Jack Jones talks about being a Navajo code talker to the Clovis American Association of Retired Persons Thursday in Clovis. The Navajo code was never broken by the Japanese. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
San Juan Pueblo resident Jack Jones was once punished for speaking his native language.
Transported by the government from his riverside home in Montezuma, Utah, at 7 years old, Jones learned English in a Colorado boarding school. There he was told his name was Jack; he was warned not to speak Navajo.
But the language of his people later made him a war hero.
In the winter of 1941, the federal government recruited 29 Navajos to develop a battle code based on the Navajo language. Jones was among 180 finalists that were actually deployed overseas from among the 400 Navajos originally recruited for the program. Without the code talkers, some say the Pacific war may never have been won.
Yet Jones speaks humbly of his experience as a Marine in World War II.
His neck and arms adorned with heavy turquoise stones, Jones told his story Thursday to the Clovis American Association of Retired Persons, his address part of a joint effort by the AARP and the Library of Congress to preserve World War II oral history. Jones was in Portales at Golden Acres on Wednesday to address the Portales AARP chapter
“I feel that it’s about time that people recognize Indians have done their part in the life of freedom for the people of the United States,” Jones said.
“We were the key in carrying out communication.”
Comprised of 411 words, the Navajo code was never broken by the Japanese and retained classified status until 1968.
Though Jones’ first language is Navajo, he said he had to commit the code to memory.
“We didn’t know the names of military equipment,” Jones, 86, said, lifting his red cap from his head and rearranging tufts of gray hair.
Terms like submarine and plane weren’t part of the Navajo language, Jones said. So code talkers were creative — submarines were called iron fish; plane models were referred to as hawks, eagles, and crows.
Jones said the six code talkers in his battalion were protected by bodyguards. “They used to say, if a code talker was captured, shoot him,” Jones said. The preservation of the code meant more than the life of one soldier, the Marine explained.
A bomb blast severely impaired Jones’ hearing. The brown hearing aide he wore Thursday can’t restore it completely. He pointed to his head, “I was mentally not right,” he said. “My balance was not normal. I lost my sense of smell. It ruined my teeth.”
Cradled in Jones’ arms when the blast occurred was the radio the battalion used to transmit code.
However, his injuries, and the blood he saw “all over the beach,” may not be the most tragic part of Jones’ story.
When he entered the Marine Corps, he said he was “not a citizen of (his) state.”
When he came back from war, he was still prohibited from voting — “I wanted to vote,” he said, “They told me no.”
Despite his war service, he was never promoted from private first class.
“We mingled with Anglo people and other nationalities,” said Jones. “But if you had dark skin,” Jones paused and pointed to his forearm, “you didn’t get any promotion. There was discrimination involved — that’s what held us down.”
AARP member Eadie Mulesky meekly raised her hand at the end of Jones’ AARP presentation.
“I just want to thank you,” she said. “I want to thank you for all that you have done for this country.”