Thursday, May 14, 2009

They Remember

Midmorning, the principal announced over the public address system that all classes should adjourn and relocate to the high school auditorium. “We have a special program today.”

The teenagers shut their books, bickered with each other, told jokes, and made their exodus. No doubt they were all going to get in trouble for something they didn’t do.

As they filed into the stadium seating of the auditorium, they immediately quieted. On the stage were a dozen older men, all seated, staring back out into the audience. They were known, mostly: grandfathers and the occasional father. A number wore traditional Navajo jewelry. The turquoise was dazzling against their leathered, sun-darkened skin. They wore their hair long, though it was now graying or completely white, and western-style clothing. Old VFW post hats perched on the heads of two of them, and two more sported ballcaps indicating the military branch of their service. The rest wore t-shirts with military logos. One man, perhaps the youngest of the group, wore a camouflage jacket. They sat in a row on stage and faced the audience quietly. The students, unsure, awkward beneath their gazes and uncomfortable in their stoicism, sat silently and stared back. All of the men were Navajo, or as they prefer it in their original tongue, Diné

An ancient man walked out onto the stage. Stooped and slow moving, he made his way to the single microphone at center stage and paused. He was dressed in full Marine Corps green service alphas, every button shined, his brass buckle polished, and every ribbon and medal stood out starkly against the green fabric over his breast. And there were many of them there, too. His hair, also white, fell over his shoulders and framed a thin, gaunt figure. In a moment, he summoned energy from an unknown internal reservoir and straightened magnificently. He began to speak.

“My name is David Bít’ahnii, and I was code talker. There were approximately 419 of us. We were all Diné recruited by the United States Marine Corps during World War II to provide an unbreakable code to US forces operating in the Pacific. Our language, our oral heritage, unwritten, unrecorded, and at that time spoken by no more than 30 non-Diné in the world, was perfect. The Japanese never deciphered our codes.”

Over the next twenty minutes, mostly with his eyes closed and in a quiet voice, David retold his story to the Diné high schoolers in the auditorium who listened with rapt attention. These were not accounts many had heard before. David was taking them back in time with him as he relived the most pivotal, challenging, and historic period of his life. He shared himself, and without a trace of arrogance. He was humbled and honored to be part of this amazing project, to be among the six Diné code talkers who in the first two days of the Battle for Iwo Jima flawlessly received, transmitted, and deciphered more than 800 top secret messages between commands. He was proud of his people, and of his country, and the Marines. He was humbled to be essential to the security of hundreds of thousands of servicemen in theater. He was proud of the United States. Pulling himself straighter for just a moment, he opened his eyes and stared directly into the audience.

“Thank you for hearing my story.” He turned wearily and walked to the empty seat with the other veterans on the stage. There was no applause.

Five teenage girls walked out and moved to the microphone. The eldest stepped forward.

“I am of the clans Kinlitsonii, and Naasht’ézhí Dine’é, and Hasht’ishnii, and K’aa’ Dine’é. My name is Yanaba Tsetaa’aanii. My grandfather was a code talker. Drawing in a deep breath, she told his story. She told of his birth, his parents, where he grew up, and when he left for the Marines. She told the story of the time he almost was shot through the seat of his pants, and how thankful he was that he didn’t go home with an embarrassing war wound.

She described his character next, and her voice began to shake. “When I was a little girl, he would play with me for hours, and weave me little dolls from the grass in the back yard.” She stopped again, as tears welled in her eyes.

The other four girls stepped forward and huddled closely about her. They spoke softly to her. Two took her hands as she returned to the microphone. In a few more sentences, she finished her story.

“My grandfather was a code talker, and I miss him. You have heard his story.” She stepped back.

One-by-one, the other four girls also spoke of their grandfather, his life, and the fond memories they had of him as children. The gentle man that loved them so immensely, the war hero that occasionally told them stories about the war, leaving out the tragedy and focusing on the successes and the role the Diné played in service to their country. They spoke of missing him and they spoke of celebrating his life. The youngest, finishing her account, closed the presentation beautifully:

“Before you are our fathers and our grandfathers, our heroes, our storytellers, our past, and the progenitors of our future. We will hear their stories, and we will remember. Please stand for our national anthem.”

Walking back to the old code talker, they took his hands and helped him to his feet. The other warriors also stood, and solemnly placed a hand over their hearts. With barely a rustle, the students of Kayenta high school rose as well, and the anthem played. Some of the old men had tears in their eyes.

As the last notes died away, a few hands clapped, and then more, and the whole auditorium shook in applause as the deep notes of traditional drums began to pound in the orchestra pit. A dozen female dancers, attired head-to-toe in ceremonial dresses and regalia ran onto the stage and began to dance. In moments, the aging veterans maneuvered down the steps towards the audience. Lining the front, they grasped the hands of students, and soon formed a circle around the auditorium. The girls helped the code talker down the steps and they, too, joined the circle. As the drums grew louder, they all began to move. Students, dancers, granddaughters, veterans and old code talker in a great ring, they began the dance of peace; and one of celebration, and victory, and remembrance. It was Veterans Day, and there was much to remember.

Thank you, Julie, for telling your story…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved


  1. There is a movie about these Indians and their work in WWII. It is called Windtalkers. You might enjoy seeing it, although it is pretty graphic and hard to watch.

  2. I have seen the movie Windtalkers. It is very good and an important chapter in WWll. Ben your story of a high school Veterans Day assembly was very interesting. I was sad to read that David did not get an applause from the students when he recalled his story. Where they overwhelmed, disinterested, stunned or bored?

  3. If I had to guess, I would say the students were too overwhelmed to know just how to respond. But, since this story was only told to me, it's hard to say. In many ways, I think their silence was respectful. Their dancing at the end indicated their sentiment/honor/pride.

  4. A very good tale. An excellent anecdote, full of purpose and well written.

    If I ever did start a magazine or newspaper I'd nab you in a half minute flat as a weekly feature writer. You've got writing in the blood. It's that good. Many can improve upon what skill they have, but how much they start with is God's gift. He has blessed you.

  5. What a love for their country they possessed.