ORIGINAL 29 Navajo `code talkers' awarded medals 56 years after the end of the war they helped win

Friday, July 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Allen Dale June shrugs off suggestions that he's a hero. He doesn't think about the past, he says. But, finally, he and the 28 other World War II ``Code Talkers'' have medals that prove they are.

Just five of the Navajo Indians are alive, and only four were well enough to come to the Capitol on Thursday to accept Congressional Gold Medals from President Bush. Proud family members represented the others.

The medal is the highest civilian honor the nation can bestow. The Code Talkers were honored for creating a code from their native tongue that, indecipherable by the Japanese, was credited with saving thousands of lives and turning the tide of decisive battles in the Pacific theater.

``Today, we honor 29 Native Americans who, in a desperate hour, gave their country a service only they could give,'' Bush said in the packed Capitol rotunda. ``Today, we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago.''

June, of West Valley City, Utah, said he was just 17 and lied about his age so he could enlist in the Marines in 1942.

``Naturally we were concerned about the survival (of the country) in the Great War at the time. At the same time, we were defending our own country, the Navajo Nation,'' said June.

The Navajo language is complex, and through circumlocution the Code Talkers made it even more so. For example, a colonel was encoded into the Navajo word for ``silver eagle'' or ``ataah-besh-le-gai.'' A submarine became ``besh-lo,'' which in Navajo means ``iron fish,'' and a bomber was ``jay-sho,'' or buzzard in Navajo.

Before they entered the war at Guadalcanal, the Japanese had cracked many of the American codes. Those that hadn't been broken were too complex to be useful.

But in a 48-hour stretch during the battle of Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers sent more than 800 messages with their spoken code and were credited with being a decisive factor in the Allied victory.

After the 29 Navajo had created the code, the Code Talkers group was expanded by about 300 Marines. The rest are expected to receive Congressional Silver Medals next fall.

``These unsung heroes returned to their homes on buses _ no parades, no fanfare, no special recognition for what they had truly accomplished,'' said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who sponsored the legislation to honor them. ``While the war was over, their duty _ their oath of secrecy _ continued.''

The Code Talkers had been sworn to secrecy about their roles in the war.

Chester Nez, 80, another of the young Navajos who left the reservation to serve, said when he returned his parents and family wondered why he didn't have medals or commendations.

It wasn't until 1968 that the government declassified the Code Talker project. When it did, Nez sat down with his children and explained what he did in the war, answering questions they'd often wondered about, said his son, Mike Nez.