Sgt. Roy Hawthorne

Sgt. Roy Hawthorne

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  • Fact: To go here...
  • Fact: To go here...

Written by Sue Tone

Roy Hawthorne, clan member of the Red House Tribe of the Navajo Indians, grew up in Lupton, Arizona, where he attended public school with other Navajo and white children. Entering the seventh grade, he and a younger brother were sent to a boarding school where speaking his native language was prohibited. He said his parents may have made the decision for economic reasons based on the hardships of the Great Depression.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen to us in the boarding school, so there were many mysteries involved in that. One thing about boarding school was good, and that was that they had breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that goes a long way when you’re trying to learn things and overcome a vicious enemy like a false curriculum. There is the food, there is the clothing. That was an enticement for the Navajo student to forsake traditional American Indian ways. But sometimes Navajos are tricky. Who isn’t?”

“Nobody encouraged me to go to school. But logic tells an individual that you need to know what it is that the white man is doing and how he accomplishes those projects. A lot of Navajo said you can’t do it. Navajo can’t do that. Navajo really don’t want to do that. Well, it was time for a change. It was time for a change in the thinking of the Navajo mind and of making projects come alive with roles and benchmarks and ways to achieve. I wanted to do that.”

Hawthorne enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 at age 17. He wanted to serve in the Navy in a submarine, having read “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but, unknown to him, Congress had decreed that all Navajos were to enter the Marine Corps. If they met the language criteria, these young men were trained as Code Talkers.

The complexity of the Navajo language itself, along with the use of code words that created visual pictures, contributed to the success of the program. No Japanese was ever able to break the code.

The first 29 Code Talkers recruited by the Marines developed 211 Navajo words as code. However, those trained soon afterward refined the code, adding more than 200 additional words. Between 1942 and 1945, about 400 Code Talkers served in the Marine Corps. They had to memorize all the words and references, and be able to translate rapidly under stressful conditions. A Navajo speaker not familiar with the code would find the string of nonsense words without meaning.

Roy Hawthorne, photographed by Bruce Roscoe

“The code was classified in three broad categories. One: things of the air. Two: things on the earth. Third: things in the depths of the sea. The person receiving the code, he’d immediately know what category that it’s going to fit in. He would immediately know, is the message concerning infantry artillery, sea-going craft, air-going craft, one of these,” Hawthorne explained.

For instance, the Navajo word for buzzard, jay-sho, referred to a bomber. Besh-lo, or “iron fish,” was code for submarine. “Potato” was grenade, “turtle” was code for tank, and a bomb was an “egg.” The Code Talkers also were able to spell out words by using a Navajo word translated into English beginning with a specific letter. “R-o-y” would be spelled out gah (rabbit), ne-ash-jah, (owl), tsah-as-zih (yucca).

“And that’s why even the Japanese cryptologists, the best in the world at that time, couldn’t do anything about it. All they could do was commit hari-kari. Here’s this Japanese soldier with a hari-kari sword ready to kill himself if he fails to interpret that message.”

Hawthorne landed on Okinawa on Easter Sunday and observed the people cleaning gravesites. It took him back to memories of his mother. “And so when we would come to small villages and smell the same smell – it would be women cleaning up and burning the green weeds that were growing – and so that always would say to me, ‘Remember what I told you, son.’ So I try to remember what she told me. She talked a lot about prayer both in the Navajo way and the English way there. And so we trained with these elements very present.”

During his “ride on the boat” being a Marine, he said, “The road was rough. The road, at times became very rough. Deep within my heart and soul I knew that the One that created me, and everything else, was with me, and as long as I lived according to His precepts, I’d be walking in the right direction. And so the ride has been wonderful. I’d ride that boat again, even if it was a canoe.”

Hawthorne was discharged in 1945, then reenlisted with the Marines and served during the Korean War where he was hit by mortar fire. He lost a leg and spent a year in Walter Reed Hospital, but wanted to remain with the Marines. “Being a military person was my boyhood dream, my aspiration. Being disabled wasn’t going to stop me,” he said.

Now 91 years old, Hawthorne said one of the foremost things he learned from his experience in the Marine Corps was patience. “I mean, you’re in a battle and bullets are flying. They’re trying to kill you, you’re trying to kill them. And you’re going to do it, but you have to be conscious of the tactics that you will employ, and when to attack at the right time, what to use in the attack, and how to use it in the attack. So I would say there are many things that I have learned from being a Navajo Code Talker, but I’m saying that foremost of all, patience is above every other thing. If you’re patient, you’re going to achieve, you’re going to accomplish your goals.”

Until 1968 when the Code Talker program was declassified, they were not allowed to speak about their extraordinary and unique contributions in World War II. Soon the Code Talkers were putting on reunions; they discovered many friends also had been a Code Talker. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 Code Talkers and the Congressional Silver Medal to the Code Talkers who followed. President George W. Bush presented the medals in 2001.

Today’s Code Talker uniform symbolizes noteworthy features. The gold shirt represents corn pollen. The cap is Marine Corps red, lined with gold trim. Silver or turquoise jewelry represents the Navajo people, or Dine. Khaki trousers are the color of the earth. Dark shoes are the sacred mountains.

Educational opportunities for Navajos, past and present, remains of utmost importance for Hawthorne. “Being a Code Talker let us know we could do more than what people thought we could do. Life could be more than simply herding sheep. That wasn’t something we disdained, but it had no productive end. With the GI Bill, that afforded an opportunity to fulfill educational goals.” He earned a doctorate degree, and became an ordained minister.

“The whole world realized they had made an error. That’s what makes me very proud of the fact that we were chosen to do this specific task, and so we did it. For us, it was just another day of the war. We did what we were supposed to, that’s all.”