“My Father the Navajo Code-Talker” – with Laura Tohe
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Welcome to SpyCast, the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Every week we explore some aspect of the past, present or future of intelligence and espionage. Please subscribe to the show if you haven't already and consider leaving us a five-star review so other listeners can find us. Coming up next on SpyCast.
Laura Tohe: They felt that this is the language that was given to them by the holy people, and it's a language that could be used in military, which they did. [ Music ]
Dr. Andrew Hammond: The story of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II is one of the most fascinating in the history of secret communications. In effect, Native American peoples sent their languages into battle on behalf of the United States. The irony, as this week's guest points out, is that Uncle Sam had already done so much to undermine and marginalize these languages before the war. This week's episode features the daughter of a code talker, Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation and author of the book "Code Talker Stories," Laura Tohe. In this week's episode, Laura and I discuss how the code talking units were formed. How the Navajo people used their language as a weapon. Laura's father, Benson Tohe's story, and the intriguing question, Did the Japanese ever break the code? We also discuss the Navajo Nation, which is the largest Native American reservation in the United States, straddling four states in the American Southwest. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. [ Sound effect ] Well, thanks so much for joining me to speak about your father, Laura. I'm very pleased to speak to you.
Laura Tohe: I'm happy to be here and talk about the Navajo Code Talkers. I wonder if it would be all right if I introduce myself in the Navajo language?
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Yes, please. Yeah, that would be great.
Laura Tohe: This will give the listeners a chance to hear what the language sounds like and how the Code Talkers took this language and developed it into a code. So I'll say it in Navajo first and then I'll translate it into English. [ Speaking in Navajo ] The English translation is, Hello, I am called Laura Tohe. I am Sleepy Rock People, Clan Born from the Bitter Water clan people. My maternal grandfather clan are the Sun Clan people from Laguna Pueblo, and my paternal grandfather clan are the Coyote Past people. My father's name was Benson Tohe. He served in World War II as a Navajo Code Talker. And that is how I define myself.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: That's fantastic. Thank you so much for doing that. So your father was one of the celebrated Navajo Code Talkers. When do you first recall hearing about this story?
Laura Tohe: You know, I went to visit my father in 1983. I was living in the Midwest at the time, and when I went to visit him, he said he had just come back from Washington, D.C., where in Washington, D.C. where he and some of the other Code Talkers had been honored. He said he had been in a parade. And then he showed me this silver medal he brought out and said, This is what I got. He didn't really say who honored him, and he didn't really talk a lot about going there and why he was there. And that was sort of the way that he treated the whole topic of his service. He never talked about it to me. He mentioned, you know, that he had been in the service and he had been in the South Pacific and he had been in China. But as far as actually talking about him being a Code Talker and what he did and where he was sent, he was not specific about it. So I didn't find out until 1983 that he had been honored for his military service, and I thought that's what it was about. But later on, when I was teaching at the university one of my students did a research project on the Navajo Code Talkers. And it was actually from that student that I learned more about who the Code Talkers were. And then I started to put things together. Because when I was a child growing up with my parents, we used to go to these parades in Gallup, New Mexico, and the Code Talkers used to march in there. And I'd see them, and I didn't know what they did or who they were. They just had the slide that said Navajo Code Talkers. My father didn't participate in that. So there was all these pieces that were out there, and then finally, after my student gave this researched talk, I learned what my father had done and what his service was. But I -- unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to him more about it. When I wrote this book on the Code Talkers, he had already passed by then. So that's kind of my story with my father's service.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: How long was he in the military for? Was it for the duration of the war or did he have a career in the military or serve another few years?
Laura Tohe: No, my father enlisted when he was actually 16 years old, and he was underage to do that. But he got his parents to sign the papers that allowed him to enlist and he said on that paper that he was actually 17 when he was actually 16 years old. So he went in 1944 and he was discharged in 1945. And my father passed in 1994 so he -- like I mentioned, he rarely spoke of his service but he did tell us some of the stories about being in China.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Before we go on to discuss the Code Talkers a little bit more, I'm just interested to learn a little bit more about your father. Could you tell us a little bit more about his story, his upbringing, and what kind of man he was and so forth?
