Memorial Day - 2020

A Salute to Navajo Code Talker: Harry Tsostie

I often share a lot of information about my grandfather, Carl or about the other men with whom he served during World War II as a Code Talker. Telling their story is something that has been and will continue to be an important part of my work. I prefer to celebrate their lives after the war: the leaders they became to our people, the loving stories shared by their decedents and the legacy which they represent.

 

However, Memorial Day was established to remember and reflect on those who did not make it back from war. Those whose final moments were spent far from home - and for the Navajo - far from the protection of the four sacred mountains.

Here is a brief story about one of the Code Talkers who did not return to Dineh Tah - Harry Tsosie.

Harry Tsosie's Awards & Decorations

Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation w/star,

Marine Good Conduct Medal, Asian-Pacific Campaign Medal w/3 stars, WWII Victory Medal

Rifle Marksman Badge

In early May of 1942, 29 Navajo men aged 15-35 were sworn into the Marine Corps on a dirt road overlooked by dormitories of an Indian boarding school just outside of Gallup, New Mexico. Among them was Harry Tsosie (ts-oh-cee), a young man from Rough Rock, Arizona (Tséchʼízhí in Navajo) a small town in Northern Arizona. He was 19.

 

These 29 Navajos had been recruited by the Marine Corps for "special duty". They had not yet been told what they would be asked to do, only that they needed to be as fit as any Marine - Harry Tsosie, like many American boys of the time, had enjoyed playing basketball and football in school. - able to read and write English... And be able to speak in their native tongue: Navajo - a language they had been told not to speak during their education at the Christian and Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools they attended.

 

Tsosie had been working construction, earning a good wage as a skilled carpenter. Like many Navajos he was also an accomplished silversmith. But now he and the other Navajos around him were to become Marines.

The group graduated Marine recruit training, communications school, and went on to create the only verbal code in US history never to be broken. The original group, known as the 'First Twenty-Nine' were divided into the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions with two men remaining in California to assist in recruiting and training additional Navajos.

Harry Tsosie would be attached to the 1st Marine Division, 5th Marines. Before embarking for the Pacific, he returned home and married Susie Bitsie Tsosie on December 15th 1942. He departed the California coast on the 17th of April 1943 and crossed the equator for the first time on 24th - a date worth logging in any Sailor or Marine's service record.

The Code Talkers would first prove themselves at the battle of Guadalcanal, then would participate in campaigns that included Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tarawa, Pelelui, and Bougainville to name a few.

 

The Code Talkers were trained Marines. Every Marine is a rifleman first. While the Code Talkers played a vital role in communications, they were not always shielded from danger. They were with their units, fighting and sending real-time information back to the ships off shore and relaying updated battle plans to commanders in the field.

 

Following Guadalcanal, the US began gaining ground again the Japanese. According to his service record, Tsosie first saw action at the East New Guinea operation from October 8th to December 26th 1943 - a total of 81 days. Two days after the end of the New Guinea operation, he would find himself on the Archipelago operation from December 30th to May 1st, 1944.

 

By 1944 General McArthur had devised a plan to take the Philippines then move up into Okinawa and mainland Japan. Securing the landing strip at Pelelui was key to this plan. The Imperial Japanese Army had approximately 11,000 men at Pelelui. They had changed strategies from earlier in the war of bonsai beach charges and heavy defense against amphibious landings and shifted towards a strategy of attrition - to draw the fighting out and expend the allied resources. They had built a maze of interconnected "honeycomb" fortifications and utilized over 900 limestone caves to wait out the enemy after their landing. The Americans greatly underestimated the Japanese here. Major General William Rupertus, Commander of the 1st Marine Division, predicted the island would be secured within four days.

Harry Tsosie landed with his unit on September 15th. There was heavy resistance on the beaches and the 1st, 5th and 7th Marines made little progress. Harry was wounded on the second day of fighting. He was evacuated off the beach but later died of wounds and was given a burial at sea from the U.S.S. Aquarius.

There were approximately 420 Navajos recruited and trained as Code Talkers by the war's end. Of that number, 13 were either killed in action or died of wounds. None were taken prisoner. Of the First Twenty Nine, Harry Tsosie was the only one not to survive the war.

A Brief History of the Code

A war was on and the US had no secure means of communication in the Pacific. The Japanese had broken every code used by the United States. While the US had broken Japanese diplomatic code, their military codes continued to elude US cryptographers.

