After the American flag was raised on Iwo Jima, a U.S. Marine Corps commander was known to have said, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never had taken Iwo Jima."
What the Navajo's did, in fact, was prevent the Japanese from learning about troop movements in the Pacific. With a code completely unbreakable by the Japanese, the Navajo code talkers are credited with turning battles into conquests for the Americans, and for saving lives that might otherwise have been lost.
Navajo Code was unbreakable. Although other Indian code was used during World War II, it was estimated that fewer than 30 non-Navajos understood the Navajo code at the beginning of the war. Heavy in dialect and with no alphabet, the Navajo language was a world onto its own and an ingenious way to slip the Marine Corps into positions of attack without the Japanese having a clue.
One of the more than 375 Navajo code talkers to serve in World War II was a full-blooded Navajo from Arizona by the name of Karl Kee Crawford.
He was born in 1918 and, 24 years later, on Oct. 7, 1942, in San Francisco, Crawford became a member of the Marine Corps.
"He was doing plumbing at the time [in Sacramento]," said Nona Hicks, one of Crawford's children and a nurse at Carson-Tahoe Hospital. "And whomever he knew, knew a recruiter."
Crawford went to boot camp in San Diego at Camp Elliot. There, he worked in the mess hall and kitchen until an officer called him in one day.
"At that point they wanted educated Navajos," Hicks said, speaking of Crawford's high school education, "And maybe the recruiter didn't say anything."
But someone took notice of Crawford's background.
"My name got called out," Crawford said. "I'm thinking 'What the heck have I done now?'"
"You're a full-blooded Navajo?" the commander asked.
"How would you like to join the boys and become a communicator?"
"And I said, 'Yes sir,'" said Crawford.
Crawford then spent six weeks learning the Navajo code. The code had already been developed by 29 code-talkers at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who made new terms for military words which would be used in the Pacific.
"It's a job to do, to send messages," Crawford said. "I received and sent messages. It's not difficult when you knew the word and interpreted that word."
As a member of the Fourth Marine Division, third battalion, seventh regiment, Crawford went to Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Peleliu, Okinawa, Cape Gloucester and the Ryukyu Islands. After that, Crawford went to China, where he received the Good Conduct Medal. He was honorably discharged as a corporal on Jan. 2, 1946.
When Crawford returned to the U.S., he worked as a plumber at Stewart. He was married and he and his wife settled in Carson City, having four half-Navajo, half-Hopi children. The generations have grown, and with nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren the Crawford line continues, and his children hope to recognize and pass down Crawford's past.
Crawford is quiet about his past, unless someone asks. And then he'll talk, not much, mostly details. Part of this may be that code talkers were sworn to secrecy until the government declassified the code in 1968.
"Just keep it to yourself," Crawford said about the code. "If you got caught, and the enemy caught you, don't give out the information."
Perhaps this is how he feels about the war. But he carried a Bible with him every day while overseas in the Pacific, making notes in the pages. His daughter-in-law saw him erasing from the Bible when he was back home, and asked him what he was erasing.
"I don't need it anymore," Crawford said. Maybe it was code he spoke of, maybe it was his thoughts. No one knows. Except him.
At 83, Crawford, who has Parkinson's disease, also has four children in Carson City who want him back home.
He lives in California now, but the family hopes to move him into the family house known as the Pink Rock on Dory Way, built of stone his father-in-law quarried.
"It's hard, the distance," Hicks said of her father. "There was a situation a couple of years ago. That was when, we said we better start talking to him."
Most importantly, the government has recently recognized the code talkers. At a ceremony in 2001 more than 300 Congressional Silver Medals were presented to code-talkers.
"He is so humble," said Hicks about the news of the medal. "He doesn't say much. I was really excited when we learned. Even now he doesn't say anything about the attention he is getting. I think deep down he is proud. He always said it was just his duty."
Hicks said she didn't think then her father knew or realized the significance of the code talkers to the war in the Pacific.
"I think he does now with the publicity and it coming to light," Hicks said. "So many of the men including the Indians felt it was their duty, and there was no question about it. I don't think at the time he went in there, he knew he was playing such a significant part."
All together, about 3,600 Navajos served in World War II, with about 540 in the Marine Corps and about 400 of those serving as code talkers. National Navajo Code talker day was declared on Aug. 14, 1982 by President Ronald Reagan.
ON THE NET
The Navajos have literally been said to have saved the war in the Pacific, but in actuality more than 17 Native American groups served as code breakers. See http://members.tripod.com/~Quohadi/code.htm
For information on the Navajo code talkers, look at:
And for an extensive list of book and magazine references about Native American service in World War II, see: www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq12-1.htm
See the movie 'Windtalkers,' about protecting the Navajo code.