Laura Tohe: Yeah, my father's name was Benson Tohe. He grew up at Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, which is on the Navajo Nation homeland. But he went to college after he was discharged, to study bookkeeping. And he was there maybe a year or two when his father asked him to come home because he had started a coal mining business and he wanted my father to help him. So my father dropped out of school and went home and worked on the Tohe Coal Mining Business, which is what it was called. At the time, my father's father, my grandfather, delivered coal from this coal mining business that he owned. He would deliver coal to the schools on the Navajo Nation because that's how they got their energy. And he became wealthy from that. There was a time when they had a lot of cattle and horses. And Hollywood, when they would come out to the reservation, they used to sometimes borrow or rent my family's horses to be used in these films. So he, you know, was a part of that business until it closed. And then later on, my father became a welder. And he was also a rancher because my family had livestock. We had horses and cows that the whole family owned, and my father helped to take care of that. My father was also a cowboy. He rode saddle bronc in the rodeos and won a few times.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Oh wow.
Laura Tohe: Yeah.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Have you seen Yellowstone?
Laura Tohe: Yes, I have. It's a pretty extreme sport, but he -- he liked that and later on he was inducted into the All-Indian Rodeo Cowboy Association.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Oh wow.
Laura Tohe: And later on in his later years, he became a sheep herder. He stayed home and took care of the sheep, and was also a great lover of hats. He had all kinds of hats that he liked to have as part of his photo.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Wow. What a fascinating man your father was.
Laura Tohe: Yes. And I forgot to mention that he ran away from school I think when he was probably still in junior high, in the middle school years. He didn't like the parochial school that he was in. He said the nuns made him walk on his knees from the entrance of the church to the altar. And he just said --
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Really.
Laura Tohe: Yeah, he said he just got tired of that. He just didn't take it anymore. So he told his friend he was going to run away and his friend said, I'll go with you. And so they did, they ran away. And from Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is where he was at school, to his home, it's probably 350, maybe 400 miles away. And I don't know how far he hitchhiked or how far he walked, but he did make it all the way home. And his parents put him into another school, which he liked better.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: And -- and you mentioned the Navajo Nation just previously there, and the Navajo Nation, can you just tell our listeners a little bit more about that? As I understand it, it's the largest reservation in the country, is that correct?
Laura Tohe: Yes, it's about the size of the state of West Virginia, for those Americans that would know -- or whoever's listening. It's quite large. It extends into part of New Mexico, Arizona, and a little bit into southern Utah. And our reservation land was actually a lot larger. After the Navajo people were released from captivity in 1868, they went back to their homes and this reservation boundary was set up. And so that's the reservation today. But originally, our homeland was within the boundaries of what we call the four sacred mountains, and each of the mountains sits at a cardinal position. So there's east, southwest, and the north mountains. And that land within that area was originally our homeland. We have also quite a large number in our population, over 350,000. A lot of the Navajo people live in urban areas or off the reservation homeland and some live on the homeland. The homeland is just like everywhere else. We have schools, hospitals. We have our own capital government, we have museums, businesses -- not a lot of businesses, but nevertheless, you know, we are trying to build up our Nation as much as possible.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: And you mentioned the four sacred peaks. Where are they, Laura?
Laura Tohe: There's the -- East Mountain is in Colorado, and then there's one in New Mexico, one in Arizona, and one in -- anther one in Colorado. So there's four. And those names are very -- they're Navajo names, but we just call them by their American colonial names. Those mountains, to the Navajo people and to some of the tribes that are near there, consider these mountains to be sacred. And the mountains are protectors and guides for many of the indigenous peoples.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: So where the Navajo Nation is now, it's relatively close to the traditional home between the four sacred peaks, is that correct?
Laura Tohe: Yes, they're -- like, for example, I live in Phoenix and one of the mountains is north of here, just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. From here, it's probably a two-hour drive.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: And let's move on to talk a little bit more about the Code Talkers. So help our listeners understand for those that don't know what they are, what is a Code Talker?
