Son of WWII code talker shares his father’s story
November 29, 2012 1:58PM
The Rev. Mark Thomas holds up a photo of his father, one of the famed code talkers that served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, during a program at Eisenhower High School. | Supplied Photo
Updated: January 3, 2013 6:03AM
Punished for speaking their language on their own land, treated like second-class citizens, Navajo men nevertheless volunteered when the United States asked for their help after Pearl Harbor.
Whatever their feelings toward the American government, they understood the nation faced a grave threat from a ruthless foe. Throughout the course of World War II, more than 400 Navajo served in the U.S. Marine Corps by communicating vital information through a code based on their native language.
“The Navajo people always have felt great attachment to the earth,” said the Rev. Mark Thomas, a Navajo whose father served as a famed code talker during World War II. “In fact, the word (Ne he mah) for ‘earth’ in Navajo translates as ‘this is my mother.’ All they knew was that an enemy attacked their home and destroyed their earth.”
Thomas spoke to history and Marine Corps JROTC classes recently at Eisenhower High School. The Rev. Peter Contreras, an Eisenhower graduate and pastor of Bethel-Pentecostal Church in Blue Island, arranged for Thomas to speak.
An unlikely source provided the idea to employ Navajo as a platform for a military code. The son of a missionary who served on a reservation in New Mexico approached military officials with the concept after the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet on Dec. 7, 1941.
Phillip Johnson lived among the Navajo on the reservation, Thomas explained, and understood the language’s unique qualities. Complex with no written alphabet, Navajo proved very difficult to translate to outsiders.
“The Japanese were breaking every code,” Thomas said. “Navajo, however, they could not.”
Native Navajo speakers could communicate complex messages in short order. In fact, messages that required 30 minutes or more to unscramble using traditional codes needed less than 20 seconds for the Navajo men to send and translate, Thomas said.
Once military officials understood the potential of Navajo as a code platform, their next task involved persuading native speakers to volunteer. Warfare did not historically suit the Navajo.
“We’re farmers and sheep herders,” Thomas said. “There are many misconceptions about the Navajo. We were never a warlike people.”
The original 29 volunteers developed the code and trained other Navajo who would join the Marines in battles across the Pacific.
“They overlooked the mistreatment,” Thomas said. “My father, who died in 1984, was very proud to have served as a code talker. In fact, he was buried in his code talker uniform. He was very willing to defend his country.”
Code talkers faced great risk. Wearing large radio packs on their backs, they made inviting targets for snipers, Thomas said.
“I get emotional talking about this,” Thomas told students. “I represent my dad. It’s a great honor to be the son of a code talker. We’re a minority. Many of you here are minorities, too. This is proof that you can do whatever you choose. People may look down on us, but we can accomplish anything.”
Provided to the SouthtownStar