Navajo Code Talkers helped turn tide of war
Nov 29, 2003
MESA, Ariz. — At nearly 80 years of age, Sidney Bedoni is one of a
dwindling few still left of a unique group of U.S. Marines that played a
crucial role in World War II — the Navajo Code Talkers.
He, along with other young men from the Navajo reservations in Arizona,
helped to outwit one of the most sophisticated war machines in the world
and may have communicated in the only truly unbreakable code in the
history of warfare.
"Before then, every time when they (the U.S.) sent a message, the Japanese
broke the code," Brother Bedoni said. With a Japanese foothold already in
the Pacific by the time the U.S. entered the War, an unbreakable code was
critically needed to aid the U.S.
Brother Bedoni and his wife, Lena, have spent most of their lives on the
Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, but often visit their daughter,
Norma Mantanona, who lives in Mesa. Recently, at her home, Brother Bedoni
recalled this pivotal time in his life, as well as his country's.
He explained that a code was devised using the Navajo language. The idea
originated with a civilian named Philip Johnston, a son of Protestant
missionaries who had spent most of his childhood among the Navajos and
knew the Navajo language to be complex though unwritten. The military
eventually took to the idea and with the help of the Navajos, developed a
code that assigned words in their language to military terminology.
"The Navajo had a word for things like airplane, tank, ship and fighter
pilot," says Brother Bedoni. For example, airplanes were given Navajo
names for birds. A dive-bomber was called a gini, their word for sparrow
hawk, or a bomb was called a-ye-shi, which meant eggs. Eventually the code
included nearly 600 words.
In addition to the assigned terms, the code talkers encoded the alphabet.
They took the English letter, thought of something that started with that
letter in English, and then used the Navajo word for that object. For
example, for the letter, "A," they chose ant, which in Navajo is
wol-la-chee and the letter "B" was represented by the word for "bear,"
which is shush. Using this code they could communicate by spelling out
names of locations or other information.
Because of the top-secret nature of the code, it was then put to memory so
there was no risk of a handbook falling into enemy hands.
"They never broke the code," said Brother Bedoni, who was a part of the
second group of trained code talkers.
As a result, the program grew to include more than 400 code talkers. They
served duty in some of the war's bloodiest battles and were instrumental
in every U.S. Marine victory in the Pacific between 1942 to 1945.
Military reports show that commanders at all levels gave the Navajos high
praise throughout the war and acknowledged that their service helped turn
the tide of the war in the Pacific.
With Navajo-speaking Marines on both ends of communications during battle,
commanders could order air support, battlefield maneuvers, and artillery
and naval bombardments instantaneously, without wasting time deciphering
Brother Bedoni served in Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Saipan, Iwo Jima and
Okinawa. Later, after the surrender, he served in occupied Japan,
witnessing firsthand the destruction left from the atomic bomb.
He recalls the traditional prayers of his people and his family sustained
him during battle and separation from home. He also relied on his own
faith. "I usually did my own praying at the front lines, too," he said.
"Just in my heart, just inside."
Although not a member of the Church during the war, Brother Bedoni had
previously attended Latter-day Saint meetings while going to school in
Tuba City. "We were told at the boarding school that we could attend the
Catholic or Protestant churches," he recalled. He thought, "I don't care
what they say, I'm going to the LDS Church."
"We learned how to dance there," he said. "I liked it, so I kept going."
He also began to learn about the gospel, but soon recruiters were signing
up men for the military. "I never had time to be baptized before I went
into the service," he said.
Sidney Bedoni was 16 at the school in Tuba City when he heard about the
Marine recruiters. He hitchhiked or walked nearly 50 miles to return home
so he could enlist. They adjusted his birth date so that he appeared on
paper to be 18 and old enough to serve. "I was born in a hogan," he said.
"We didn't have birth records." He was one of the youngest Navajos to go
After the war, he met and married Lena. They had a friend who was a
Latter-day Saint and they started going to Church while living near
Flagstaff. After their first child was born, the Bedonis were baptized.
For years Lena didn't know what her husband had done during the war. The
code talkers program remained classified until 1968, in case their code
would be needed in other wars.
Nearly 25 years after the end of World War II, the code talkers finally
received national recognition and the veil of secrecy was lifted.
Two years ago the Navajos were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor by
President George W. Bush. During that ceremony, President Bush was quoted
as saying, "In war, using their native language, they relayed secret
messages that turned the course of battle. At home, they carried for
decades the secret of their own heroism. Today, we give these exceptional
Marines the recognition they earned so long ago."
Members in the original group of code talkers were awarded the Gold Medal
of Honor, Brother Bedoni, and others who followed the first group,
received the Silver Medal of Honor.
Today, Brother Bedoni continues to associate with those who shared similar
experiences. He regularly attends meetings of the Navajo Code Talkers
Association in Gallup, N.M., and participates in the annual Navajo Nation
parade in Window Rock, Ariz., where the code talkers are honored.
On Nov. 11, 2002, at a special program at the Embery-Riddle Aeronautical
University in Prescott, Brother Bedoni received a portrait painted by
artist Dezie Lerner. (It is featured on the cover of this week's Church
News.) On that day he was also honored as the Grand Marshal in the
Veteran's Day parade.
Arrangements are currently being made for the painting to hang in the U.S.
He also wears a cap with the words, "Navajo Code Talkers USMC WWII" and
tells his stories only when asked. "When I wear this cap, then people ask
me about it," he said.
Out of the more than 400 code talkers trained to serve, fewer than 30
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