Laura Tohe: The Code Talkers were a select group of -- in this case, the Navajo were Marines who enlisted just after Pearl Harbor was bombed. And at that time, the military, specifically the Marines, were in desperate need of a code that could be used to send over the radio waves, because the Japanese were deciphering all the codes that were being sent over the radio. Well, there were a group of young Navajo men that enlisted after this bombing. They were sent to San Diego, and they were selected based on their fluency in Navajo and English. Well, just prior to that, there was a man named Philip Johnson who had served in World War I, and he had been raised on the Navajo Nation homeland. His parents worked there, and it said that he could speak Navajo. So he brought this idea forward to the Marines to use the Navajo language as a code, because he had heard about Choctaws using their language in Germany. And so the Marines listened to this idea and they decided to test it out. So these young men, when they enlisted and they got to Camp Elliott north of -- or just near San Diego, they were selected out and they were put into two rooms and they were asked to send messages back and forth in Navajo and English, and time the language was used and also translated into English. The messages came back very quick and it was accurate. And so from that point on, the Marines started to go ahead and develop this code. So these young men were tasked with coming up with a secret code. They were all Navajos. There were other tribes that also served as Code Talkers. So these young men then developed this code over the course of very few months and made it ready to be used in the South Pacific where they were sent. So these young men used the Navajo language to send messages -- secret messages, over the radio waves in the South Pacific and many of the islands where they were stationed. The Japanese could not decipher these messages. They tried, and it wasn't until towards the end of the war that they realized that it was a Native American language.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: So you mentioned these young men, would all of them have spoken Navajo? Would they all have spoken Navajo and English? You know, so I come from Scotland and Gaelic is one of the native languages, but it's not spoken very widely by a lot of people. So I'm just trying to get an understanding of how common it was for these young men or men of that age to speak both English and Navajo? Was that completely normal or was that a minority?
Laura Tohe: At the time when the Code Talkers enlisted, it was normal. Everyone spoke Navajo. Overall, though, there were a lot of Navajo speakers only. Some from that generation did not speak English. The ones that went to the residential schools on the homeland or outside of the homeland were sent to these schools to assimilate them, which meant to take away indigenous identity and especially the language, to make over the Native American into white society's image that they wanted. And so when they got to these schools, these young children were not allowed to speak their own native language. That was the case for me when I first entered a day school, which is like a boarding school, but I didn't live on campus. I walked from home. We were not allowed to speak our language in the school. We were punished for it. Punishment consisted of slapping our hands with a ruler by the teacher. Sometimes we had to stand in the corner facing the wall, and there were extreme cases where children were punished by having their mouths washed out with soap. And this was to make sure that they would not speak the language. That was that generation when everyone spoke Navajo on the Navajo Nation homeland. Today it's quite different, as a result of these boarding schools. So when these young men got into the military, they were fluent in Navajo and being that they had been in school, they could speak English. And that was one of the requirements for them to become a Code Talker. [ Music ]
Dr. Andrew Hammond: In this interlude, I just want to briefly discuss the broader context of the Code Talkers. In World War I, the Choctaw Code Talkers pioneered utilizing their native language on the battlefield as a means of secure communications. Indigenous languages functioned as a code the Germans could not understand and at the time, these languages were largely oral. They were wrapped up, however, in another layer of security. Because the soldiers had to come up with terms for battlefield technologies such as bad air for gas, scalps for casualties, and little gun fast shoot for a machine gun. From the Comanche Code Talkers on the beaches at Normandy with the US Army, through to the Navajo Code Talkers at Iwo Jima with the US Marines in World War II, Native Americans have displayed unwavering courage and patriotism in defense of the United States of America. [ Music ] [ Sound effect ] It's obviously very different, but again, I'm just thinking of Scotland where I am from. And there was one point in time when you were persecuted if you spoke Gaelic and if you wore a kilt that many people around the world will know of Scottish men wearing, those were persecuted as well. So it's kind of interesting the way that governments can relate to language. So there's a great question here that Erin, who works on the podcast with me, thought up. So she's saying the relationship between the US government and the Navajo language is really interesting because on the one hand, native speakers like you were punished for speaking the language and you were encouraged to speak English. But then the government used that very same language and its speakers for their benefit during the war. And her question is, How did Code Talkers feel about this relationship between their language and Uncle Sam?
