Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial Honors Navajo Code Speakers

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Standing Saturday near the base of the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial, Regan Hawthorne gestured to the nearly 6,000 black granite slabs mounted on the curved walls and said, “Every veteran has a story.”

His father certainly did.

The late Roy Hawthorne was one of the legendary Navajo Code Talkers, a unit of U.S. Marines who turned their native tongue into an unbreakable communication system that helped the Allies defeat the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II. .

They were the honorees Saturday at the La Jolla Memorial’s annual Veterans Day event, which drew about 250 people for speeches, a flyover of retired military aircraft and the unveiling of a plaque recognizing the achievements of Code Talkers.

“They did a service to their country that no one else could,” said Marine Brig. Gen. James Ryans, deputy division commander, 1st Marine Division.

No one else could because the Navajo language was not widely used and was mostly unwritten. This made it an ideal code to thwart Japanese eavesdroppers, who had successfully deciphered other American communications in the island-hopping war.

The first 29 Code Talkers underwent maritime training in San Diego in mid-1942 and were then taught to use radio equipment. Then they were sent to Camp Elliott, a base that occupied land now part of the Tierrasanta, Santee and Mission Trails Regional Park.

At Camp Elliott, over a period of about six weeks, they “armed” Navajo into code that could relay information about military operations, Ryans said. The Navajo word for hummingbird was used to identify a fighter plane. A Navajo term translated “iron fish” represented a submarine.

In August 1942, a dozen Code Talkers joined the Marines attacking Guadalcanal. The code worked without the Japanese understanding it, and more Navajos were deployed in two-man teams to the front lines. In all, about 400 communications worked during the war.

They participated in every major battle in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, a dormant volcano strategic patch where fighting lasted over a month in February and March 1945. Code Talkers successfully transmitted 800 messages there.

After the war, they returned home and had to keep silent about what they had done. Military leaders thought they might need the code again someday and ordered it to be kept secret.

In 1968 their work was declassified and the public slowly learned the meaning of the code. In 2001, Code Talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal.

There are only three left. None attended Saturday’s ceremony, but half a dozen descendants did, including Hawthorne. He too is a military veteran and also CEO of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum, which is planned for Tse Bonito, NM, near the Arizona border.

Hawthorne noted that at the time of the war, many Native Americans were denied rights that other citizens took for granted, such as the right to vote. Many had been sent to boarding schools, where they had been dissuaded from using their language, a language the Marines then wanted to turn into a secret code.

The irony, he says, was not lost on them.

But they also tapped into something their parents had instilled in them: “It’s up to you whether you want to succeed. Hawthorne said it in Navajo to the Mount Soledad audience. There was pride in his voice.

When he finished, the spectators gave him a standing ovation.

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