the code talkers, Navajo men were recruited by the Marine Corps to send radio messages between units during the Pacific campaign in World War II. The Navajo language is quite different from any other language; the Japanese could not decode any messages and the code talkers probably saved thousands of American lives.
Native American code talkers were first used in World War I, with members of the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes transmitting messages. These languages were not as difficult to decipher as Navajo, and in 1942, Philip Johnston, a World War I vet who had lived with his missionary family on a Navajo reservation, suggested the use of Navajo code talkers to the Marines.
After the war, the code talkers received no recognition since the program was kept secret anticipating its use in future wars. Finally, in 1968, code talking was declassified. In 1982, President Reagan awarded a Certificate of Recognition to the Navajos and in 2000, President Clinton gave a Congressional Gold Medal to the first 29 Navajo code talkers and silver medals to the other 300 Navajos who had participated in the program.
In 2002, the movie “Windtalkers” was released which purported to tell the tale of the code talkers. Nicolas Cage had the starring role as an Italian-American sergeant responsible for protecting a code talker. Reviewers complained that the movie focused more on the white Marines rather than the Navajos. At least the film allowed many Americans to become aware of the Navajo contribution to our victory in the Pacific. With a scant few code talkers remaining, it is hoped that what these men did will be remembered for a long time.
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