Sunday, May 8, 2011

The "Code Talkers": No Secret to Ernie Pyle

Pfc. Preston Toledo and Pfc. Frank Toledo, Navajo cousins, transmit messages in the South Pacific 1945.  Photo from the National Archives.

In some recent history research, I stumbled upon something surprising.  It relates to the Navajo "code talkers," whose work gained great notoriety in the 2002 film Windtalkers starring Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach.

From that film and other information I've read, I was under the impression that all in the program were sworn to secrecy and the story not revealed until 1998.  That is what is says in the film and in the National Archives' Prologue magazine (Winter 2001).

I discovered this isn't true.  The "code talker" story was published more than fifty years earlier in a national best-seller.

Correspondent Ernie Pyle, who worked for the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance, was probably the best-known reporter to follow American troops in World War II.  He wrote about the Native American signalmen in one of his last columns, written from Okinawa in April 1945.  It may not have passed the censor at the time, but it appeared in a 1946 book of his columns, Last Chapter (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.).


It its pentultimate chapter, titled "Men from Mars," about the Marines he traveled with on Okinawa, Pyle writes:

"Nearly two years back when I was with Oklahoma's Forty-fith Division in Sicily and later in Italy, I learned they had a number of Navajo Indians in communications. When secret orders had to be given over the phone these boys gave them to one another in Navajo.  Practically nobody in the world understands Navajo except another Navajo. My regiment here had the same thing.  There were about eight Indians who did this special work.  They were good marines and very proud of it.

"There were two brothers among them, both named Joe.  Their last names were different; I guess that's a Navajo custom, though I never knew it before.  One brother, Pfc. Joe Gatewood, went to the Indian school in Albuquerque.  In fact, our house is on the very same street, and Joe said it sure was good to see somebody from home.  Joe had been out in the Pacific for three years; he had been wounded and been awarded the Purple Heart.  He was thirty-four and had five children back home he wanted to see.

"Joe's brother was Joe Kellwood who had also been in the Pacific for three years.  A couple of the others were Pfc. Alex Williams of Winslow, Arizona and Private Oscar Carroll of Fort Defiance, Arizona, which is the capital of the Navajo reservation. Most of the boys were from around Fort Defiance and used to work for the Indian Bureau.

"The Indian boys knew before we got to Okinawa that the invasion landing wasn't going to be very tough.  They were the only ones in the convoy who did know it.  For one thing they saw signs, and for another they used their own influence.

"Before the convoy left the far south tropical island where the Navajos had been training since the last campaign, the boys put on a ceremonial dance.  The Red Cross furnished some colored cloth and paint to stain their faces and they made up the rest of their Indian costumes from chicken feathers, sea shells, coconuts, empty ration cans, and rifle cartridges.  Then they did their own native ceremonial chants and dances out there under the tropical palm trees with several thousand marines as a grave audience.  In their chant they asked the great gods in the sky to sap the Japanese of their strength for this blitz.  They put the finger of weakness on the Japs, and they ended their ceremonial chant by singing the Marine Corps song in Navajo.

"I asked Joe Gatewood if they really felt their dance had something to do with the ease of our landing and he said the boys did believe so and were very serious about it, himself included.  "I knew nothing was going to happen to us," Joe said, "for on the way up here there was a rainbow over the convoy and I knew then everything would be all right."

There are a number of interesting things about Pyle's Code talker story:  First; in the Okinawa campaign, the Marines were assigned to fight on the north of the island, while the army infantry worked in the south.  It was in the southern half of the island that the bloodiest and most awful days of the battle took place.  It was no walk in the park for anyone:  but as battles go, the Marines had an easier time of it than the infantry.

Second; there is enormous pathos in Pyle's sentences about the Marines' good luck.  Two weeks after L-day on Okinawa (meaning "Landing Day," though the landing was so relatively unopposed (at first) it has forever since been known as "Love Day") he left the Marines on Okinawa--reportedly calling the battle there "Bush league!" compared to Europe--and was persuaded to take a look 'round nearby Ie  Shima.  Two landing fields had been captured there and the 77th Infantry Division was "mopping up."

On April 18, 1945, Pyle and four others left the beach on Ie Shima headed for the front lines in a jeep.  A Japanese sniper with a machine gun took aim, and Pyle was killed. The battle on Okinawa was a horrible one and continued far into June. But the Marines with whom he had landed--where he'd heard the story of the good luck rainbow--continued to have an easier time of it than the infantry.

(My father and his unit, the 1902 Engineer Aviation Battalion,  landed under fire on Ie the day after Pyle was killed and Dad attended Pyle's memorial service. He often spoke of this, though I was well into my journalism career before I learned about Pyle and his work as a reporter and how important he had been both to soldiers and the home front. He was truly a great reporter and an even greater patriot.)

How is it that history tells us everyone was sworn to secrecy about the "code talkers" for more than fifty years, and yet their story was clearly told in a 1946 book of these last collected columns written by the war's most famous correspondent?

My theory is this: war books were hot stuff in 1943, 1944, and 1945, when for several years Pyle had two books on the best seller lists simultaneously:  Here is Your War, and Brave Men. 


Last Chapter popped up on the best seller list in 1946 and then vanished. Millions of men had come home to America from terrible war zones all over the world--relieved to be alive and thrilled to be able to get on with their lives.  Pyle was dead.  The war was over.

I think everybody just forgot.

It was only after fifty years had gone by that many of us began to hear from our own fathers and mothers about their experiences in World War II.  The fascinating but obscure details of a small group of exceptional Native American Marines joined quite a few other fascinating forgotten details in a pile of stuff from yesterday's battles.

Ernest Taylor Pyle (August 3, 1900-April 18, 1945).  Photo from Last Chapter (1946)

Ernie Pyle gave them some glory.  But, like most daily journalists, he saw history very close up and had to be in a constant search for the next story. It is not for nothing that somebody developed the joke about today's newspaper become tomorrow's fish wrapper.

He didn't live long enough to look back on this one and realize--in a war full of remarkable things--that the story of the Navajo "code talkers" was one of the most remarkable things of all.

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