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The Unbroken Code of the Navajo

Thursday, November 11, 2004 at 1:45 PM

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Today is Veteran's Day, the day Americans traditionally honor those who have fought to defend the nation's freedom. During World War II, a special group of soldiers helped to liberate the South Pacific from the Japanese. Most never fired a gun, but their contribution was one of the most significant of the war. Yesterday, Marine veteran Keith Little spoke at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, where his granddaughter is an employee. ideastream's Karen Schaefer brings us his story.

Keith Little is a member of the Navajo Nation. Born in Arizona, he fought with the U.S. Marines during World War II. He’s 80 years old now, but he remembers clearly taking part in the nearly month-long battle for the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.

Keith Little: That was the last battle that I was in. And there was a lot of my comrades, you know the men in my platoon, they looked after me because I was a radio man. I had an earphone over my ear all the time and I had a pamphlet to write and a microphone. And I had a weapon which I never used.

Little was trained as a code talker. He was one of about 400 Navajos who learned to send and receive coded messages about troop movements and battle plans in the Navajo language. It was a code that was never broken.

Keith Little: I had to memorize all the code. It was over 200 codes and then that increased to 411 and every bit of it had to memorized because they never want to let the brochure out of responsible hands. That’s what precisely the intent is, to protect the code at all costs.

Over the first two days of the battle for Iwo Jima, six Navajo code talkers sent and received more than 800 messages without a single error. Some of the words in the messages Little sent were doubly-encrypted. For example:

Keith Little: Grenade. That’s an ordinary English word. The code word for grenade is Na-ma-say. That’s potato. Bring a box of Na-ma-say.

After the battle, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, stated ‘Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.’ Little says he would have been proud if he had known. The Navajo code remained classified until 1968. Little says there was not much ceremony in his homecoming to the reservation.

Keith Little: I hitchhiked back home and left my gear at the trading post and walked home. They were surprised that I was home, but I guess they were glad, because our way of doing things is when a loved one comes home from a long period of absence, they usually put up a mutton and feast on mutton. So that’s what they did to me.

Keith Little and other surviving Navajo code talkers were honored at the Pentagon in 1992. Today, Little continues to tell his story to schoolchildren and veterans groups across the country. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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