As a child Zonnie Gorman attended numerous events honoring the Navajo Code Talkers.
Her father, Carl Gorman, was one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers in World War II.
However, it was not until her father’s Marine recruiter Frank Shin came to one of his presentations that she began personal research into these war heroes.
Although she did not attend the presentation, Zonnie Gorman arranged to interview the former recruiter. This sparked her independent study and greater interest in details of the Code Talkers’ story.
She shared these details during her talk at Cleveland State Community College Thursday night as part of the college’s Multicultural Fair events.
“This is my first visit to Tennessee, and I have been welcomed with open arms,” Gorman said.
The Navajo were recruited by the U.S. Marines to develop a code for military communication in the South Pacific after the Japanese deciphered all of the U.S. military codes. (Other native people groups were used by the Army in Europe for the same purpose.)
“They were a ... vital component of the United States military campaigns in World War II,” Gorman said. “The Marine Corps has a very deep and abiding respect for the Navajo Code Talkers and what they did in World War II.”
There were 400 Navajo Code Talkers used to relay military messages during the War.
“Per capita during World War II, Native Americans were the largest minority group in the country to volunteer for service,” Gorman said.
Navajo Code Talkers were first used at Guadalcanal, and continued to play an important role until the end of the war.
The men’s involvement and the code they developed was classified military information until 1968. From 1969 to 1972 there were many recognitions of the Navajo Code Talkers, Gorman said. She said the surviving members formed the Navajo Code Talkers Association in 1971 and began appearing in parades and other patriotic events. Gorman’s father served as president of the association in 1981. Gorman said the association still exists today.
Shin said Gorman’s father had stood out in his memory because he felt the man had lied about his age. Gorman said there were many men who lied about their age in order to serve their country. However, most of them said they were older.
“Most men lied up ... my father was 36 and he lowered his age by 10 years,” Gorman said. “My father also had a very dynamic personality."
Gorman said the suggestion to use the Navajo language as the basis for a military code is credited to Philip Johnson, the son of missionaries to the Navajo and a soldier in the U.S. Army in World War I.
After a demonstration of Navajo using their language for military communication, a memorandum was sent by Gen. Clayton Vogel to Washington, D.C., outlining the demonstration and asking him to recruit 200 Navajo for the project.
Gorman said the Marine Corps began looking into whether this would be possible. Some concerns were if would there be enough bilingual Navajos to make the communication system work and were the Navajo restricted from bearing arms. Gorman said some tribes were restricted in their treaties from bearing arms, regardless of whether it was for or against the U.S.
These issues were addressed and on April 6, 1942, orders were given for 30 Navajos to be recruited.
“My father didn’t talk a lot about the recruitment,” Gorman said.
Instead, her information comes from her interview with Shin.
At first no one would talk to the Marine recruiters, Gorman said. After three days, Shin found out why. The tribal council had told the people not to talk to any “white people” on the reservation.
The Marines talked to the tribal council, which in turn gave permission for them to talk to the people. Word that permission had been granted was sent through shortwave radio to public places. Gorman said people with these radios would then spread the word.
“Then it would go on the Indian grapevine, and that’s faster than texting,” Gorman said.
Shin and his fellow recruiter thought it would take a while for word to get out.
“So, they decided to sleep in, which sleeping in for a Marine is like right after the crack of dawn.” Gorman said.
As the sun came up, there was a persistant noise outside the trailer they were staying in.
“When he pulled that (window) current open, this field was full of Navajos,” Gorman said.
Among them were men in their 70s wearing uniforms from their younger days in battle “ready to go back to war,” Gorman said.
“He was very, very impressed. He said, ‘That image has stayed in my brain as one of the most Patriotic displays that I have ever seen,” Gorman said.
The Marines continued to be impressed with the 29 recruits. Gorman said no one is sure why the requested 30 were not recruited. The Navajos adapted well to military life because they had attended boarding schools. Gorman said the schools, run either by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or missionaries, were a part of the government’s assimilation policy for Native Americans. The schools sought to “Americanize” Indian children and wipe out their Indian cultural heritage, Gorman said. Later during her presentation, Gorman said the schools had a lasting impact.
“(Navajo) is a dying language,” Gorman said.
The 29 original Navajo Code Talkers developed a military code from thier native language by using Navajo words substituted for English versions of words, letters and countries. Gorman said as the code developed, multiple words were used for letters to make the code harder to break. The code talkers used symbols they associated with the country to determine what they would call it in the Navajo-based code. Gorman said while there was a written Navajo language at that time, many fluent at speaking the language could not read or write in Navajo.
“It was quite amazing what they did,” Gorman said.
Since the 1968 declassification of their work, the Navajo Code Talkers have been honored in different ways. They were first honored in 1969 by the 4th Marine Division. In 1975, the association received national recognition when they marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation honoring them. The four reaminging original Navajo Code Talkers received the Gold Congressional Medal from president George W. Bush.
Only one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers is alive today.