CHEERS ARE LOUD as everyone acknowledges the presence of surviving members of the famous Navajo Code Talkers. Each of the Code Talkers wears a yellow vest and a white campaign hat. On the vest are the words, “Navajo Code Talker” and then the Marine Corps’ globe and anchor. They wear their campaign hats and salute proudly as the National Anthem and the Marine Corps Hymn is sung. People stand with the Code Talkers to sing the National Anthem and the Marine Corps Hymn. It is a gala evening.
No one knows how many more such reunions will take place. The Code Talkers are now old men in their late seventies or early eighties. Their feats and bravery are now dim memories; hardly anyone in the banquet hall, other than the Code Talkers, remembers World War II and most of the people present can barely remember the wars in Korea or Vietnam. The people are there to honor the brave old men they have heard about all their lives and these old men now help them feel pride in the Navajo Nation.
A Marine Corps general is there to give the key-note speech. The Chairman of the Tribal Council also gave a speech and for the bellaggona, the white people there, the evening begins to feel long. But in Navajo tradition everyone is given the opportunity to talk.
The general’s speech, filled with bravado about the Marine Corps, finally ends and the Code Talker who acts as the master of ceremonies says there was one more man who has asked to speak to the people.
A groan silently circles the room, especially among the bellaggona; for them the evening has ended with the Marine general’s speech. The food of the banquet eaten, almost too much food in fact, the drinks consumed and most everyone exhausted of friendly chatter, the time has come to go home. Nevertheless, the room quiets as a very small and old man, about the age of the Code Talkers on a dais, stands at the microphone and begins to speak.
The elderly Navajo man, not wearing any veterans or military garb, speaks so softly people strain to hear. Further, he is speaking in Navajo. The master of ceremonies comes to the man, adjusts the microphone, and whispers in the man’s ear. The master of ceremonies bends down to the microphone to make an announcement; The master of ceremonies says, “I have asked Mr. Neztsosie to speak louder and in English. Go ahead, Mr. Neztsosie.”
Mr. Neztsosie begins to speak. He tells a story never told before and the people sit enthralled.
Remember how bad it was back then, before the big war. A poor Navajo boy had no work, no money, and no food. One day I walk about in Farmington wishing to eat, but I had no money. I thought about stealing food at Hank’s vegetable stand, but I like Hank and do not want to steal from him. Just as I think about stealing, a soldier walks up to me and asks, “Want to join up, Hastiin?” I look at the man. He was Diné, one of the People.
I said, “I don’t want to be a soldier.”
The soldier said, “I am not a soldier, I am in the New Mexico Guard.”
Never heard of such a thing; so, I asked him why he looked like a soldier. He told me that they give you soldier clothes, you go with them, they feed you, and you get to carry a rifle. You not have to go away to be a soldier. I thought this is good. Nice clothes, food, not have to go away. But there has to be something else. I asked, “What do you have to do to get so rich?”
The soldier said, “You come to Farmington on Tuesday night, spend the night learning how to walk with other hastiin and learn to carry rifle and then you go to big camp in Texas for seven days. They give you money also, more food, and a lodge to sit in and talk with Diné.”
At first I thought only Diné were in the New Mexico Guard, but I find bellaggona are in charge. I don’t care. I have good clothes, good food, and many times a clean place to sleep, some money, and make many friends.
One day in 1940 I am told the President,Mr.RooseveltinWashington, wants the Guard to go to a place called the Philippines. I don’t know where this is, but I know it is a long way from here.
The day comes and the captain tells us that trucks will take all the Guard to Gallup where we will get on a train. I had never been on a such a nice train before and went to Gallup only once before. At first I was nervous, but we all talk and the captain says it will be a big game for us out there then we come home in a year.
At a port in California my buddies and I get on a large boat and we leave for a long trip over the ocean; I had never seen anything bigger than a lake. Now on the big boat I cannot see land anywhere and I am very sick. I think it took a month, maybe more, to go to the Philippine Islands. Happy to be back on land I think I will like that place. It is very warm, many trees, and people who look like me and my hastiin from Farmington. So, we go to a new camp.
For many months all we do is march and play war games. Then when we are not marching and playing war games we clean our barracks and mow the grass. We all wonder why we are in the Army in so far away a place. We want to go home. Our year is almost over and we think of home all the time.
