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‘The original Americans’: Veterans commemoration in La Jolla honors Navajo Code Talkers

The Mount Soledad Memorial Association's Phil Kendro (center) and others commemorate the Navajo Code Talkers.
Mount Soledad Memorial Association President and Chief Executive Phil Kendro (center) hosts the association’s Nov. 5 ceremony in La Jolla commemorating the Navajo Code Talkers.
(Dave Ellrod / Ellrod Images)

In an early celebration of Veterans Day, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association presented a ceremony Nov. 5 at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla to honor military veterans, focusing this year on the legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.

The memorial, which honors more than 5,000 veterans living and deceased, “is a result of the sacrifices made by the men and women who wore the cloth of our nation,” association President and Chief Executive Phil Kendro said at the event, which was held in person and livestreamed. It was attended by San Diego city officials including Mayor Todd Gloria, Police Chief David Nisleit and Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla.

Phase III will add extensions to five existing ‘honor walls,’ allowing for 2,000 additional plaques.

The Navajo Code Talkers “were the original Americans,” Kendro said. “They fought for their nation at a time when they were still not deemed citizens of the United States, nor even allowed the freedom to vote.”

With November being Native American Heritage Month, “it is the right time to honor the Navajo Code Talkers here at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial,” Kendro said.

Brig. Gen. James Ryans, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, said that in the early stages of World War II, Japan “held the tactical advantage because they could quickly decipher [American] military codes, compromising our ability to communicate our operations.”

“A man named Philip Johnson who spoke the Navajo language … approached a Marine Corps communications officer with the idea of using Navajo language as a military code, since it wasn’t written down or known by the enemy,” Ryans said.

Kendro said the genesis of the Navajo Code Talker program is steeped in local history, as the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers went through training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

Regan Hawthorne, CEO of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum, speaks at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
Regan Hawthorne, chief executive of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum, speaks at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
(Dave Ellrod / Ellrod Images)

The Code Talkers, eventually numbering more than 400, enlisted when “America was in dire need of secure communications,” said Regan Hawthorne, chief executive of the planned Navajo Code Talkers Museum in New Mexico and son of a Code Talker.

They embodied the Navajo advice that “it’s up to you if you want to succeed,” Hawthorne said.

“The arduous task of creating a military code out of a language that was considered to be sacred [using unfamiliar] warfare equipment and materials was a challenge,” he said.

Ryans said the Navajo Marines took on the challenge and “quickly weaponized their language into an unbreakable code that would soon become critical to save lives on the battlefield.”

Marine Brig. Gen. James Ryans commended the Navajo Code Talkers for their role in winning World War II.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Kendro credited the Code Talkers’ “persistence and dedicated work ethos” for helping to win the war.

About 44,000 Native Americans fought in World War II, Kendro said, with thousands more serving in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In 2001, some of the original Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions, Kendro said.

Only three Navajo Code Talkers remain, he said, adding that he hoped they were watching the livestream.

The Code Talkers’ service exemplifies “the unifying idea that we can serve under this flag in any capacity. Freedom is what brings us all together,” Ryans said.

The Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial, at 6905 La Jolla Scenic Drive South, is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For more information, visit soledadmemorial.org. ◆