On the first day of Native American Heritage Month, the Marines celebrated members of the Navajo Nation, including descendants of the World War II Code Talkers. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz.
In early 1942, Benjamin Cleveland was 17 years old and, having grown up in the Navajo country of Fort Defiance, Arizona, had found work as an assistant cook at the local hospital.
The year before, he had finished eighth grade at a government boarding school for Navajo children on Fort Defiance. He was athletic and played the harmonica, according to a 2015 paper written by a University of New Mexico history student.
In May, he enlisted in the Marines and quickly found himself training alongside 28 other Navajo men to be radio operators. After seven weeks of boot camp and 13 weeks of secret training with radios and code books, Cleveland was sent to the Pacific theater with the 3rd Marine Division as it began to fight its way across the Pacific.
A group photo of many of the "Original 29" Navajo Code Talkers. Photo from University of New Mexico.
Cleveland and his fellow Navajos became known as the "Original 29" Navajo Code Talkers, using their native language as an unbroken code that allowed Marine forces to communicate with each other during combat. The Japanese codebreakers listening in never solved the puzzle.
In late summer 2022, Cleveland's great-grandson Cpl. Caleb Begay and five other Navajo Marines gathered at the Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona, for National Navajo Code Talker Day.
The Marines released a series of social media posts about the ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 1, to mark the first day of Native American Heritage Month.
Begay, a light armored vehicle technician with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, and the five other Marines had never met before arriving at the Arizona memorial on Aug. 14, according to a Marine Corps press release.
The date was designated in 1982 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day by President Ronald Reagan.
Another Navajo Marine at the ceremony with deep ties to military service was Cpl. Stephen Douglass, a fourth-generation Marine.
"From the young age that I heard about the Code Talkers, it made me not question any other branch to join," said Douglass, now with a Marine Reserve unit in Kentucky, where he attends college. "It's always been the Marine Corps. Not just being a Marine, but also being Navajo, it means a lot to me, and it's setting an example, especially for those that are younger."
Cpl. Stephen Douglass, a military police officer with Company A, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Force Headquarters Group, poses for a photo in front of the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial in Window Rock, Ariz., Aug. 13, 2022. Cpl. Douglass was born and raised on the Navajo Nation reservation and is a proud 4th generation Marine. As a member of the Selected Marine Corps Reserve, he is a full-time student at the University of Kentucky. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz)
Code Talkers worked in pairs, with one man broadcasting and receiving signals and the other translating and keeping an eye out as security.
In all, roughly 400 Navajos served as Code Talkers during the war in the Pacific. Comanche soldiers served as Code Talkers in Europe, making radio broadcasts from the beaches of Normandy, and soldiers of Choctaw, Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, and other nations served as Code Talkers in World War I.
Keeping modern Marines connected to the Code Talker history remains important, Douglass said.
"It tells a lot of who we are, not just as a people, but also as a culture," he told a Marine video crew at the August ceremony. "There was a time in our history when we were told not to be Navajo, we were told to forget our language. [Then] it came to a point in our world's history that our culture was needed, our language was needed. It just shows who we are as a people."
Gunnery Sgt. Danielle Kinney, an administrative specialist with the United States Army Field Artillery School, Marine Artillery Detachment, Fort Sill, Okla., poses for a photo in front of the Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Ariz., Aug. 13, 2022. GySgt. Kinney comes from a long lineage of Marines and she became the first and only female Marine in her family, carrying on her family’s warrior tradition. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz)
Cpl. Nizhoni Milton and Gunnery Sgt. Danielle Kinney were also at the August ceremony. Milton is an intelligence specialist with the 1st Marine Division and the Native American Women Warriors, a nonprofit organization comprising Native American women veterans and active-duty service members. Kinney, an administrative specialist at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, said her family includes a long line of Marines, but among them, she is the first and only woman to join.
And at least one of the Marines, Staff Sgt. Nathan Esplin, said the legacy of the Code Talkers convinced him to join the Marines in the communications field. He is now a network administrator with Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command.
Other Coffee or Die Magazine stories on Code Talkers:
How This World War I Choctaw Code Talker Captured 171 Germans
How the Navajo Code Talkers Changed the Course of World War II
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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