At 91, a tall, lanky and gray-haired Roy Hawthorne moves quite a bit slower than he did as a young Marine in World War II and Korea. But most days he still likes to get out of his home near Gallup and go visiting.
Sporting a sharp baseball cap with “WWII – Korea” embroidered across it in bright yellow letters, Hawthorne also enjoys telling folks who have time to listen, about how he and more than 400 other Navajo Code Talkers used their native language as a code and helped win the war.
“What we did, we did gladly…and would do it again,” he says proudly.
A Complex Language
In World War II, the allies really needed an unbreakable code to communicate battlefield tactics as both the Germans and the Japanese were eavesdropping and able to decipher too many sensitive radio messages coded in other ways. An officer who previously lived on the Navajo reservation felt that the complex and little-known language there could solve the problem. So, Hawthorne and his fellow Navajo Code Talkers were recruited from all across the sprawling Navajo Nation that straddles the border of New Mexico and Arizona.
When recruiters arrived at the reservation, Hawthorne says he and the other young Navajo men did not know much about the German and Japanese war efforts. “There are people who are against us, but we really didn’t know who they were,” he said. “We knew they were against us and just surmised they must be against us because we have something they don’t have.”
Hawthorne said he and the others who volunteered did not really need to know much else. “The greatest thing was sacrificing our lives for our country. It wasn’t just a duty, it was a responsibility.”
Even though they felt loyalty toward their homeland, “it wasn’t because it was called America”, said Hawthorne. “But it was called a people who were willing to do for other people.”
“We didn’t know exactly why, but we knew it was going to be a better life. Because the life we endured wasn’t really getting us anywhere. In fact, it was pulling us down.”
The 30’s and 40’s were a tough time on the reservation and Navajo recruits also saw joining the war effort as a way to improve their lives. “In those days, jobs were nil,“ said Hawthorne. “We were glad to do it.”
Spies in Indian Country
Before they deployed, there was still concern that the Germans and Japanese might be able to break a Navajo language code. After other tribes had done code-talking on a limited basis in World War I, American authorities knew Hitler had dispatched spies to Indian country in the 30’s to learn their languages and try to eliminate that allied tool.
But the spies were not up to the task of learning American native tongues.
Navajo troops were ultimately deployed all across the battle lines in the Pacific theater and were able to send intelligence and commands instantaneously. No waiting for painstaking decoding required of other methods.
The hundreds of Navajo Code Talkers delivered thousands of radio messages without an error during the war.
And the Japanese were never able to break it.