YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Ventura County

Navajo 'Code Talker' Recalls War Service

November 21, 2002|Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writer

A 79-year-old Navajo who stumped the Japanese during World War II with his tribe's indecipherable language recounted Wednesday his service as a Marine "code talker."

Between 1943 and 1946, Joe Vandever Sr. was among nearly 400 Navajos attached to various units of the Marine Corps in the war's Pacific theater.

Using telephone and radio, the Navajos transmitted military messages on tactics and troop movements in a modified form of their native language. Enemy cryptographers never cracked the code, which was declassified in 1968.

The 2002 film "Windtalkers" was based on the code talkers' experience.

Vandever, who lives in New Mexico, spoke briefly Wednesday in Port Hueneme to about 70 employees at Naval Base Ventura County. November is Native American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.

Vandever, whose Navajo name means "going places," enlisted with the Marines when he was 19.

"When I went to San Diego, they picked me up and told me I was going to be a code talker," he recalled.

Vandever went through boot camp at Camp Pendleton and then six months of special training to memorize the Navajo code, he said.

In the code, for instance, fighter planes were known as "da-he-tih-hi," or "hummingbirds." A submarine was a "besh-lo," or "iron fish."

"Turtle -- that means tank," Vandever said. He spoke Wednesday in English and Navajo, aided by an interpreter.

Vandever traveled on 16 U.S. ships during his three years abroad.

At rest stops, Vandever, who was a medicine man in his tribe, and other code talkers built traditional sweat lodges using banana and palm fronds. There, he said, they prayed for protection from the Japanese.

Los Angeles Times Articles