When the Navajo were called to service in the spring of 1942, they met the challenge of service in World War II with innovation and pride despite their history of disenfranchisement and cultural subordination.
On Thursday, Nov. 3, in the Humanities Instructional Building, the American Indian Student Association sponsored a presentation of the history of Navajo code talkers and a lecture by Joe Morris Sr., a former Navajo code talker.
Part of a distinguished group of Marine servicemen, the Navajo code talkers were recruited to transmit messages in a language that could not be decoded by Japanese intelligence.
The presentation, accompanied by the film ‘True Whispers,’ gave a narrated account of the history of the Navajo people leading up to World War II, centering on the suppression of their native language and its subsequent revival as a means of communication during World War II.
The complex syntax and flexible alphabet of the Navajo language made it perfect for sending classified military messages without the threat of interception and decoding by the Japanese. It is extremely difficult for someone to understand the language without extensive exposure to it.
Code talkers were utilized in U.S. attacks in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. In fact, the battle of Iowa Jima, a crucial victory for the U.S. military force, may not have been won without the code talkers’ ability to relay valuable information in secret.
The code talkers were sworn to secrecy during and after their service terms should their skills need to be utilized in the future. In 1968 the code was declassified and in 2001, the code talkers were finally honored with Congressional Medals of Honor and the respect of the nation.
Morris lectured following the film, giving accounts of his World War II experiences and his youth on a Navajo reservation as a shepherd.
‘I used to sleep on a dirt floor with a sheep skin,’ Morris said. ‘We didn’t have any electricity, running water, school, nothing, but I didn’t miss anything.’
Morris did not receive a formal education until he was 15, at which time he was enrolled in a boarding school 65 miles away from his home.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor caused Morris’ school to be shut down in the spring, leaving him with little education and no job.
‘When I turned 17 I thought I should look for work or do something,’ Morris said. ‘I couldn’t herd sheep for the rest of my life.’
Morris lied on his registration card and said he was 18 in order to get a job.
After working a short while at an ore mine for 50 cents an hour, Morris received a draft letter, requiring his service to the U.S. Marine Corps.
‘I told my mom and she started crying for me,’ Morris said. ‘My father said, ‘Don’t cry, we’re going to get a medicine man to pray for him and sing for him so that nothing will happen to him.”
Morris trained for eight weeks at a San Diego boot camp. He quickly rose the top of his training class due to his grandfather’s strict physical regimen.
‘He made me run about three or four miles every morning,’ Morris said. ‘He told me if I ran like that I would get strong. He made me crawl through the snow. He said it would make a man out of me.’
After training, Morris was sent to a secret location at Camp Pendleton where he was trained in the Navajo code.
‘They taught us the code and told us we had to memorize it,’ Morris said.’ ‘It took us about four months. I studied day and night because I wanted to learn it well.’
Once the Navajo soldiers committed the code to memory, they participated in communication exercises that demonstrated the speed and efficiency of the code. Before they were sent to the war front, they were sworn to secrecy.
‘What we learned there, we couldn’t tell anyone. One of my classmates asked, ‘What if a Japanese soldier has his bayonet at our throat?’ The sergeant replied, ‘You die for your country.”
Morris spent two months in the active war zone of Okinawa before being sent to China after the bombing at Hiroshima. Morris was discharged nine months later. He attributes his safe return to luck and the protection of the medicine man his father hired before he left the reservation.
Morris’ awards include combat ribbons for the Pacific Theater and China Occupation medals. He also holds a Rifle Expert medal, as well as certificates of appreciation from both the president of the United States and the California Senate.
The final part of the presentation included the awarding of a special military honor. Fellow Navajo Indian Lance Corporal Nicomah Tolliver presented Morris with a Marine Core Coin, a special honor that only one marine can bestow upon another.
Inspired by Morris’ bravery and service, Tolliver felt compelled to honor him with the special award.
‘I had read about World War II and the Navajo Code Talkers since I was a young kid and I loved the whole idea of it … how the government came in and used the Navajo language as a weapon against the enemy,’ Tolliver said.
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