Laura Tohe: They were astounded when they got into the service and they were told, Now you're going to use your language to develop a code. They said, But back at home they told us not to speak Navajo, and now they want us to develop a code in Navajo? So they were not only astounded, they were puzzled why they would be asked to do this when they were in a school where they were -- their identity was -- tried to be -- their identity was being erased for going to -- for being a Navajo person. So, yeah, they got over that and they quickly put this code together, despite the treatment they had received from the US. You know, being incarcerated for four years from 1864 to 1868, and then being put in these residential boarding schools where they were -- their identity was being erased. That was one of the things that I found very interesting, that they felt that they wanted to do something for the nation, not just the Navajo Nation, but they were interested in preserving and helping the US government in this war effort. And so the language then became a weapon that they used as part of their fighting. So they talked about -- when I interviewed 20 of the last remaining Code Talkers for this book I wrote, they talked about the language and how powerful it is. And they felt that this was the language that was given to them by the holy people, and it's a language that could be used in the military, which they did. So I think that they always felt very grateful that they knew the Navajo language and were able to use it during the war to help save America. And it also helped save many American lives as well.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: So basically the Navajo language went to war in World War II?
Laura Tohe: Yes, it was a weapon. That's what they called it.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Just out of interest, Laura, how difficult is Navajo to learn as a -- you know, on a scale of 1 to 10? Is it quite easy, is it super difficult? Help us understand the language a little bit more.
Laura Tohe: Well, Navajo was my first language and I also learned English at home because both of my parents spoke both languages fluently. I have heard that it's very difficult because for one thing, it's not a Romance language. The pronunciation is difficult to learn. I think you have to learn that -- those pronunciations of how to use your tongue and the air to make words. So it's difficult for, I think, for non-Navajo speakers or even some Navajos that haven't learned the language to speak the language because it's a difficult language, I understand. But for some of the outsiders that came to the Navajo Nation, for example traders and early missionaries, some of them were able to learn the language and speak it. And the early Catholics who came to the homeland did some of the early language work with the Navajo language. It was not a written language until later. There is now two Navajo language dictionaries. The Bible has been translated into Navajo.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: This was all after World War II?
Laura Tohe: Yes.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: It was -- okay. I'm trying to get a sense of Navajo. How many Navajo speakers are there now? I know that a number of Native American languages, the number of speakers has declined since the war. Is that also the case with Navajo?
Laura Tohe: Yes, many indigenous languages in this country and Canada have declined as a result of the residential schools that were, you know, during the 19th and 20th centuries. UNESCO has designated the Navajo language as vulnerable. There's an estimate of there are maybe 150,000 Navajo speakers. Of that number, most of them are probably an older generation. The younger generation don't speak Navajo. They speak mainly English now. During the pandemic, we lost a lot of older people who knew the language and Navajo culture, so our language was probably diminished a bit more because of COVID.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Yeah, I can see that, because it disproportionately affected the elderly.
Laura Tohe: Yes, and the other thing too is that during the time when my parents and my generation went to these residential schools and received this harsh treatment for speaking Navajo, parents didn't teach their children Navajo because they were afraid that it would hold them back or they would receive the same kind of punishment that they received in these schools. So as a result, they didn't teach the younger -- their children the language. So that's another reason our language has diminished a great deal.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: There's no word in English for tank until the invention of the tank. So in Navajo, there's no word for tank. So when they came up with a code, they have to come up with a code word for tank, code word for submarine, a code word for ship, etc. So could you give us a couple of examples of the code?
