June 17, 2002 12:00 PM

Growing up in Arizona’s Canyon del Muerto, Teddy Draper Sr. spent his days helping his traditional Navajo family raise cattle, sheep and turkeys. When he first set foot in a classroom at age 14, “I barely knew a word of English,” he recalls. Yet the reservation’s U.S.-government-run boarding school punished pupils for speaking Navajo. Time after time, “I had to kneel in the corner,” he says. “I tried to run away.”

Less than a decade later, Draper’s mastery of his native language earned him a place among a group of about 400 Navajo who were pivotal to America’s victory in the Pacific during World War II. In 1942 the U.S. Marines developed a military code based on the complex, unwritten Navajo tongue and began recruiting young men like Draper to relay messages to and from the battlefield. The so-called Code Talkers baffled Japanese code breakers. “The Marines in Guadalcanal couldn’t sneeze on the radio without the Japanese saying ‘God bless you,'” says Sally McClain, author of the 1994 book Navajo Weapon. “Once the Marines got the Code Talkers, they were able to turn the tide.”

The code wasn’t declassified by the military until 1968, and the Navajo contribution was little known for decades. Now that’s changing. Last year President Bush awarded Congressional Medals to the surviving Code Talkers. A new movie, Windtalkers, due June 14, brings their story to the big screen. There’s even a Navajo G.I. Joe. “People had forgotten,” says Sam Billison, president of the Navajo Code Talker Association. “Now the interest is coming back.”

Not, however, without controversy. In Windtalkers, Nicolas Cage plays a Marine sergeant assigned to protect a Code Talker played by Adam Beach, a member of Canada’s Saulteaux tribe. The movie contends that to keep the code out of Japanese hands Marines were instructed to shoot Code Talkers who were in danger of being taken prisoner. Draper believes that was true. “If the bodyguard thought you were being captured, he had to kill you,” he says. “They told us, ‘If you’re captured, kill yourself.'” But other surviving Code Talkers dispute the notion—as does the Marine Corps. The Navajos were assigned partners “to carry the radio,” says Marine spokesman Staff Sgt. Chad McMeen. “That is what has been Hollywoodized to become security guards.” What everyone agrees on is how important the code was to ending the war. “Were it not for the Navajo,” Marine division signal officer Maj. Howard Connor reportedly said later, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

One of three children of a silversmith and a weaver, Draper had experienced little beyond Canyon del Muerto when he joined the Marines at 19 and reported to boot camp in San Diego. “We went into the cafeteria and therewere things I’d never eaten before,” he recalls. “I’d never eaten butter. It was bad.” He took more easily to learning the code. For the letter A, for instance, a Code Talker could use words like “wol-la-chee” (ant) or “be-la-sana” (apple). America became “Ne-he-mah” (our mother); submarine, “besh-lo” (iron fish). In February 1945 Draper shipped out for Iwo Jima, where he met his Marine partner Henry Hisey. (Another Marine, Clifford Bennett, also paired with Draper.) A retired Virginia agricultural writer, Hisey, now 80, doesn’t remember if he had orders about Draper’s capture. But he does vividly recall the terror of the 36-day battle in which 6,140 Marines died. “I was in the hole one time with Teddy [and another soldier], and we were scared,” says Hisey. “I could feel him shaking plumb through the other boy.” At one point a shell killed two friends next to Draper and permanently damaged his hearing. “There were dead bodies everywhere,” Draper says.

Still, Draper managed to radio the locations of Japanese troops from the front so artillery could zero in. After a subsequent stint locating weapons caches in occupied Japan, Draper returned home to Chinle, Ariz., to find he couldn’t get a job, in part because of the secrecy of his war mission: “‘What is your experience in the Marine Corps?’ We can’t tell ’em.” He herded sheep and drove a truck before landing a job teaching at a Native American school in Utah.

That was the beginning of a career in education. The code’s declassification
sparked a renewal of the Navajo language, endangered after years of English-only schooling. “Our leaders looked around and said, ‘Something’s not right. We literally won a war with our language,'” says artist Teddy Draper Jr., 52, one of Draper’s 12 children from four marriages. Draper, among others, started teaching Navajo to children and adults and helped develop a Navajo textbook. Now living in a log cabin he built near Chinle (wife Marie lives nearby), Draper travels to speak about the role of the Code Talkers. “How many people in the U.S. would not be around if it wasn’t for them?” says his son. “They were saving the lives of generations.”

Samantha Miller

Inez Russell in chinle

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