WASHINGTON – Nearly six decades after they went to war, 29 Navajo Indians were honored Thursday for creating the uncrackable code used by the Marines during World War II's fiercest battles.
President Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award Congress can bestow, to four of the surviving Navajo Code Talkers. The other 25 Code Talkers were represented by family members, who accepted the medals.
"Today, we honor 29 Native Americans who, in a desperate hour, gave their country a service only they could give," Bush said in a ceremony held in the packed rotunda of the Capitol. "Today, we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago."
One of the four, Allen Dale June of West Valley City, Utah, was just 17 and lied about his age to enlist in the Marines in 1942.
"Naturally we were concerned about the survival (of the country) in the Great War at the time. At the same time we were defending our own country, the Navajo Nation," said June, now 79.
The Code Talkers were a group of Navajo Indians who used their native language to develop a code that was never broken and used by Marines throughout the Pacific front.
The Navajo language is complex, and through circumlocution the Code Talkers made it even more so. For example, a colonel was encoded into the Navajo word for "silver eagle" or "Ataah-besh-le-gai". A submarine became "Besh-lo," which in Navajo means "iron fish," and a bomber was "Jay-sho," or buzzard in Navajo.
The Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy and returned home without fanfare. Even after the project was declassified in 1968, there was no official recognition.
Only five of the 29 original Code Talkers are still living, and only four were well enough to travel to Washington for the honor.
Chester Nez, of Albuquerque, N.M., said he's sorry that more of the 29 original Code Talkers didn't live to receive the honor.
"It makes me kind of feel bad that these guys are gone," said Nez, 80.
After the 29 Navajo had created the code, the Code Talkers group was expanded by 300 Marines. They are expected to receive Congressional Silver Medals next fall.