The code for farewell
Saying goodbye to the last Seminole code talker
Code talkers by the numbers
Click or hover over a square to see a breakdown of known code talkers by .
Sources: Department of Defense, "Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers" by Sally McClain (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2001)
“In the American unit, an infantry unit from Texas, one of the officers overheard some of his men talking in a language he didn’t recognize,” said David Hatch, a historian with the National Security Agency. “He found they had a National Guard unit that had a percentage of Choctaws, and he got the brilliant idea of using the Choctaws as communicators. They did that and completely fooled the Germans.”
With their success, the idea, according to Hatch, was to turn code talking into a regular program, but the war ended before that could take place. However, when World War II began, memories of the Choctaw inspired a new generation of warriors.
“Eventually it was adopted as an official program in both the Army and the Marine Corps,” said Hatch. “[The Army] authorized raising a unit of Comanches, particularly, and Meskwaki. In the case of the Marine Corps, an enterprising journalist who had grown up around the Navajo reservation knew the story from World War I, and he pitched it to the Marine Corps brass. After a test, they also adopted it as an official program.”
Then there were the “unofficial” programs.
“Quite often it was a battlefield innovation when commanders realized they had Native speakers in their units and began to use them,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “We can’t say that we know every circumstance in which that happened, and so that’s the research that has to go on.”
Rick Harjo stood at the podium in the funeral home chapel. He wore a black jacket covered in Seminole patchwork — purple, yellow, turquoise, white and maroon patterns, zigzagged like lightning bolts or the jagged teeth of a saw wrapped in strips around his chest, arms and stomach.
“At this time, I want to acknowledge one of his favorite pieces of music,” said Harjo as he glanced toward his uncle’s coffin. He invited those assembled to sing with him. Then he began: “There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood, no lovelier spot in the vale, no place so dear to my childhood …”
Harjo trailed off, overcome, and the mourners carried the song for him. He rejoined them.
“… church in the vale. Oh, come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wild …”
His voice lowered to a whisper as tears began to well in his eyes.
“… come to the church in the vale, no church is so dear to my childhood …”
He trailed off again, the song finished, and he tried to compose himself. His memories of this song and his uncle were entwined. And he knew that when his uncle sang it he was thinking of a very particular church, the Achena Presbyterian Church, founded in 1884 by Andrew’s father.
“I get emotional because he’s talking to Achena,” said Rick. “If you’ve been to Achena, that’s where it’s located: in the wildwood.”
The word Achena is short for Achena Hvtce, which translates as Cedar Creek. The church sits just a short distance from a small river on a hill, surrounded by woods.
“He liked to play that song, especially when it come to the ‘come, come, come’ — he’d pound that piano!” said Rick. “Jerry Lee Harjo. He sounded great.”
Gravel crunched under boots and loafers as mourners gathered at the newly constructed Seminole Nation Veterans Memorial Cemetery, where Edmond Andrew Harjo became the first veteran to be buried.
Flags ripped in the wind as taps was played, a recording of the song that came from the ceremonial bugle held by a soldier in uniform.
The flag on the coffin was lifted, folded and presented to Rick.
Then a song — “Yvmv Estemerketvn,’’ of course — a prayer, and the cranking of a motor as Andrew’s casket was lowered into the earth.
“The whole notion of Native Americans serving the United States in the military is full of irony and ambiguity and paradox,” said Kevin Gover, who directs the National Museum of the American Indian.
People like Edmond Andrew Harjo and other code talkers faced many attempts by the United States to have their culture and language stamped out, only to see it become a lifesaving asset.
“Everything that made them culturally Indian was suppressed systematically by the United States,’’ Gover said. “And yet they found reason to go to war on behalf of the United States.”
In the case of some tribes, there is an understanding that there are treaty commitments with the United States, and that allies fight together, regardless of history.
The need for Code Talkers diminished shortly after World War II with the invention of electronic voice scramblers. And with access to recordings and languages resources, that once precious resource is no longer a secret.
But while indigenous languages will likely never be used by the military again, the impact of the Code Talkers on past conflicts and future Native service remains undiminished. Native Americans have some of the highest rates of enlistment of any ethnic group and have fought in every American conflict from the birth of the nation to the more recent battlegrounds in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When we fight for the United States we’re fighting for our Indian nation as well,” said Gover.
And between silence, shoddy documentation and time, it’s difficult to know who served as code talkers without extensive research. It’s believed that up to another dozen tribes and languages were utilized during World War II.
“It’s important to realize that they had a real effect on operations,” said the NSA’s Hatch. “Their contributions saved uncounted tens of thousands of American lives. There are a lot of people who survived the war that might not have if the code talkers hadn’t done what they did.”
Rick Harjo said his uncle, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder later in life, was the only code talker able to go to Washington to accept the Congressional Gold Medal. How he used the Mvskoke language in war still isn't known. Perhaps the Battle of the Bulge, but that’s pure speculation. What is known is that his service earned him an education, a job and the ability to focus on what he truly loved: music.
“Just a few lines this morning, to let you know how happy I am and glad the war finally ended!!” he wrote to his aunt on Aug. 18, 1945. “That means that we may see each others [sic] before now, perhaps next summer who knows. I don’t mind that at all because I know for sure where I’ll be next year in 1946 …. HOME!!” ◆