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Friday, 27 July, 2001, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
US honours Navajo heroes
Navajo
The Navajo 'codetalkers' transmitted vital information
President George W Bush has honoured 29 "codetalkers" from the Native American Navajo tribe who developed a code which the Japanese found unbreakable during the Second World War.

The "codetalkers" passed vital information during battles in the Pacific, which was vital in helping the US Marines push back the Japanese army.

George W. Bush giving a medal to one of the Navajos
4 of the original 29 were given the highest US civilian award
Navajo is a complex language and the "codetalkers" invented new words such as "besh-lo" meaning "iron fish" for submarine and "dah-he-tih-hi" or "hummingbird" for fighter plane.

They were sworn to secrecy and despite their important role they played, they returned home without ceremony after the war.

The code was declassified in 1968 but it has taken another 33 years for the authorities to recognise them.

Highest civilian award

Four of the original 29 and relatives of the others were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal - the highest award Congress can bestow on civilians - at a ceremony in Washington.

Let's talk Navajo
Besh-lo:
Iron fish (submarine)
Dah-he-tih-hi:
Hummingbird (fighter plane)
Jay-sho:
Buzzard (bomber)
Ataah-besh-le-gai:
Silver eagle (colonel)
One of the "codetalkers", Sam Billison, had mixed feelings: "We're happy but we're also kind of sad. It's taken so long to do this."

He remembers being punished at school for speaking Navajo.

Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell - a chief of the Northern Cheyenne tribe - said: "For these men to rise above the injustices of history speaks of their great courage."

Even President Bush accepted that the Native Americans could have had doubts about fighting for the US: "Regardless of history, they came forward to serve America."

They took part in every attack carried out by the US Marines, transmitting secret coded messages by telephone and radio.

One of the battles in which the "codetalkers" were crucial was for the heavily fortified Pacific Island of Iwo Jima, immortalised in the picture of a handful Marines raising the US flag.

At the time, signal officer Major Howard Connor said: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

US Marines raise flag at Iwo Jima
The famous US victory of Iwo Jima was made possible by the Navajo code
Navajo has no script and its grammar is extremely complicated. According to one estimate, less than 30 non-Navajos spoke the language before the war began. None of them were Japanese.

Around 275,000 Navajos live in the US today, two-thirds of them on a vast reservation in the southern states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

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