Posted on Tue, Feb. 06, 2007
War heroes can talk the talk

WWII Navajo code talkers visit Lexington 1 schools to tell their stories

Tyler Spires slipped into White Knoll High School’s bustling office Monday intent on meeting two people whose deeds he has heard his American-Indian grandmother describe in reverential tones.

The strapping 17-year-old senior approached the elderly men, each wearing Marine Corps-red caps and distinctive turquoise jewelry, and asked “Are you the Navajo code talkers?”

When Keith Little and Samuel Tso answered yes , Spires told them he is “one-quarter Navajo.”

“It is a real honor to meet you,” he said.

The three talked briefly before Little and Tso were off to another speaking engagement at Pelion High.

The two code talkers had just completed a 75-minute talk before 250 White Knoll students, who were given the opportunity to hear first-hand about the exploits of people admired for their unique role in helping defeat the Japanese during World War II.

Spires’ class did not attend the assembly, so he made a detour between classes hopingto encounter the visitors White Knoll principal Jo Mayer pronounced “real life heroes.”

“I wanted to be able to tell my grandmother I actually met a code talker,” Spires said. “I was really excited. (Their role in history) is something I have always wanted to learn more about.”

Tso and Little did a whirlwind tour of Lexington 1 schools Monday and were guests at a Lexington High School fundraiser sponsored by the school district’s foundation. The event saluted Lexington County’s past and present servicemen and women.

Organizers of the fundraiser arranged for the code talkers to share their stories of how they joined the U.S. Marines, received special training and used their unwritten language to befuddle an enemy intent on intercepting messages exchanged between U.S. troops in the Pacific theater.

Tso was at Iwo Jima when Marines stormed up a hill and raised an American flag immortalized in an iconic photo. Tso, 84, told students he knew the ascent was a success when another Navajo transmitted an encoded message that included the phrase “Sheep’s eye is cured.” Translation: “Mt. Suribachi is secured.”

Navajos had no alphabet or literature. As a teen attending a federal government school, Tso said “they wouldn’t even let me speak my own native language.”

When the war began, however, the federal government recruited Navajos knowing they communicated in a way that would mystify the enemy.

Navajos memorized three alphabets, translating each into everyday words in their native tongue that, in turn, yielded confounding communications.

Neither Tso nor Little outwardly harbor any bitterness about the country’s dramatic reversal in attitude during a time of war.

Seniors Andy Schumpert and Leigh Tyson took note.

“They were still willing to help,” Tyson, 17, said. “They were fighting for their country.”

Added Schumpert, 18: “The United States was trying to end their culture. And their culture actually helped the United States.”

Little, 82, said, “I hoped the students learned something — that the Navajo code talkers did something important.”

Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.