Laura Tohe: Yes, there are over 440 code words that were created, and all of these words had to be committed to memory. They could not use notes in the field. Everything was in their -- in their memories. And they talked about -- when I interviewed the Code Talkers, they talked about having to periodically practice the code and also they added new words as they were in the war. Which I thought was unique because the Navajos during that time period used their memories I think a lot more than we do today. Where now we can write notes down or put it in our phone or computers or a date book or something. But back then people didn't do that. They had to memorize everything orally. Because we have a very rich oral tradition which stories have to be memorized, songs, prayers that were used in sacred ceremonies that could be memorized. So our memories, I think back then, I know it was true for my mother, she could remember a lot more than I do. I'm probably one of these people now that have to write things down. But they were uniquely prepared, I think, for that reason, that they were able to call on the oral tradition of the Navajo people to memorize these words. The words that they came up with were related to animals and insects and things in the house. The alphabet, they used the English alphabet from A to Z. They had, like, for example, for A, the letter A, they would have three different words. Same thing with B, C, and for most of the alphabet there were three words, so they could any time interchange that word as they were sending the code so it would be harder for it to be decoded. They also had to come up with place names, like, for example, Suribachi. We don't have that word in the Navajo language, so they would have to spell it out, or they used a shortcut word for that. They also used animals for some of the artillery, like, for example, a battleship became an iron fish, which we call -- the Navajo call it [speaking in Navajo], which just means iron fish. So if they were using that word in their transmission, that's what they would say. They wouldn't spell out every letter in that word. And my favorite one is grenade, which they use potato.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Potato.
Laura Tohe: And -- yes, we have a word in Navajo, [speaking in Navajo], so a potato you can hold your hand and you can throw it, like a grenade. So I thought it was very genius that they used -- and they used a lot of animals. Like, for example, a fighter bomber was a hummingbird. We have a word for that. Also, observation plane became an owl, because it, you know --
Dr. Andrew Hammond: That makes sense.
Laura Tohe: Yeah, because it observes things. Eggs were, you know, bombs were called eggs and, you know, things like submarine or battleship. Those are words that were not part of our language so they had to think of animals that behaved like some of this artillery and they then they were able to create a work for that.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: It's really, really fascinating. And can you tell me how the Code Talker teams functioned? So for example, was each individual Code Talker so to speak, so they would be on a radio, they would listen to a message, they would then take the message to an officer or an NCO, or was it -- there were, like, teams, so there would be two of them that would be together to do it or three of them together to do it? Just help me understand how it all functioned.
Laura Tohe: Yeah, most of the time they worked in pairs of two.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Okay, one to send and one to receive?
Laura Tohe: Yes, and then there would be another pair that the messages would be sent to or from. So the Code Talker would be given a message in English to encode. Then he would write that message down and then that message would be sent over the radio waves to another set of Code Talkers, who then translated the messages into English and then they'd pass that message on to whoever it was intended for. Everything that was sent over the radio waves was in Navajo using this code that they developed. Sometimes they delivered messages on foot. They also didn't always like to go alone on foot because they were afraid that they would get taken by the Americans and, you know, arrested. And maybe they thought they might be Japanese, so they didn't like to go alone. They would rather go with a white soldier who could, you know, get them through wherever they needed to go. So everything had to be done very quickly, because in a war, time is of the essence. The code worked beyond expectation, is what one of the Code Talkers told me. They were messages that were very specific only to Navajo people. And these words that were used could be easily sent over the radio waves without the Japanese ever deciphering it. By the end of the war, they had, what was it, over 442 words. Some of the words were added during the wartime. They also had to use shortcut words, like for names of officers, military organizations, countries, and months. So rather than spelling out a word, say, like destroyer, they had the shortcut word for that and they could just send that out rather than spending time spelling it all out. But if they didn't have a code word for artillery, then they would rely on the alphabet to translate that.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: And so they would translate that it into the native alphabet and then relay it over the radio?
Laura Tohe: No, they would translate it into English for when they receive a message.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: And just out of interest, did the Japanese, as far as we know, did they ever cotton on to this? Did they know that this was happening?
