David Patterson Sr, was one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers from WWII. He passed away on October 8 at Rio Rancho, New Mexico at the age of 94 from complications of pneumonia and a subdural hematoma. But it was his service, and that of his fellow Code Talkers that we should never forget: they helped the United States win WWII. Without their ability to “speak like the wind,” the enemy would have been able to decode every step our nation tried to make. Every one of them are true heroes.
Patterson served in the Marine Corps from 1943-1945. His son, Pat Patterson noted on the GoFundMe page for help with funeral expenses:
“…my father served our country during WWII in the USMC as a Navajo Code Talker from 1943-1945, he was Honorably Discharged on April 7th of 1945. He was among an Elite group of Marines who helped create the only unbroken code in modern military history. As one of the Navajo Code Talkers, my father and other Navajos coded and decoded classified military dispatches during WWII using a code derived from their native tongue. The Code Talkers took part in every Marine assault, from Guadalcanal in 1942 to Okinawa in 1945, including the Marshall Islands, ROI & Namur Islands, the Kwajalein Atoll, Iwo Jima, and Saipan, and were key in the United States winning the war.
After he was discharged from the USMC, my father went to college in Oklahoma and New Mexico, becoming a social worker. He married and raised his family in Oklahoma, California and on the reservation in Shiprock, N.M., he worked for the Navajo Nation’s Division of Social Services until retiring in 1987. He was awarded the Silver Congressional Medal of Honor on November 24, 2001 and up until 2012 volunteered in a Shiprock, NM school on the Navajo Reservation as a foster grandparent.
How did the Marine Corps become the branch of service for the Code Talkers?
Philip Johnston, a civil engineer, had grown up on the Navajo Reservation and learned their Native Language. After reading an article about military security, he approached Lt Col James E. Jones, the Marines’ Signal Corps Communications Officer, and told him that a code based on the Navajo language could not be broken by the enemy. The initial reaction was skepticism, and it took a while until higher ups warmed up to the idea.
After 30 Navajos were recruited, and their exceptional abilities began to surface, more were added. In teams of two, they coded and decoded messages at a rate more rapid than commanders would have believed- and they did so accurately.
At Camp Pendleton, the Navajos, in addition to their other duties, were required to devise a new Marine Corps military code which, when transmitted in their own language, would completely baffle their Japanese enemies. The code’s words had to be short, easy to learn, and quick to recall. After working long and hard on the project, the men devised a two-part code. The first part, a 26-letter phonetic alphabet, used Navajo names for 18 animals or birds, plus the words ice for I, nut for N, quiver for Q, Ute for U, victor for V, cross for X, yucca for Y, and zinc for Z. The second part consisted of a 211-word English vocabulary and the Navajo equivalents. This code, when compared with conventional Marine Corps codes, offered considerable savings in time, since the latter involved lengthy encoding and deciphering procedures by Signal Corps cryptographic personnel using sophisticated electronic equipment.
The ‘Wind Talkers’ or Code Talkers proved invaluable throughout WWII in every Marine campaign across six Marine Divisions, the Marine Raiders, and parachute divisions. One Marine stated that even at Iwo Jima, it was the Code Talkers that helped them take the island.
“The entire operation was directed by Navajo code. . . . During the two days that followed the initial landings I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock. . . . They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.” Major Howard Conner, Signal officer, 5th Marine Division
At the end of the war, a Japanese General admitted that their most highly skilled cryptographers had no idea how to understand the Navajo communications.
Semper Fi, David Patterson Sr. Thank you for your service …rest in peace.
Featured photo: David Patterson Sr via Navajo Nation