Recently New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez proclaimed Jan. 7, 2012, as “Keith Little Day.” Little passed away at age 87 in Fort Defiance, Ariz., Jan. 3. He was one of four surviving Navajo Code Talkers.
Approximately 10 years ago Little’s granddaughter, Malinda Chaco, project assistant at Cochiti Lake, learned he was a World War II Code Talker.
“He never talked about himself being a Code Talker,” Chaco said. “According to other Code Talkers the information was classified until 1968, that's when the codes were made public. Even then he really never talked about the war.”
At the beginning of World War II the Allies had a communication crisis: the Japanese were breaking every code used. Increasingly complex codes were developed, however, they required hours of encryption and decryption for a single message. The military was looking for a more efficient method to encrypt communications.
Enter Phillip Johnston, a civilian living in California. As the son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had grown up on the Navajo reservation and was one of less than 30 outsiders fluent in Navajo. With no alphabet at the time and the difficulty non-native speakers had learning the language it was a perfect choice as an indecipherable code. After an impressive demonstration to top commanders, he was given permission to begin a Navajo Code Talker test program, which was formed in early 1942.
Chaco said that according to her relatives, her grandfather, Keith Little, left the reservation when he was 10 to attend boarding school. He enlisted in the Marines when he was 17 and became one of hundreds of Navajos trained as a Code Talker.
According to the governor’s proclamation, when asked why he enlisted, “Little would always answer ‘because the Japanese made a sneak attack on the United States… and I wanted to protect our people and our land… not only my Navajo Nation, but my country, the United States of America.’”
Little fought in many key Pacific battles including the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Iwo Jima. The Code Talkers quickly earned a reputation for their remarkable abilities. In the field, they were not allowed to write down any part of the code – thus they became living codes. Even under extreme battle conditions, they had to rapidly recall every word of a message with precision or risk hundreds or thousands of lives. In the first 48 hours of the battle for Iwo Jima they coded over 800 transmissions with perfect accuracy.
After the war, the Navajo Code Talkers returned home as heroes but without the heroes' welcome. The heroism of this group is now widely acknowledged as crucial to the Allied victory although it didn’t get the recognition for several decades after the war. Even the Code Talkers weren’t completely aware of their significant contribution for many years. The casualty of their success was that their code was considered a military secret too important to divulge.
In 2001, nearly 60 years after they created their legendary code, the Navajo Code Talkers finally received well-deserved Congressional Medals of Honor.
After the war, Chaco said that Little lived in Crystal, N.M., in the heart of the Navajo Nation near the Arizona-New Mexico border. He was a loving family man, successful rancher and passionate advocate for preserving his Navajo heritage and language.
Little was the longtime president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association and spoke out on the preservation of Navajo traditions, culture and the language that the federal government tried to eradicate before he and others were called on to use it during the war.
Chaco remembers that he was a very out spoken person and said he was the only one like that out of his siblings. She also recalls fond memories of him lecturing “the grandchildren to know their native language and to never forget because the Navajo language is sacred to him.”