Arizona's first and only Navajo Code Talker Museum opened here in 2007, more than 60 years after those it honors earned their high degree of heroic distinction. In a way, the delay was almost fitting. Although they were instrumental in winning several battles during World War II, only a very few knew about their existence until 1962. And it took another 30 years before the entire story was made public and the Code Talkers were finally recognized for their efforts.
Now their feats have been extolled, enumerated, explained and even exploited in literature, the movies and television. More than 500 books have been written about the men. They have been featured in several TV documentaries, and were the subject of “Windtalkers,” a full-length movie that starred Nicholas Cage.
Briefly, the story behind it all:
The concept of utilizing Navajos for secure communications in the South Pacific during World War II originated with Philip Johnston who, as the son of a missionary to the Navajos, was reared on the Navajo reservation and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. He knew about the military's search for an unbreakable code and suggested the Navajo tongue because it was an unwritten language of extreme complexity and was spoken only on the tribal lands of the American Southwest.
Johnston convinced the officers of the Pacific Fleet Amphibious Corps that the plan was workable and in May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits created the code at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Once the code talkers had completed training, they were deployed to the Pacific theater where they used their native tongue to transmit information on tactics and troop movements so skillfully that the Japanese were never able to decipher a single message.
By the end of the war, about 400 young Navajos were trained as code talkers. But, because the language was considered potentially valuable as a code even after the war, the young heroes were sworn to secrecy about their roles. The silence lasted for 23 years, until when the government declassified the story in 1968.
It took another 30-plus years for the government to acknowledge the honor due to the men. An Act of Congress in 2001 awarded Congressional Medals of Honor to all the code talkers, gold to the first 29 and silver to the others. But, although they have been elevated to a brave and lofty status in the legends of American warfare, the museum that pays them tribute is small and unimposing. It's located in an annex at the rear of the Tuba City Trading Post, just across the way from the new Explore Navajo Interactive Museum. Inside, visitors can watch a film clip about the code talkers, then examine displays of arms, radios and other equipment they used during campaigns on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Old black and white photographs show the young men being sworn in, developing the code and, finally, using the code for its intended purpose. Tableaus, posters, wartime memorabilia and books about the men complete the exhibit. Although the Tuba City facility is recognized as the only official Code Talker museum in Arizona, the war heroes are honored in at least four other venues.
At Kayenta, Richard Mike has amassed an impressive display of code talker artifacts and put them on display in the local Burger King, which he owns, and in a newly-constructed Shadehouse Museum, which he built. He came by the collection because his father, King Paul Mike, was a code talker who retrieved articles during his wartime career. The Burger King display is filled with letters to and from the Navajos, Japanese flags and uniform parts, and some weaponry. The war items were all picked up on the various battlefields by the elder Mike, who brought them home and stored them away until his son became curious and, after much coaxing, persuaded his dad to let burger-eaters see them.
Richard Mike built the Shadehouse Museum right next to the fast food outlet because he had more code talker stuff but no place to put it. It's a small structure, faced with split pine logs and surrounded by Navajo hogans and sweat lodges. The contents include not only code talker memorabilia but also historical items about the tribe. There is no charge to see either display.
In that same area, the newly-remodeled Monument Valley Visitor Center, located 23 miles north of Kayenta, has one wall dedicated to the memory of the code talkers. The exhibit consists of documents, photographs and written commendations that trace the origins of the servicemen and detail their valor.
Two other tributes to the code talkers are monumental, in the strictest sense of the word.
The first is in downtown Phoenix, on the northeast corner of Thomas Road and Central Avenue. It is a much-larger-than-life bronze of a seated Navajo holding a flute. The inscription below says the sculpture represents “the spirit of the Navajo Code Talkers...who bravely served this country during World War II.” Farther down, the plaque explains why he's holding a flute instead of a radio: “Among many Native Americans, the flute is a communications tool used to signal the end of confrontation and the coming of peace. This tribute represents the advancement of peace for all future generations.” The statue, created by Doug Hyde and installed in 1989, was the first permanent tribute to honor the code talkers.
The second is the Navajo Code Talkers Veterans Memorial in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. It's also a sculpture, this one portraying a code talker in full military gear, complete with radio, antenna, and submachine gun.
The work, also a bigger-than-life bronze created by Navajo/Ute sculptor Oreland Joe, sits on the grounds of the tribal headquarters, a short distance from the hole-ingeologic formation that gives the city its name. A nearby sign includes the notation:
“Far from their homes, these brave young men and women served out nation with honor. Sadly, the tale of their exploits remained a closely guarded secret for decades in the event that the Navajo Code Talkers' unique talents would be needed again. Many Code Talkers have passed on, never knowing the honors a grateful nation are now bestowed upon their remaining brothers.”
Today, there are less than 50 code talkers still alive.