reunion shows their numbers are dwindling
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/hourlyupdate/214109.php
WINDOW ROCK – They were an elite group, assisting in the development of an unbreakable code that helped to win World War II. And only 11 are still surviving.
Six members of the 297th Platoon got together for their first reunion on a recent Saturday in Window Rock.
Playfully arguing over who was the best looking one, the Navajo Code Talkers shared stories as they looked over framed portraits of their platoon from decades ago. At the reunion were Jerry Begay from Lukachukai, Ariz.; Wilfred Billy from Farmington, N.M.; David Jordan from Sweetwater, Ariz.; Tom Jones from Shiprock, N.M.; Samuel Sandoval from Shiprock; and Joe Silversmith from Thoreau, N.M.
There was laughter and tears as the Code Talkers and their families spoke about their lives.
The reunion was the brainchild of Sandoval.
"One day he came to me and said I want to meet my comrades again, share stories, talk to them,'" Samuel's wife Malula said.
That was two years ago. Since then, two more members of the platoon passed away and Malula decided to make her husband's dream come true.
"Sam said he did not think he would ever see his comrades again," she said.
So when Kenji Kawano, the Code Talker's photographer, came around during the Northern Navajo Nation Fair, she told him about the reunion idea and the two families began working to make sure it would happen.
For Kawano, it was a way to give back to the Code Talkers, who have been the inspiration behind much of his work.
Hawano said the code talkers are around 81, his father's age, and he considers them to be father figures.
"I feel they are my father," he said. "I wish I could go to your hogan and chop wood," he said to the group.
For those who had the honor of attending the reunion, it was a rare opportunity to hear the stories first-hand from the Code Talkers themselves.
"The code has never been broken. The intelligence through the world tried. They didn't know what we're talking about," Samuel said with a laugh. "The only people who could break it — there's six of them here."
Samuel relayed some of the history of Platoon 297.
In March 1942, they enlisted in Santa Fe and one week later reported to Gallup where they boarded the train for basic training in San Diego.
Samuel said some of the boys lied about their age to get into the military. For example, Code Talker Jerry Begay said he was only 17 when they went. Others were only 15 or 16.
Samuel said there were only 200 words in the code when the 297 arrived.
Samuel said they knew the enemies were smart and capable of catching on and so they added more than 800 words.
Samuel said the platoon left the United States and landed at a dispersing area near Australia. That was the last time the entire platoon was together.
"The only one I went with is sitting here — Joe Silversmith," Samuel said.
From there, the two took a boat to China, Samuel said.
Silversmith said he was trying to enlist in the Navy but when he was called in he was told he was going to the Marines Corps to become a code talker.
He said he and Sam had a lot of fun together.
Code Talker Wilfred Billy said Platoons 297 and 382 were in "the thick of war." He said the first battle he was in as a radio operator was in 1943, about 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. After a tour of duty in Hawaii, he was shipped to Saipan in 1945.
The same year, he was ordered to Okinawa and then back to Saipan. Within weeks, the war ended and Billy was sent to Japan, where the atom bomb had been dropped.
"They never said anything about radiation," he said.
Billy recalled how everyone would call him "Chief" when he was serving in the Marines.
In response, he would say, "Don't call me chief. If I was your chief then we would not be in this mess."
Billy stayed in Japan for three months and was discharged in 1946. The same year he went to Whitney College in Illinois. In the subsequent years, he finished up his undergraduate work at New Mexico Highlands University and eventually went on to the University of Wyoming for his graduate work. Billy worked in education for 40 years.
One of Billy's students in Shiprock was a young man named Oreland C. Joe. Many years later, Billy approached Joe with the idea of sculpting a statue of a code talker. Now Joe's sculptures to honor the code talkers can be seen at the Navajo Nation Veterans Memorial Park and at the Gallup Cultural Center.
Platoon 297 ended their reunion with a photo session in front of that statue at the Veterans Memorial Park — bringing their journey together full circle, from their Navajo homes to a war in foreign territories and back to Navajo land again.