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Code talkers’ secret helped win war: A language that saved lives is worth saving, Navajos say

Teddy Draper Sr. was a Navajo Code Talker in WWII.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Teddy Draper Sr. was a Navajo Code Talker in WWII. (Jesse Tinsley)
As five U.S. Marines struggled to erect an American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, Marine Teddy Draper Sr. laid down cover fire and grabbed his radio. Some 30 yards away from the image that later became the memorial for all fallen Marines, Draper, a Navajo “code talker,” made the call that the flag had been raised. Draper, and more than 400 other Navajos, used a code made up of words they spoke every day. The Japanese never broke it, even though they had solved every previous U.S. military code. “Our language is very important,” Draper, 79, said on Thursday. “I hope people understand that this language saved many lives. “It saved the liberties that we have.” Draper and Bill Toledo, 78, were the featured guests at a preview of Indian art to kick off the 2002 Julyamsh Powwow, which starts today and runs through Sunday at Greyhound Park. Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council member Cliff SiJohn introduced the code talkers - who belonged to a group that was the basis of a recent movie, “Windtalkers,” starring Nicholas Cage. “Park this in your mind that you were able to see these gentleman,” SiJohn said of Draper and Toledo. They “stood forward for all Indian nations and for (their) country.” Their contributions - which came at a time when Indians couldn’t even vote - helped win the war. Their story started on a reservation near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Draper was in school on Dec. 7, 1941 - the day Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Early the next year, as the Navy began to engage Japanese forces, 29 Navajos were selected to create a military code using their unwritten and extremely complex language. The Navajos developed a code made up of fewer than 500 words to help platoons and companies communicate with battalion headquarters during intense battles. Because military terms are not a part of the Navajo language, the code developers used words such as “lo-tso,” which means whale, for battleship; or “dah-he-tih-hi,” hummingbird, for fighter plane. Both Draper and Toledo - two of only about 150 code talkers still alive - fought in the island-hopping campaign that inched ever closer to Japan. They landed in the Solomon Islands, in Guam and in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign - Iwo Jima. Trained as Marines, it was the code talkers’ job to string telephone lines between units. “We had really good preparation before we invaded Iwo Jima” in February 1945, Draper said. On the landing craft that hit the Iwo Jima beach, Draper was in the same group as Marine Pfc. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian. Hays died drunk in a ditch 10 years after the war, and his demise was later memorialized in a song by Johnny Cash. “After we landed, there was a lot of resistance. The bullets were buzzing over us, behind us, among us. We were pinned down,” Draper said. “A lot of Marines got killed on the beach.” During the lengthy battle, an artillery shell blew up, destroying Draper’s nose and injuring his eyes. Draper’s loss of hearing is also attributed to that blast, said his son, Ted Draper Jr. The elder Draper didn’t discuss the other significant incident in the battle. “He saved a whole platoon and shot six Japanese,” said Ted Draper Jr., 52. “He doesn’t tell it a lot.” “It’s not the Navajo way - telling about killing. It’s not easy. We try not to glorify war,” he continued. “It’s the people who do things, not one single warrior.” Draper’s injuries were treated on a hospital ship and he was sent back into action. He hasn’t received a Purple Heart or any other commendations, though 300 other Native American servicemen recently were awarded Congressional Silver Stars following interest sparked by “Windtalkers.” After Japan surrendered, Draper used the code as American forces occupied the Japanese mainland. As he was being discharged from the Marines in San Diego, military officials told him to keep the code a secret or they would throw him in jail. He, and every other code talker he knew, kept the secret. The younger Draper said he grew up not knowing about the contributions of his father or uncles. Finally, in 1968, the code secret was made public. Ted Jr. had already graduated from high school. “It was kind of like a story that was unbelievable. This isn’t right. Our language was used … to win the South Pacific battle?” said Draper, who had five uncles who were code talkers. “Not a single one of them said a word of what they did in the war. “My uncle Howard went to his death bed without breaking the code of being a code talker.” For code talker Bill Toledo, the wait was even longer. When he was discharged in San Diego, a Marine colonel stopped Toledo as he walked past his office. “He said, `You keep your mouth shut about the code you used because it might be used again.’ I kept my mouth shut until 1981,” he said. One day that year he came home to find his daughter and wife standing at the door. Earlier that day, his daughter dropped his service picture and discovered Toledo’s discharge papers between the photograph and the frame. The papers identified him as a “code talker.” “They asked why I never told them I was a code talker. I said, `Nobody asked.’ They never knew they had one with them for all those years,” he said. Toledo and the younger Draper had mixed reviews of “Windtalkers.” “There was a lot of action and some of the things we did. It was good entertainment,” Toledo said. “But too much Hollywood.” But even the best movie couldn’t replicate the progress code talkers gave their people, Draper said. “Up until 1968, our kids were being severely punished for speaking Navajo at school,” Ted Draper Jr. said. “Then they saw our language won a war. “When that happened, there was a tremendous renaissance of Navajo history, language and culture. It then became required in our schools and still is to this day. “And that is their greatest contribution.”
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