This article was originally published on apu.edu.
The outcome of World War II may have been very different if it hadn’t been for the Navajo code talkers. These Navajo soldiers served as messengers and translators for the military through the U.S. Marine Corps. Before using the Navajo language as a code, U.S. military messages were frequently intercepted and decoded by the Japanese army. The code talkers’ impact was best seen at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Major Howard Connor had six Navajo code talkers working for him at all times during the battle where they sent and received more than 800 messages without error. According to an article from the CIA, Connor said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” This summer, Azusa Pacific University’s Hugh and Hazel Darling Library hosts an exhibit dedicated to these heroic code talkers and local Native Americans. The exhibit includes two large displays and seven smaller cases, which also showcases Navajo and Gabrielino-Tongva art and culture.
David Landers, Ed. D., director of education and community outreach for University Libraries, said that a meeting with Glendora resident Lewis Yazzie sparked his interest in this little known part of history and served as an inspiration for this exhibit. Landers met Yazzie, who served a code talker between the Korean War and Vietnam War, at a Boy Scout ceremony last year. “I was so impressed learning of their contribution to our nation, that I invited him and a group of Navajo veterans to present at our annual event, History Day LA, in March,” Landers said. “Their story needs to be told.”
“All code talkers from World War II until Vietnam were told never to talk about their job. Their positions weren’t declassified until 1969. That's why many Americans are unaware of the significant role they played,” Landers said. “The Navajo people were on their own reservation and had no obligation to join the military, but they exhibited great loyalty to the U.S. and wanted to serve in any way they could. Some of the code talkers even lied about their age so they would be old enough to join the military.”
Hundreds of code talkers were trained at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and at an old military base in Long Beach. After their service, most returned to and remained in Southern California. “We have a large Navajo population compared to most of the country,” Landers said.
The smaller displays in Darling Library show various Navajo artifacts. These includes traditional rugs, blankets, woven baskets, art, and jewelry. Yazzie's wife, Marie, provided most of these artifacts, several of which were handmade by her aunt. Lazaro Arvizu, another contact from the Native American Veterans Association, made the Gabrielino-Tongva items. “We're celebrating their culture through their art,” Landers said.
Landers and Angela Ingalsbe, library coordinator to the dean's office, hosted a workshop on June 9 with Thomas Andrews, Ph. D., professor emeritus. Andrews spoke to a crowd of more than 30 local teachers about the California missions and how they affected Native American people. Ingalsbe said the library plans to host another workshop in August specifically dedicated to the code talkers. Possible guests include Yazzie, other members of the Navajo tribe, and, potentially one of the last living original code talkers from WWII.
Darling Library is open during the summer on Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m - 4 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. It is closed on Sundays. The Navajo code talker exhibit will remain on display until September when a new exhibit on the life and work of Madeleine L'Engle will be showcased.