Then one morning we are told that Japs have bombed American ships in a place I not know about. Then we are told the Japs are bombing Manila; that is a place I know about and now I am worried.
We are told Mac, our big boss soldier, wants all to be ready to fight the Japs. I wonder why we or they want to fight. I have no grudge against them. But we have to fight and many people are killed, some hastiin from Farmington are killed. I am almost killed but then I am captured and I have to march away to a camp the Japs have built. Many die as we march and I think I will die too.
One day, after many days of being frightened and hungry and seeing many die, a Jap officer sees me and comes to me and shouts in English, “You are Japanese, a Nisei.” I don’t know what a Nisei is so I say, “No, I am Navajo.”
The officer shouts at me about being a traitor to my people and that all Nisei are to be educated and made into loyal sons of the emperor. I keep saying, “I am a Navajo.” The Jap officer marches me to a big building, tells another officer something in Jap talk and I am marched away from my friends and put in a small camp. There the food is better and I am given clean clothing and a better bed.
A few days later I am marched to a sea port and put on a ship. The ship is full of American prisoners, but I am not treated as a prisoner. My space on the ship is closer to the top and with fewer people. Everyone with me looks like they are Indian. Some say they are Navajo but do not speak the language of the Diné; I wonder about them. We are told what to do in case Americans sink our ship. Now I am scared again that I will drown. I don’t know how to swim.
But we reach Yokohama. I see Americans marched off. They all look sick and very skinny. I don’t see them again for a long time. I go to an army camp where they try to teach me to speak Japanese. It is very difficult and it takes many months for me to learn to speak and I never learn to read.
After a long time another Jap officer comes to me to ask, “Are you an American Indian or Nisei?” I say, “Don’t know what a Nisei is, I am Navajo.”
The officer tells me that the Nisei are Jap people born in America to Jap mom and dad who go to America; then he says to me that the Americans are transmitting in a language they do not know but think it is an American Indian language. The officer took me to a very special place under the ground where people were listening on ear phones to the radios in front of them. This officer gives me a set of ear phones and asks me to listen. I do. Then I tell him that the people on the radio are speaking Navajo, the language of the Diné.
This man says to me, “Good, you listen and write down what they say.”
I say, “I cannot write Navajo.”
He says, “Write in Japanese.”
I say, “I cannot write Japanese.”
Then he says, “Can you write in English?”
I say, “I think so.”
He yells at me, “Then write in English, you stupid man.”
I am very insulted, but I say, “I will listen and if I know the English word for what they say, I will write it down.”
I listen and write words down. Sometimes I don’t know what the English word is for what the Navajo man is saying on the radio, but I draw a picture of it. I sit at the radio every day for many hours and write on a piece of paper what I am hearing, or I draw a picture of the words the men have said. Every day I give them what I write after I hear and every day an officer comes back and yells at me that I am not writing down what I hear. The words don’t make any sense.
Some days I am beaten with a stick for not being truthful, but every day they make me go back. I write or draw what I hear and always tell the Jap officers the truth but they do not believe me.
After many days, maybe many weeks (I don’t know how many), an officer comes to me where I sleep to tell me that my lies will be punished. I tell him I not lie but he hits me hard with a stick and then I am dragged away. They put me with the other prisoners and I work in a mine digging coal.
So, I was the “code breaker” who told the Jap enemy that the messages they could not understand were in the language of the Diné but when I write down what you people say it makes no sense the Code Talkers are too clever. I am guilty of betraying my people by telling the Japs that the Diné are talking on the radio. The words are Navajo words but the words do not make any sense when all together. So I am guilty of two things; I betray my people and I do not break the code on the radio.
When the war is over I am free from the Jap people and told to go home. I do and never want to be a soldier again.
Mr. Neztsosie stops talking and turns the master of ceremonies to indicate that he is finished.
The master of ceremonies says, “Thank you, Mr. Neztsosie that was very interesting. I suppose now, we can say with certainty that the codes of the Navajo Code Talkers were never broken.”
Everyone applauds. The evening over. Mr. Neztsosie disappears out a back door. He just wanted to tell his story, the one never told, before he died.