Laura Tohe: They did. Towards the end of the war, they realized that it was a Native American language. There was a story about a man who was in the Bataan Death March. He survived and he came back, and he said that while he was there, the Japanese made him listen to these messages the Navajo Code Talkers were sending and he kept telling the Japanese, I can speak Navajo, but I don't know the code. I'm not a Code Talker. I don't know what they're saying. And they made him listen to the messages, and he would pick out words here and there and tell the Japanese. But he said the Japanese tortured him. And finally they let him go. So he made it back to the US. He was discharged and he went to the Code Talkers and he kind of joked with them and he said it was because of you guys I was tortured. And he said, But I, you know, I survived so okay. That was just one of the stories I heard about.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: That's incredible. And were there any -- I'm sure there were many, but is there a particular battle that you would refer to to demonstrate to our listeners the Code Talkers in action? Maybe there's some famous battle or one where the Code Talkers were utilized or something? I'm just trying to give our audience something concrete to hang their hats on to think about.
Laura Tohe: Right. Well, they fought only in the South Pacific. They did not go to Europe. So they went to many of the islands in the South Pacific. Some of the major battles that they fought in were places like Tinian.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Was Iwo Jima one of them?
Laura Tohe: Yes, Iwo Jima. They went to Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Peleli, Guam, Okinawa. They went to a lot of the places in the South Pacific. They did go to Iwo Jima. Some of the Code Talkers that were there witnessed the raising of a flag. And they also talked about what it was like to land on those islands where many Americans were killed. That was one of the things I was a little bit leery of asking too much about, because these are male stories. But they were forthcoming in telling me the name of places that they fought in. And some of them had to live in foxholes for days at a time before they were able to get out of there. So they also fought in Guam, Bougainville, and my father was wounded. He ended up in Peking, which is now Beijing. He recuperated there in China. How and why he got there, I don't know. Or if he was sent to Peking just to recuperate. I don't know if he fought there or not, because as I said, my father didn't talk much about his service. [ Music ]
Hannah Soloyo: Hi, my name is Hannah Soloyo. I am lucky enough to work on both our exhibits and programs team here at the museum, bringing all of our wonderful content to life, whether that's through an exhibit or through a program. And one of my favorite moments here at the museum happened during our 2019 gala to celebrate the opening of our new building and new museum. And I was with my mom and dad, they flew out from back home, and we're walking through the fifth floor galleries. And we get to the Codes gallery, and there's a small section on Code Talking there. And my mom turns to me and says, "Did you know a extended family member was a Code Talker?" And I looked at her and said, "What -- what are you talking about? How did you not mention this to me before I got this job during the interview process, like, a year ago?" And she's like, "Oh, maybe I thought I had." So to put a little context on that, my -- I am a member of the Hopi tribe. My mother was born on the reservation. My grandmother was born and raised on the reservation. And it was really exciting when I came to work here. I was going through the content of what we're putting in the new museum and there was a section on Code Talking. I was very excited to see that. Little did I know I had this connection to an extended family member. I am now digging more into who this person was, what they did. It's my understanding that he worked in the Pacific Theater during World War II. It's funny because it ties back kind of also to why the first -- when I moved to DC, I'm originally from New Mexico -- I moved here to be an intern at the American Indian Museum. And, you know, years down the line, over a decade later, here I am at Spy, using my background from both being Native, working at American Indian, and now getting to research and using intelligence stories that hopefully in the future we can develop more on the Code Talking program. [ Music ] [ Sound effects ]
Dr. Andrew Hammond: How many Navajo Code Talkers were trained during the war?
Laura Tohe: Well, there's been some information that's not accurate, but we found out recently in researching how many Navajo Code Talkers there were. We think that there were at least 432 who served. During the war, records were kept on paper, so they could be even lost or misplaced or wrong information sometimes was placed on there. So they could be also inaccurate. But we think there was at least 432 Navajo Code Talkers that served during World War II. And of that, there were original Code Talkers. There may have been as many as 32 or 34 original Code Talkers who developed the code and then taught the next group of Code Talkers. And my father was in the -- the later group of Code Talkers. They worked -- like I mentioned, they worked really hard in getting this code together so that they could be sent out to the military and then to have a path to the next Code Talkers.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: This is really an incredible story. How many of the Code Talkers were lost in action?
