THE WINDTALKERS; the Most Extraordinary Story of the Second World War.How a Top-Secret Unit of Navajo Indians - and Their Impenetrable Language - Helped Win the Battle of Iwo Jima for Uncle Sam

By Graham, Caroline | The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

THE WINDTALKERS; the Most Extraordinary Story of the Second World War.How a Top-Secret Unit of Navajo Indians - and Their Impenetrable Language - Helped Win the Battle of Iwo Jima for Uncle Sam


Graham, Caroline, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)


Byline: CAROLINE GRAHAM

Cowering in a foxhole, Teddy Draper trembled uncontrollably as enemy bullets flew all around him, missing him by inches. For 36 days, this tough US Marine had taken part in one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War - the fight to take the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese.

And the sights he had seen would haunt him for half a century. One young soldier was literally skinned alive when he was caught in a fireball from an exploding shell.

Another took a bullet through his jugular vein, the blood spurting from the fatal wound 'like a gushing waterfall'.

For Draper, though, the danger came from both sides.

A native Navajo Indian, he was officially called a ' codetalker', one of a group from his tribe who became known as 'windtalkers' entrusted with radioing top-secret commands in their own language to fellow Marines fighting their way across Iwo Jima. The American forces had realised that the Navajo language represented an impenetrable code to the Japanese and, with the addition of new words designed for the battlefield, the American forces were able to communicate knowing the enemy could not intercept their messages.

But it put the Navajo men in a doubly dangerous position. Protecting the code was paramount and a Marine was assigned to each of the Navajos with instructions to kill him if he was in danger of capture. Draper says: 'We each had a white boy assigned to us who had instructions to shoot us if we looked like we were about to fall into enemy hands. It was all about protecting the code. It was never written down. That is why it was so successful against the Japs - they never broke it. But we knew the dangers.'

Only now can the full extraordinary story of the Indians be told. After the war they were sworn to secrecy about their work in case the American government decided to use them again - and their bravery was formally recognised only last year when they were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

Now their vital role on Iwo Jima has been given the Hollywood treatment in the [pound]50 million war drama Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage, which opens in Britain this summer.

But what the film does not reveal is what the 420 Navajos believe was their betrayal by their own government after the war ended.

Draper and his fellow Navajo were simply sent back to their reservation - a bleak, windswept but majestic two million square-mile patch of the Arizona desert bordering on Utah - to lives of desperate poverty and degradation.

Draper, now 80 with rheumy eyes and hearing permanently damaged in the war - and still living in a cheap, prefabricated house on the reserve - says: 'When we came home there were no jobs and we could tell no one what we had done.

These days you would have shrinks to help you but we were cast aside and told never to speak of our experiences. I could not even tell my own mother what I had done in the war.' Like many Navajo, Draper turned to alcohol to stop the nightmares. 'I'd been from one hell to another,' he says. 'We served our country but it has taken 60 years to get recognition.' Draper was 18 and had never left his family's isolated 80-acre farm when Pearl Harbor brought America into the war in 1941. 'We Navajo are the first Americans,' he says.

'We were here before the white man. When it came to protecting the land we love, we all wanted to serve our country.' White engineer Philip Johnston, whose parents were missionaries on the reservation, wrote to the Army after the war started, suggesting they use the Navajo as human encryptors.

Draper's fellow conscript Dan Akee, who lives in Tuba City, Arizona, says: 'Initially, the Army was reluctant. No one could see the benefit. But once they recruited the Navajo they realised our ancient language was perfect. Our tribe was the only one which spoke it - and it had never been written down. …

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