The effects of the war were not unfelt by the Navajo. Many Navajo held government jobs but as the US entry into the war became more eminent, they became seen as non-essential and were laid off. News reels, radio and news papers carried word of the growing hosilities to the reservation. As war loomed, the Navajo Tribal Council issued a proclamation:

"...if our help was needed, We Navajos would be ready."

Whereas, the Navajo Tribal Council and the 50,000 people we represent, cannot fail to recognize the crisis now facing the world in the threat of foreign invasion and destruction of the great liberties and benefits which we enjoy on the reservation, and

Whereas, there exists no purer concentration of Americanism than among the First Americans, and

Whereas, it has become common practice to attempt national destruction through sowing the seeds of treachery among minority groups such as ours, and

Whereas, we hereby serve notice that any un-American movement among our people will be resented and dealt with severely, and

Now, therefore, we resolve that the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our government, and its institutions against all subversion and armed conflict and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognizes minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the greatest people of our race.

If our help was needed, we Navajos would be ready.

 

Proclaimed this Third Day of June1940

The group of twenty-nine Navajo men were recruited as a pilot project for a new program conceived of by the Marine Corps to use a coded version of the Navajo Language to send and receive messages in the Pacific. This wasn't the first time Native American languages had been used in military communications by the US, but developing a code had never before been attempted nor had it had anything on the scale being proposed ever been attempted.

They were kept together as a unit and designated Platoon 382 - the first "all Indian, all Navajo" platoon in Marine Corps history. They performed exceptionally well at boot camp. Only one recruit reported to the infirmary during recruit training, but was able to rejoin his platoon the next day and continue to graduation. Some of the Code Talkers attributed the "ease" of boot camp to their days at boarding school under the same strict regime. At least the Marine Corps fed them!

After graduation, due to the sensitivity of the program and fear that they may desert, the new Marines were not granted leave to visit family back home. Three other Navajos were transferred into the group and they were moved north to communications school. After completing communications training, they were final told that the Marine Corps wanted them to create a code using Navajo that could be spoken, memorized, and translated quickly in the field.

This group devised a code of approximately 200 terms that included a phonetic alphabet, terms for personnel, materials, and movements. By the end of the war 400+ Navajos were recruited and trained as Code Talkers. The original code remained nearly completely intact but grew to incorporate over 700 code words.

Learn more about the Navajo Code and support my efforts to tell their story

There are some great books available about the Navajo Code Talkers. This is not a complete list of every book available nor the only ones I would recommend there are additional books published more recently that I have not had the chance to read, but those listed certainly do come with my recommendation.

I also sell my photographs of the Code Talkers I have taken over the years and restored & colorized historical photos of the Code Talkers. Proceeds fund the gallery as well as my continued projects in telling the Code Talker story. You can see some of the photographs here and see the artwork by Code Talkers and Code Talker decedents here.

Warriors, by Kenji Kawano

a photographic journal of the Navajo Code Talkers

Code Talker, by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila

(Signed copies available through the Gallery, purchased directly from the family of Chester)

The first and only memoir written by one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers

Carl Gorman's World, by Henry & Georgia Greenberg

(Signed 1st ed. copies available through the Gallery)

 

Power of a Navajo, by Henry & Georgia Greenberg

with forward by R.C. Gorman

(Signed copies available through the Gallery)

Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes The Navajo Code Talkers of WWII

a photographic exhibit by the students at Fort Wingate, Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes is an ideal gift for the avid historian or casual collector alike. Curated by Zonnie Gorman - the foremost historian on the Navajo Code Talkers -  and assembled and edited by the students and staff of Fort Wingate Indian School this photographic exhibit will take you through the conception of the code, the recruiting of the First Twenty-Nine (plt 382), platoon 297 (the second Navajo plt), photos from the Pacific, all the way through the National recognition in 2001. In addition to the  rare historical photos this book includes a copy of the Navajo Code in its 1942 original 208 term form and the 700+ word version from 1945.

(Copies available through the Gallery)

Navajo Code Talkers, by Doris A. Paul

Unbreakable Code, by Sara Hoagland Hunter

with note from the author quoting Michael Gorman (age 9)

(Signed & unsigned copies available through the Gallery)

Walking - Talking: A Navajo Code Talker Story, by Rennie G. Quible

Perfect for the young reader in your family, this fictional story of a Code Talker Named Hosteen Joseph takes the reader on a journey through history as Hosteen Joseph gifts his twin grandchildren four stories from Navajo oral tradition and his time spent as a Code Talker. While the characters are fictional, the events are based in actual fact. The book includes historic photographs of actual Code Talkers and the complete Navajo Code.

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