Laura Tohe: As far as I know, what I've found that there were at least three KIA, killed in action. There may have been more. I do know one of the things that the Code Talkers said, that they had bodyguards. The bodyguards' role was to protect the Code Talker. In the event the Code Talker was capture, the bodyguard was to shoot the Code Talker. That's how --
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Okay, they --
Laura Tohe: Yeah, that's how much the code had to be protected. Now, I never heard from any of the Code Talkers that I interviewed if that ever happened or not. But some of them did mention that they knew they had a bodyguard. Some said, If I had one, I didn't know it. So I got various stories on the bodyguard.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: In the Navajo Nation, is there a memorial to the Code Talkers? Or a museum?
Laura Tohe: Yes. On the Navajo Nation capital, which is in Window Rock, Arizona, there is a veterans' park and a Code Talkers statue. And below the statue are the names of all the Code Talkers who served, including my father's. And in that same park are all the names of other Navajo veterans who fought in other wars. On August 14th, which is Navajo Code Talker Day, it was proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan. And that was a day that we now celebrate Navajo Code Talkers. And Window Rock, there is lots of people come to celebrate this day, families, descendants. There are a lot of speeches and speakers and there's a barbeque, and it's just a day of celebrating the Code Talker. They come from -- well, actually we think there's probably only three Code Talkers left. All the original Code Talkers passed, but we think there are three Code Talkers left today. So there is a celebration that the Navajo Nation celebrates and honors the Code Talkers and then there's a national Navajo Code Talk Day on August 14th. And in Phoenix, where I went to downtown a few weeks ago on August 14th, I was able to see the Navajo Code Talker statue there as well.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: And can you tell us a little bit more about your book, Laura? I think that's really fascinating. Can you tell us just a little bit more about who you interviewed, some of the main things that you discovered along the way?
Laura Tohe: Yeah, the name of my book is Code Talker Stories. It's an oral history book in which I interviewed 20 of the last living Code Talkers at that time and some of their descendants. I worked with a photographer, Deborah O'Grady, who took the photographs and the portraits for the book. We traveled to many of the Code Talker meetings when they were still being held in Gallup, New Mexico. And we got the permission of the Code Talkers to come out to their home or to meet them at a particular place to interview them. Most of the Code Talkers were forthcoming and willing to be interviewed. Some not so much, so I left them alone. I have more maps written on napkins and scrap paper giving me the directions to their house and the directions would be like, Just go down the highway from Crown Point, go north towards Tufco Canyon, and then when you get to the road where you'll see a tire hanging on a fence, turn right there and then go about a mile and you'll see some cattle or a sheep camp there. And I grew up on the rez, so I know what that's like to tell directions by visual objects rather than by highway names and so forth. So we would travel all around, from New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern Utah, looking for the Code Talkers who wanted to be interviewed. So I started in 2008 and finished the project in 2011. It was fascinating to hear their stories and what they did before, during, and after the war. I was able to find out more about what my father did and what war was -- must have been like for him from listening to their stories. There -- the book didn't include him, but I did write a small essay on him and his love of hats. So this -- yeah, he was a big lover of hats. He had welder's hats and cowboy hats. And so it was a fun project to do. I got to hear the stories of these remarkable Navajo men who gave their lives, you know, when they signed up, when they enlisted in the military and they were willing to lay down their lives for this country. And that was -- I found that to be remarkable and very heroic. And just, you know, something that our Nation contributed and gave to this country. So that was really a very positive experience for me. And the book is written in Navajo and English. Some of the Code Talkers spoke in Navajo, some in English, and some in both languages. Everything was recorded and my son helped work on the transcription of that. I also had all the Navajo translated into English so anyone that picks up this book would be able to read the language. I was also interested on having a story of our people for the next generation. That could read about what, you know, the Navajo Code Talkers did, or what their grandfather, great-grandfather did and how the language was used. So that was really important for me, and the publisher that I worked with was very open to that. And it was the most fun research project I ever did. I got to travel all around the rez, as we call it for short, the reservation, and just listen to stories, very interesting stories. And when I first started the project, I asked them questions like, How long were you in the military, and what did you do, and, you know, questions like that that could be answered with a yes or no or a short sentence. And I wasn't getting anywhere. So I knew I had to change the way I asked them for their stories. I just asked them can you tell me a story about being a Code Talker. And that's all I said. And then out comes this flooding of stories about where they grew up and the things they did, and their families, and what they learned in school, and their military life, and what they did during the war, and after they came back. It was quite interesting. I used to spend two days listening to one Code Talker who was so interesting and one of the things that he told me that I didn't know was that he said he had to deliver ammunition on a surfboard from the ships to land. Yeah, that's one story I had never heard. So I -- you know, my whole life was enriched by what they told me. I feel so honored that they gave me their stories, that I was able to write a book and to be interviewed on -- on Spy Museum so that everyone else would know.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Can you tell me a story about researching the Code Talkers? Was there anything that was particularly unusual, fascinating, memorable, humorous, dramatic? I'm sure there were many, but maybe if you could share one with our listeners.
