SLOAN COLUMN: Author speaks on code talkers’ heroics
It would be hard to misinterpret the unbridled enthusiasm of Catherine Ritch as anything but a passion for the Navajo people.
The Stallings, N.C. resident and author of more than two dozen books spoke to a gathering of the Florence Sidney Lanier Literary Club on Oct. 16 about her most recent work, “Voice of Victory: The Navajo Code Talkers.” The meeting was held at the home of club member Idette Tucker.
The club, according to its members, is one of the oldest in the state, having been established in 1942.
Having served in the Marine Corps and being generally familiar with the history of the code talkers, I gladly accepted an invitation to join the club and hear the author speak.
For those not familiar with the code talkers, during World War II the United States military in the Pacific Theater was having a very difficult time finding a way to communicate without its messages being intercepted and deciphered by the Japanese.
A Veteran by the name of Philip Johnston is said to have first proposed the idea of using the Navajo language as a code. The military enlisted and secretly gathered 29 Navajos to create the code in a very short period of time. They developed code words for new locations, artillery and other tactical information until the code itself was well over 600 words.
The code was then memorized. It was never written.
The code proved to be uncannily successful. To this day it remains the only unbroken code ever used in modern military history. Many credit the code talkers with winning the war.
Ritch said the code was remarkably efficient. The code talkers could send a message in fewer than two minutes that would take the Americans hours to send. During the battle of Iwo Jima, Navajo code talkers worked non-stop for more than 24 hours. They transmitted and decoded more than 800 communications, all without error.
By the end of the war, there were hundreds of code talkers. They were all told to tell no one of what they had done, risking arrest and incarceration if they did so. None did.
They did not receive a hero’s welcome after the war. They were considered second-class citizens at best when they left to fight for our country and they returned to the very same discrimination.
The code talkers were kept secret for more than 20 years until their efforts were finally declassified in 1968. In 2001, the 18 living Navajo code talkers were all presented the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The last of the original 29 died in 2016. Only five code talkers are still living.
Ritch wasted little time explaining that while she had written numerous books prior to Voices of Victory, most were on the subject of faith. She readily admits she knew little or nothing about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II when a friend suggested she write a book about them.
“I literally didn’t know who they were,” Ritch said.
There was something that grabbed her about the code talkers, though, and she began to do some research. In short time, she learned of their invaluable contribution to the war effort. She became so engrossed in their story that she had no choice but to write a book.
Several trips to Quantico, Va., home of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the Library of the Marine Corps, proved invaluable. In 2014, she made the first of seven trips to Arizona and New Mexico to track down and interview the 18 living code talkers and their families.
“There is no telling how many miles I logged in traveling across the Navajo nation,” she said.
Ritch said that with each interview, the Navajo people and the code talkers opened up and became more accepting of her.
“It was almost like they were sending smoke signals to tell each other that this white woman was OK,” she said with a laugh.
On her sixth trip, she met code talker Thomas Begay. The two struck up a friendship that has only strengthened over time. Ritch calls Begay, now 93, her “Navajo Grandpa.”
“I love him dearly,” she said.
Ritch now travels to Window Rock, Ariz. every August for the annual Navajo Code Talkers Day celebration. In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
Near the end of the literary club meeting, the short in stature and highly animated Ritch proudly showed off a treasured ring that was presented to her by the Navajo nation for the recognition she has brought to the code talkers.
“I am thankful that through my book I was able to give these brave men, men who are truly heroes, the honor and recognition they very much deserve,” she said.
With that, she thanked those in attendance for coming and began signing copies of her book before joining members of the club for refreshments.