Philip Johnston was a missionary’s son who grew up on a Navajo reservation, and fought in World War I. He was aware of the Chocktaw code talkers who served in Europe alongside the allies, and recommended to Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, that Navajos be recruited to serve in the Marine Corps in an identical role. The Navajo language is a complex one, whose “syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training”. It was, at the outbreak of the Pacific War, unwritten, and therefore presumably unbreakable.
Around 400 Navajos served with the Marines at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima – and at all the Pacific assaults the Marines conducted between 1942-1945. They served with all six Marine divisions. Their encryptions were fast, accurate and never broken. And valuable: Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
So highly was the Navajo code valued, that it remained a military secret for years after World War II. It wasn’t until 1992 that their efforts were publicly recognized.
The last of them has stepped into the clearing at the end of the path:
Keith Little did not know the full extent of his contribution as one of the Navajo Code Talkers to the American effort in World War II until much later in life.
Mr Little, one of the most recognizable of the four remaining Code Talkers, was 17 when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, becoming one of hundreds of Navajos trained as Code Talkers.
He spent much of his later life towards the creation of a museum that he never saw realized: Mr Little died of melanoma Tuesday night at a Fort Defiance hospital, said his wife, Nellie. He was 87.
Semper Fi, Marine.