NEW YORK – The famed Navajo Code Talkers, the elite Marine unit whose unbreakable code stymied the Japanese in World War II, fear their legacy will die with them.
Only about 50 of the 400 Code Talkers are believed to be still alive, most living in the Navajo Nation reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many are frail or ill, with little time left to tell the world about their wartime contribution.
But on Wednesday, 13 of the Code Talkers are coming to New York City to participate for the first time in the nation's largest Veterans Day parade.
The young Navajo Marines, using secret Navajo language-encrypted military terms, helped the U.S. prevail at Iwo Jima and other World War II Pacific battles, serving in every Marine assault in the South Pacific between 1942-1945. Military commanders said the code, transmitted verbally by radio, helped save countless American lives and bring a speedier end to the war in the Pacific theater.
They were sworn to secrecy about their code, so complex that even other Navajo Marines couldn't decipher it. Used to transmit secret tactical messages via radio or telephone, the code remained unbroken and classified for decades because of its potential postwar use.
"We were never told that our code was never decoded" or given identities of the original 29 Navajos who created it, said Keith Little, 85, who joined the Marines at 17 and remembers crouching in a bomb crater amid heavy fire on Iwo Jima.
"It was all covered by secrecy. We were constantly told not to talk about it," said Little. The Code Talkers felt compelled to honor their secrecy orders, even after the code was declassified in 1968.
Little plans to go to New York with the other Code Talkers, many of whom were young farmers and sheepherders and had never been away from home before the war.
"The code did a lot of damage to the enemy," said Samuel Tom Holiday, 85, of Kayenta, Ariz., who also is joining the parade. He was a 20-year-old Code Talker when he and two other Marines went behind enemy lines on Iwo Jima to locate a Japanese artillery unit advancing on American forces.
Once the unit was located, Holiday transmitted a coded message to Marine artillery, which fired a big shell at the Japanese. After the Marine rifleman proclaimed it "right on target," Holiday messaged "Right on Target" to a Najavo Code Talker in Marine artillery.
Though the Code Talkers transmitted information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications, they did not know at the time how those messages figured in the greater battle strategy.
Today "there's a certain elation about" knowing how much their work affected the outcome of the war, said Little, who runs a family ranch in Crystal, N.M., on the Navajo Nation.
Before the code, the Japanese intercepted and sabotaged U.S. military communications at an alarming rate because they had expert English translators. American forces then devised ever more complicated codes, but that increased the time — sometimes hours — for sending and decoding them.
The code, based on the ancient Navajo language, changed that. In the first 48 hours of the battle of Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers worked nonstop, transmitting and receiving more than 800 messages about troop movement and enemy fire — none deciphered by the Japanese. What confounded the enemy most was that Code Talkers could use distinctly different words for exactly the same message.
Recognition from the U.S. government and awareness of the Code Talkers — even within the Navajo community — has been slow to come. It wasn't until 2000 that the Congressional Gold Medal was bestowed on the survivors of the original 29 Code Talkers and silver medals on the rest.
At least five of the Code Talkers died just this year, creating an urgency for the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation to create a museum in their honor in New Mexico, near the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz. It is slated to open sometime in 2012.
Yvonne Murphy, a foundation board member and daughter of Code Talker Raymond R. Smith Sr., who died seven years ago, did not hear of the Code Talkers until she was 16.
"I saw this outfit lying on the bed ... a Marine gold-colored shirt," she said, the uniform of the Code Talkers, laid out with some Navajo jewelry. But it wasn't until she was in her 30s, "that I was able to grasp the whole concept," added Murphy, 45.
The Code Talkers coming to New York this week hope to highlight their efforts and funding needs for the museum, slated to open sometime in 2012.
On Tuesday, they will visit ground zero and the World War II aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid, where they will give a proclamation on behalf of the Navajo Nation to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"A lot more Marines would be dead right now," if not for the Code Talkers, said parade chairman Patrick Gualtieri.
"Our language was used to help win the war," said Holiday.
"After we're all gone, there will be no one to tell the story."