Thursday, November 15, 2001

At a luncheon yesterday at Camp Smith to commemorate
Native American Heritage Month, Navajo code talker
Teddy Draper Sr., seated, took a few moments to talk
to Ruchelle Bedonie, left, and Misty Romero, dancers
who performed at the luncheon. Draper was a U.S.
Marine during World War II.

Navajo recalls
experience as ‘code
talker’ in Marines

Teddy Draper was 1 of more
than 400 chosen as code talkers

By Gregg K. Kakesako

When Teddy Draper volunteered to fight in 1943, the Marine Corps was his last choice.

Little did Draper know then that he and more than 400 other Navajos had been handpicked to form a special band known as the "code talkers." The Navajo code talkers would serve in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units in the Pacific war, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language -- a code the Japanese never broke.

Yesterday, as part of the military's Native American Heritage monthlong observance, Draper, 78, spoke to another generation of Marines serving at Camp Smith.

In the audience was his grandson, Lance Cpl. Richado Tsosie, a transportation driver for Marine Forces Pacific.

Dressed in the official uniform of the Navajo code talker -- a red cap, Navajo jewelry, gold shirt, patch on the upper arm, light-colored trousers and abalone-colored shoes -- Draper traced the history of the first 29 Navajo recruits who attended Marine Corps boot camp in May 1942 and then at Camp Pendleton created the Navajo code.

"Until then the Navajo language was never written," said Draper, who served in the Pacific and in Japan from 1943 to 1945.

They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. They used Navajo bird names for planes, Navajo words for different fishes were used for ships, and Navajo clans were used to describe the different levels of a Marine organization such as division, regiment, battalion, company and squad.

Draper said he attended a four-week course at Camp Pendleton learning to become a code talker. Besides learning to send and receive messages in the Navajo secret code, the course included instruction in Morse code, semaphore, radio and telephone operations and maintenance, and sniper and scouting techniques.

Draper trained with the Marines preparing on the Big Island for invasion of Iwo Jima. Referring to Honolulu, Draper told reporters at a brief news conference, "This was our liberty town."

Draper spent 36 days fighting on Iwo Jima after landing with the invasion force on Feb. 19, 1945.

After Iwo Jima, Maj. Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, would later recall, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received more than 800 messages, all without error.

Draper said the code talkers were told, "If you are ever captured, don't release anything about the language or introduce yourself as a code talker."

Draper said he returned to Hawaii after Iwo Jima and was then sent to Japan, where he learned Japanese and served as an interpreter.

The Marine Corps said the Navajo code talkers could encode, transmit and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds.

That ability is inspirational, said Maj. Larry Hillson, who attended yesterday's Marine Forces Pacific Thanksgiving luncheon and heard Draper speak. With so many encryption devices, the abilities shown by the Navajo code talkers is "a dying art," he added.

A movie about the exploits of the Navajo code talkers was filmed here earlier this year with local Marines acting as extras. The movie, "Windtalkers," is expected to be released next summer.

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