Winona State students interview code talker

Published 9:15 pm Saturday, June 13, 2009

Three Navajo code talkers passed away in the last month. Along with them, their stories have been laid to rest.

An article prepared by the Navy and Marine Corps World War II Commemorative Committee defines a code talker: “They took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They transmitted messages by telephone and radio in their native language, a code that the Japanese never broke.”

According to the same article, the first 29 Navajo code talker recruits attended boot camp in May 1942 and developed the Navajo code.

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John Brown Jr., who was one of the original recruits, died May 20. Thomas Claw died on May 22, and Willie Kesoli Begay passed away June 1. Claw and Begay were not part of the original 29.

This issue has come to be very personal to a group of students from Winona State University.

We are in Tsaile, Ariz., on a travel study emerging ourselves in the Navajo culture. Our mission here is to document oral histories of Navajo elders in order to preserve the stories of their generations.

The code talkers have become a large part of our learning experience, as one of the elders we are interviewing is Samuel Tso, a code talker from the 5th Marine Division.

He took part in Iwo Jima, Sasebo and Nagaski. Tso is not part of the original group of code talkers but is among the dwindling numbers who remain.

Matt Wandzel, Cory Hinz and I were assigned to gather and write Tso’s story.

A quote in the Independent, a newspaper from Gallup, N.M., has made our job here more of a reality than it has ever been. The paper quoted Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amos F. Johnson.

In the article, Johnson said, “I wish the rest of the world and everyone could learn the history of their role and their time spent in the Pacific.”

This statement spoke to us because this is what we came here to do.

“Realizing the situation makes me realize how privileged we are to have this opportunity and how important it is to get the story out about the code talkers so everyone can hear it. It really is one of the most amazing stories I have heard in my life and just hearing it is incredible,” said Wandzel.

The goal is to give back to the Navajo Nation, not to take for our own.

Through a day of helping Tso on his land by feeding the animals, moving logs and tearing down a clay oven, we feel we have helped Tso find trust in us. We are ready to get back out to his home and hear everything he is willing to share with us in order to get his story out to the rest of the world.

The group I am here with just happened to be at the right place at the right time and because we have the connections we feel highly responsible for recording this fading time in history.

Brandi Hagen is a student at Winona State University and a graduate of Albert Lea High School.