Carl Gorman, a gentle Navajo artist who talked his way valiantly through some of the fiercest fighting of World War II, died on Thursday at a hospital in Gallup, N.M. He was 90 and the oldest of the 400 Navajo code talkers who were proud to call themselves Washindon be Akalh B-kosi-lai, or, as the Japanese could never figure out, U.S. Marines.
The father of the celebrated Navajo artist R.C. Gorman of Taos, N.M., Gorman was himself a prominent artist who taught at the University of California at Davis before settling in a trailer-studio in Fort Defiance, Ariz., where he painted horses and other subjects.
But it was not because of his art that a bust of Gorman was erected on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
It was because from Guadalcanal to Saipan, with a hot stop on Tarawa along the way, Gorman spent much of World War II in the Pacific on his belly at the front lines, a radio rather than a rifle in his hands, just as other Navajo volunteers did, making sure that the vaunted Japanese code crackers, who broke the Army, Navy, and Air Corps codes, would never learn anything from intercepted Marine radio messages.
And they didn’t. By the time the Marines began their island-hopping Pacific sweep, with the invasion of Guadalcanal in August 1942, Gorman and 28 other Navajo volunteers had turned their native language into a deadly secret weapon: a Navajo-based code that allowed Marine commanders to issue orders, report on their own and enemy troop movements, and coordinate complex operations, secure in the knowledge that Japanese code breakers would not have the foggiest idea what all the guttural chatter was about.
Navajo is a language without an alphabet and with such a complex, irregular syntax that in 1942 it was estimated that outside of the 50,000 Navajos, no more than 30 other people in the world had knowledge of it, none of them Japanese.
The wonder was that Gorman or any other Navajos still spoke Navajo in the face of a long and concerted federal campaign to suppress Indian languages.
The effort at forced Americanization was so brutal that Gorman, who was born on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz., later recalled that as a student at a mission school he had once been chained to an iron pipe for a week because he insisted on speaking his native tongue.
Despite his resulting resentment, when he learned in 1942 that the Marines were recruiting Navajos fluent in English and Navajo, Gorman, who had worked as a government translator but at 34 was too old for the Marines, lied about his age to enlist.
Partly because Navajo lacked words for modern military terms, Gorman and his colleagues worked out a two-tier code in which English words were represented by different Navajo words. Various planes, for example, were represented by Navajo words for birds, among them tas-chizzie, or swallow, for torpedo plane; jay-sho, or buzzard, for bomber; and da-he-tih-hi, or humming bird, for a fighter plane.
In addition to an initial 211-word vocabulary later expanded to about 600 terms, the letters of the alphabet were denoted by Navajo equivalents for English words beginning with the various letters, a code that was made even more secure by assigning each letter several alternate words. A, for example, could be the familiar apple (be-la-sana) or ant (wol-la-chee) or axe (tse-nill).
Although heroes to the Marine high command, Gorman and the other code talkers were long unsung heroes. The Navajo code, which was never broken, was considered so valuable that they were not allowed to talk about it until 1969, when, with the development of secure, highspeed electronic coding, the code was finally declassified.
After that, Gorman lectured widely on the Navajo code talkers, and they were publicly credited with having saved thousands of lives, one general going so far as to declare that the Marines could never have taken Iwo Jima without them.
Maybe not, but whatever the Navajo contribution to the victory on Iwo Jima, it was Navajo code that notified the Pacific command that the Marines had planted the American flag there on Mount “dibeh (sheep), no-dah-ih (Ute), gah (rabbit), tkin (ice), shush (bear), wol-la-chee (ant), moasi (cat), lin (horse), yeh-hes (itch),” or S-U-R-I-B-A-C-H-I.
In addition to his son, Gorman is survived by his wife, Mary; and two daughters from a previous marriage, Zonnie Gorman of Gallup and Donna Scott of Chinle.