Obit of the Day: The Last of the Seminole Code Talkers
Edmond Harjo was not trained as a Marine code talker. He was in southern France in 1944, serving in the 195th Field Artillery Batallion, when he discovered another soldier who spoke the Creek dialect. The two were conversing in their native tongue when an officer wandered by, heard the two men, and recruited them into communications.
Famously, the U.S. Marine Corps recruited more than 300 members of the Navajo tribe to serve as the first code talkers of World War II. The Navajo language was considered especially effective as a code source since it had no alphabet and few people outside the tribe could speak the language.
As the war progressed, other Native Americans were recruited to disguise communications in a way that was nearly impossible for the enemy to decode. And since it was a simple modification of a native language, the soldiers made few mistakes in transmitting codes. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever broke the codes used by Mr. Harjo or the Native Americans from 33 other tribes across the United States.
Recognition for Mr. Harjo and his peers was slow in coming. To begin, the code talker program remained classified until 1968. Even then it was take another 3 decades for the Navajo code talkers to earn recognition for their work, when the 29 original members were each given a Congressional Gold Medal in 2000. Eight years later, gold medals were struck for some of the other tribes that assisted in the war effort.
In November 2013 after additional research and congressional pressure, 33 more tribes were given Congressional Gold Medals to honor the service of their code talkers. Mr. Harjo, the only surviving code talker to attend the ceremony, received a silver replica of the medal. (He had also received a Silver Star during the war for his work as a code talker.)
Edmond Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, died on March 31, 2014 at the age of 96.
(Image of Edmond Harjo, November 20, 2013, at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. The image is copyright Chip Somodevilla/Getty and courtesy of USA Today.)
Obit of the Day has featured several Navajo code talkers over the years: