Originally there were twenty-nine. They developed the code. Then there were about 390 more. Sam Tso was one of the 390. During the Second World War, he was a Navajo Code Talker.
It had been done before, on a smaller scale, with the Cherokee and Choctaw, in the First World War. The Comanche were used in World War II in the European Theater, including on D-Day, but it was known that Hitler, aware of the Native languages, had sent anthropologists to the U.S. in a futile attempt to learn them, so the use of the Comanche was limited. Not so in the Pacific War, for which Philip Johnston, whose missionary parents had raised him on the Navajo Reservation, suggested the development of a Navajo code. Few non-Navajos knew the language, and it was unwritten, so the first level of encoding was the language itself. Then that first group of Code Talkers developed the code words from the little known language. It was never written down, had to be memorized, and was one of the few unbroken codes in military history. It was finally declassified in 1968.
How did Sam Tso become a Code Talker? He was raised on the reservation, he was Navajo, and the Navajo have a matriarchal clan system. He had an older sister who he felt disparaged and demeaned him. At nineteen, he’d had enough. He took off for Gallup New Mexico, the nearest big town off the reservation. He had no money, not for anything, even food.
“So I drank water and pulled in my belt another notch.”
Tso had heard there was work on the railroad, which runs through Gallup, but you had to be twenty-one. Then he learned there were people who could provide him with fake ID.
“In the morning, I was nineteen. In the afternoon, I was twenty-one.”
“This man is a war hero,” said the New Yorker, “and you won’t serve him?”
But it was war time, and there were people with the job of searching out draft dodgers. One day they came to the rail yards, where Tso told them his real age. Tso wasn’t dodging the draft. He was a nineteen year old trying to survive on his own. The men gave him a choice. He could be unemployed, or he could register for the draft. So he did. And a month later, he was drafted. Into the Marines.
And Tso became a Code Talker. He fought at Iwo Jima.
How did he feel about fighting for a country that had conquered his people and treated them so poorly in the aftermath?
The land was theirs first, he said. The country was theirs. He fought to protect his family.
When the war ended, Tso landed at Fort Pendleton, from where he sought his way back to Navajo land. Soldiers mustering out were lined up for a mile for the Greyhound buses that took them home. Tso waited in the line for a day. The bus he caught took him only as far as Flagstaff, Arizona. He decided to hitch the rest of the way. A white man – a New Yorker – picked him up on the side of the road. As they traveled, they passed Arizona’s Petrified Forrest, and the New Yorker said he’d like to see it. So they went. After, the white man offered to treat Tso to lunch. He ordered them both a beer.
But the proprietor wouldn’t serve Tso. He didn’t serve Indians.
“This man is a war hero,” said the New Yorker, “and you won’t serve him?”
The two men argued. The New Yorker won. Tso got his beer.
“I enjoyed it.”
The white man dropped Tso in Gallup. Tso has never seen him again. He wishes he knew where he was.
“I’d like to thank him,” he says.
Because no one in the family could write English, Sam never received mail during the war. When he arrived home from Gallup, he learned that his father, his mother, and one of his sisters had died while he was away. It was too much. At night, he couldn’t sleep. And in the morning, the unkind sister was still there.
Tso headed off.
He had gone about a mile when his brother caught up to him. Where was Sam going? What would he do?
“There’s something down the road,” he said.
Then, in the indirect way Navajos sometimes talk, Sam’s brother told him that another sister, who was living in San Francisco with her husband and children, also did not know about the deaths of their parents and sister. Sam understood this to be a suggestion, that he go to San Francisco instead. So he said he would.
His brother offered Sam a horse. He told him to ride it to a church elsewhere on the reservation, from where he could catch a bus. Leave the saddle at the church, his brother told him, and let the horse go. He’ll come home. Sam did as his brother instructed. When he glanced back at the horse, he was heading in the direction of home.
What happened in San Francisco with the sister and the husband who abused her is another story. But Sam took care of it.
He had had a dream. In it an Indian woman gave him a necklace and told him that as long as he wore it, no harm would come to him.
Today, Tso resides in Lukachukai, a small Navajo settlement of about 1500 with two water towers and a trading post at the base of the Lukachukai Mountains. The nearest town with a business center is Chinle, forty-five miles away. The median family income is just over $10,000 dollars a year, and over 60% of the population is below the poverty line. The landscape is varied and stark in its beauty, but men and women, drunk and sober, hang around the trading post to beg a dollar, and when the wind blows the red earth sweeps over you like a Dust Bowl storm.
Sam Tso lives on a plot of land with Anne, his wife of over fifty years. They share their small house with their daughter Yvonne, Yvonne’s daughter and son-in-law, and two great-grandchildren.
When Tso is asked if he minds saying how old he is, he replies, “Sometimes I do.”
They have some livestock, and Sam, who had his driver’s license taken from him, now works around the property or in the tool shed.
“When you lose your license, you lose all your freedom. You can’t do anything.”
He relies on Yvonne, who is unemployed, to drive him around. That’s her job. She drives him to the Indian Health Service for his care, though he is strikingly fit of whatever age he is. He tried to use the VA Hospital, where the care is superior, but they told him there to use the IHS.
“They thought I was just trying to collect the travel money.”
Yvonne also drives Sam to the many events around the country at which Sam is asked to speak about his experiences as a Code Talker. One experience was at Iwo Jima, the first American assault on Japanese national territory.
For perspective, after nearly six years in Iraq, there have been over 4200 U.S. combat deaths. On Iwo Jima 6825 U.S. servicemen died in just thirty-five days. Nearly 22,000 Japanese soldiers died. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded, 14 of them posthumously – thirty percent of all the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the entire Second World War.
Tso was part of a force attempting to make its way across a long ravine. The Japanese had machine gun nests at the other end. They had repeatedly mowed down the Marines who tried to move through the ravine. Tso and one other man were given the assignment to make it through on their own in order to locate the machine gun placements and report back. When the two first came over a rise, into the ravine, they saw the piles of dead Marines struck down in the earlier assaults. Among them, there were men who were alive and crying out for help. Tso and his comrade knelt to see what they could do. From behind them, there came the shouted command of their Sergeant.
“Complete your mission!”
“So we did,” Tso recalls. “We had to leave them behind.”
Tso and the other Marine made it back safely with the information on the gun placements. Even back at their own lines, though, the fire was so intense, the prospect of the next assault so gruesome, Marines were shaking with fear.
“Men’s teeth were chattering.”
But they all could see that Tso showed no fear.
He had had a dream. In it an Indian woman gave him a necklace and told him that as long as he wore it, no harm would come to him. The next day, though he normally received no mail, an envelope arrived from his family. It contained a juniper bead necklace.
The other Marines said, “Chief, you know that’s horse shit.”
Tso’s answer was “It may be horse shit, but it’s what I believe.”
Tso pauses. Behind his eyes, there is a film strip playing. In those frames, it is not 2009. It is not Arizona. It is another time, another place.
“They’re all dead,” he says. “I’m alive.”
Sam Tso is very much alive, and always in demand. He is Vice-President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, whose ranks of the living are fast diminishing even as they plan a permanent memorial on the New Mexico side of the reservation. Tso has been back to Iwo Jima a few times, once for a National Geographic documentary. He has been filmed for other documentaries. He is interviewed for books. And there are always the invitations to speak. His expenses are always paid. Only sometimes are there financial promises, so far unkept.
Everyone thinks Sam Tso is a hero.
Does he feel like a hero?
“A poor hero,” he says.