In His Native Tongue
ASU Magazine Spring 2012 Bonus Feature
By Preston Lewis
Director of Communications & Marketing
A language that Samuel Tso was forbidden to speak in the federally financed boarding school he attended ultimately helped that same federal government win World War II.
That fact is one of the many ironies in the life of the Navajo Code Talker and Iwo Jima veteran who was just a mortar’s lob away from one of the most iconic moments in all of American history, the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi the morning of Feb. 23, 1945.
Speaking in a code based on the Navajo language that morning, Tso helped spread the word to the military and ultimately to the world that the extinct volcano, which offered a commanding view of the 7.5-square-mile Pacific island, had been secured by U.S. Marines.
The flag-raising and the first landing by a B-29 Superfortress on the heavily fortified island controlled by the Japanese are etched in his memory.
“Those are the two main things that I remember,” Tso said. “But the others I remember are scary.”
Today Tso, pronounced “so,” is free to share his memories and perpetuate the role of the Navajo Code Talkers in the Pacific theater, but for almost a quarter century after the end of World War II, Tso, along with 418 other Navajo cryptologists, was once again muzzled by the government, prohibited from speaking about his wartime role because the code was deemed critical to national security in the early Cold War era. Their code was the only one to remain unbroken in 20th century military history. Not until 1968 was the ban lifted on the code talkers, who began to share their stories of war in the Pacific.
Tso brought his story to ASU in November, drawing more than a thousand students and guests to campus for his presentation, which was jointly sponsored by the Center for Security Studies and the Multicultural Center. The audience included some 150 uniformed Marines, military descendants of the code talkers who study cryptology at Goodfellow AFB just down the road from the ASU campus.
the Navajo language so inscrutable was its obscurity.
It was understood
by less than three-dozen non-Navajo in the world, and those were generally missionaries
or U.S. government officials.
For Marine Capt. Doug March, a 22-year veteran who commands those Marines, and his troops, it was a special occasion to hear a veteran of Iwo Jima, which holds a hallowed place in the history of the U.S. Marines.
“One thing that I have always felt about the Marines is that what sets us apart is we are so attached to our own heritage,” March said. “One of the things every Marine in boot camp learns is all of our history, all of our famous figures, and this man is, frankly, legendary, especially in our community. We teach the cryptologic linguists here at Goodfellow. Essentially, he is a military grand-pioneer to how we do business today.”
As a young boy shepherding sheep on the Navajo reservation that straddled the Arizona-New Mexico border, Tso could never have imagined the impact he and his fellow code talkers would have just by using their native tongue. The decision that ultimately led him to Iwo Jima occurred one day while tending his flock on the reservation. He observed a van stop near a spring where he was taking his sheep for a noon-time watering. He watched unseen as some of his cousins and one of his sisters drank the cool spring water. Their hair was combed, their clothes clean, their shoes polished. They had been to school and knew how to read and write.
After they left, as he related the story in It Had to Be Done: The Navajo Code Talkers Remember World War II, “I went over to the spring, looked at myself. Oh, man. Saw myself in that pool of water.”
The contrast was stark. Tso’s hair was bushy; his face streaked with sweat; his feet shoeless and mud-caked.
“My pants were all torn up to my knee, just tied with a string,” he recalled. “Took a look at my shirt. It was made out of a flour sack, stitched together. That’s when I decided to go to school.”
Without that decision, Tso would never have become a code talker since the selected Navajo had to read and write English.
Tso’s education at the government boarding school began even before his first class when a matron pointed him to a shower and told him to clean up. When all he saw was water on the floor, he was flummoxed about its source and had to ask. The matron explained to him the hot and cold knobs, and he had his first shower. When he emerged from the cleansing, he found another young Navajo mimicking him perfectly from across the room.
“And, I start walking and that guy starts walking this way,” he related in It Had to Be Done. “And then what I discovered was (that) there’s a big mirror standing there! When I came to it, I found out I could touch it, and I discovered myself. That was me…I felt around and even my own face there.”
Afterward, the matron showed him his bed with a mattress, sheet and blanket.
“Boy, that was something. That was better than (a) sheepskin. That’s how I started school.”
Not all his lessons were positive, especially when caught speaking Navajo, a language that was basically forbidden at the school. For his linguistic transgressions, he would be forced to kneel down in a corner for 30 minutes.
“And then,” as he recalled in It Had to Be Done, “they ask, ‘Okay, Sam, are you going to talk Navajo again?’ and then you answer with yes or no—in Navajo. And then right there you get punished again.”
He was still attending school when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and shortly after that all his male classmates save one left for the military. After he completed high school, he sought railroad work in Gallup, N.M.
“The guy that interviewed me looked at me and said, ‘how old are you?’” Tso told his ASU audience. “I’m 18. He says, ‘Sorry we don’t employ 18-year-olds. You have to be 21.’ Now get this. Ten o’clock in the morning I was 18. Twelve o’clock in the afternoon I was 21 years old. So, my age was very flexible.”
After the railroad transferred him to San Bernardino, Calif., he had to register for the draft and “not very long after that, Uncle Sam called me,” he said.
He wound up in the Marines, going through basic and advanced training in San Diego, then was separated from his buddies and sent to code talker school as part of the new Fifth Marine Division.
According to Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers, the code evolved from the original 29 Navajo assigned to create it immediately after Pearl Harbor. They started with 26 words representing the English alphabet. For instance, the letter A was represented by the Navajo word for ant, “wol-la-chee”; the letter B by “shush,” Navajo word for bear; and so on through the alphabet. Since code breakers look for repetition, sequences and identifiable patterns in messages, the code was expanded by two more Navajo words for the most common letters of the alphabet. In addition to ant, Navajo words for apple and axe could be used for the letter A.
Additionally, the Navajo cryptographers identified Navajo terms, based either on synonyms or shapes/similarities, to represent common military words. For instance, flare would be “light streak” and hospital would be “place of medicine” in Navajo. Bombs, grenades and route would be represented by the Navajo terms for “eggs,” “potatoes” and “rabbit trail,” respectively.
What made the Navajo language so inscrutable was its obscurity. It was understood by less than three-dozen non-Navajo in the world, and those were generally missionaries or U.S. government officials. Further, the inflection of a word could change its meaning, further complicating comprehension to outsiders.
Once the code was fixed, Samuel Tso was encouraged to use the very same language he had been prohibited from speaking in boarding school. On Iwo Jima, his native tongue would convey orders, relay news and save lives.