Laura Tohe: Yeah, I think one of the things that I learned overall was the humility that the Code Talkers exhibited when I spoke to them. You know, with Navajo people, we don't like to put ourselves out there and brag about ourselves and, you know, say the things we've accomplished and so forth. That's kind of low key. You let someone else do that for you.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Yeah, humility's not really in fashion anymore.
Laura Tohe: I know, I know it's not. But yeah, with the -- especially with social media. So that was one of the things that I was very taken by. And I know that's the way I grew up. We were told not to boast about yourself. And the Code Talkers didn't boast about themselves, they just said, This is what I did. And sometimes if a family member was there, they would interject for the Code Talker and say, Well, he did this and he did that. It was kind of like building the grandfather or the father up. So I was able to get those kind of stories as well. And it was really quite an experience to be part of this historic project, to have it written so that other people would be able to know who we are. Because so much of our presence and our history in the United States and in the world is we're invisible. You know, we don't know -- people don't know a lot about us other than maybe stereotypes or something from Hollywood movies. But this is something that they did because they felt it was their duty, they felt it was their responsibility to help protect the land. One thing that I did find something interesting too is that some of the Code Talkers said that when the recruiter came to their high school to give this talk about enlisting them, they said the recruiter was dressed up in their uniform and they said he looked really sharp. He said, And I wanted to look like him, so I enlisted. So even the uniform became something that they were -- that was a way -- a means for them to enlist. And like many veterans, because of the poverty on the reservation during that time, as there still is today, they used the money that they received in the military, sent home to help their family. One of the other stories that the Code Talkers told me was that he -- this Code Talker, Mr. So, Samuel So, the one I spent two days talking to and listening to his stories. He said that he received a letter from the local veterans' office one day asking him to come down because there was mail for him. So he went there, picked it up. And it was a letter that arrived 50 years later from his --
Dr. Andrew Hammond: It had taken awhile.
Laura Tohe: -- yeah, from his mother. She had gotten someone to write a letter to him and sent it over to him while he was serving, and he never received it until he got back 50 years later.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Wow, that's incredible.
Laura Tohe: Yes, it really was. And that Mr. So was the best storyteller. I mean, I could still be listening to him today. He had so much to say and so interesting. And I think that was the other beautiful part of doing this project, is the Code Talkers have -- are so resourceful in knowing, you know, this military history but also knowing the cultural history of the Navajo people. And I just feel so lucky and grateful that I was trusted with that.
Dr. Andrew Hammond: Wow, this is all so fascinating. Now I really want to go to Window Rock and see the memorial. Thanks ever so much for your time. This has been really incredible, and I think that one of the things about the research that you've done is the, you know, this lives on now. It doesn't just die when the Code Talkers die. It lives on in your book or even in the podcast. Thanks so much for your time. This has been a pleasure.
Laura Tohe: For me, too. Thank you. [ Music ] Thanks for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast at spymuseum.org or on Twitter at intlspycast. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com /podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and show transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrich. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Renz, Afu Anokwa, Elliot Peltzman, Trey Hester and Jen Iben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. [ Music ]