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Lifesaving Code, Forgotten History

American Indian code talker tells his story.

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Keith Little, a member of the Navajo tribe, told of his years as a code talker during WWII to students and guests at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus last week.

Keith Little wore his yellow coat proudly, his red hat filled with patches and medals of distinction. His voice, now softened with age, still carried a touch of an accent from speaking the American Indian tongue that helped the American forces in World War II.

Little was one of about 400 Navajos used during WWII as code talkers, transmitting messages across radio wires in a language that has not been decoded to this day.

"Prior to the war, I had an interest in joining the Marine Corps even though there was a long-standing rule that kept native people in the background, on reservations and out of the military," Little said to a crowd of a few dozen people at the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

Growing up on a reservation in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Little said he was surrounded by a culture that may seem foreign to those same children and young adults today.

"We have vigorously held on to our culture, even though we were described as savages," he said. "I don't know what that word means," he laughed.

THE NUMBER four had a special significance to Little, as it represented the seasons, the directions and the winds. Living in a valley surrounded by four mountains "blessed our people" with protection and good soil, he said.

But when WWII came, suddenly the American Indians, who had so long been unacceptable in their home land, were being recruited by the military.

"The government was something you didn't want to deal with because they were the ones who killed our people," Little said.

Still, Little signed up for the Marines and was taken to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. He was treated like the Caucasian men who lined up next to him.

The early days of boot camp were humiliating, Little said.

"They treat you like you're nothing at all," he said. "You had to carry your gun around all the time. We were told to treat our guns like we treat our women, and to sleep with the gun at all times. But I had never slept with a woman at the time, so I didn't know how to treat it," he chuckled.

Shortly after Little began his training, a higher-ranking officer asked Little if he were a Navajo and if he could speak the tribe’s language. Little was recruited to work on a project he knew next to nothing about, only that it involved speaking Navajo.

"The Army wanted to develop a code so they could go after the Japanese without them knowing it," Little said.

He was told his ability would make him a good scout, but the only kind of scout Little knew about were the ones that "tied knots and earned patches," he said.

Little went to Camp Pendleton in California for his training, but was never told there were other people like him being used for the same purpose.

The code itself is complex and spoken very quickly, Little said.

Each word was spelled out, letter by letter, using words that started with the Navajo equivalent of each word. Similar to the way people use words like apple, ball and cat for the letters A, B and C, code talkers would send messages about battle plans, strategies and the location of opposing troops by using Navajo words and letters in quick succession.

The code was successfully used in the Pacific theater of WWII against Japanese forces, never broken, never interpreted, never made public by the American military until well after the war was over, Little said.

"It was very confusing to listen to," Little said with a smile. "We saved a lot of lives with it because of our speed, proficiency and efficiency and it was something we Navajos made up ourselves."

THE MILITARY never went public about the code because they were afraid it would be translated or broken, which meant the brave men and women who used it to send the messages did not receive official government recognition for their work, he said.

"When the war was over and we went home in 1945, we were told not to tell anyone anything specific about what we did during the war," Little said.

The code talkers did receive some recognition when President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14, 1982 as National Code Talker Day. It was the same day that, in 1945, the Japanese forces surrendered to end WWII.

Later, in 2001, a group of 29 code talkers were invited to a ceremony in Washington to honor their work. Only five attended; the rest were unable to attend or had died, Little said.

Little received a silver medal on Veterans Day in 2001, which he wore proudly when speaking at the college.

Of the more than 400 Navajos chosen as code talkers, 13 were killed during the war. Others were injured and received a Purple Heart, but not a single one was ever captured, he said.

NELLIE LITTLE, Keith Little's wife, said she learned how to speak Navajo after they met in 1972. She accompanies him on his speaking trips.

"Every day I learn something from him," she said as he shook hands and talked with some people after his presentation. "I keep trying to convince him to write a book so he can tell what really happened to the code talkers in their own words."

Keith Little was asked if, now that he is retired from the military, he receives a pension from the government for his service. Surprisingly, he does not; any money received for his military service goes to the tribe, not individual families.

"I cannot believe that," said Amy Kachel, a psychology and sociology major at NVCC. "The lack of recognition alone blew my mind."

Kachel, who attended the presentation with her mother, Margaret Meyer, said she had heard a little about the code talkers in history classes.

"I wouldn't say I'm a war buff or a history buff, but with all we've learned about WWII, I'm surprised we don't know more about this," she said.

Her mother agreed, adding it seemed wrong the code talkers were kept secret for so long.

"They were asked to contribute so much after not being accepted, it's unbelievable," Meyer said.

Nellie Little said there is a small display on the code talkers in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, and one movie has been made telling their story, but it is not quite accurate. She hopes more of the remaining code talkers will continue to work on having Aug. 14 made a national holiday and, someday, will write the book of their important place in history.