Congress honors Alaskan code talkers
On Nov. 20, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young honored the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and 32 other tribes from across the country with the highest honor bestowed by Congress — the Congressional Gold Medal — for their critical service and unrecognized role as code talkers during both World Wars.
The honor bestowed upon Alaska’s five Tlingit code talkers represents Congress’ “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions,” according to a press release.
Three Alaskans, Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, William Thomas Jr., and Jeff David Jr. — a Tlingit code talker descendant — represented the Tlingit and Haida tribe at a ceremony at the United States Capitol.
In addition to the 33 gold medals presented, more than 200 silver medals were presented to the code talkers and their families, the press release said.
“The critical role these men played in sparing the lives of fellow servicemen is remarkable,” Young said. “By communicating in spoken code at places like Iwo Jima and Normandy, these fine men forever changed history. Because of them, we were able to relay real-time information on enemy positions, provide directions to troops on the ground and gather intelligence that helped us end a dark time in the world’s history.”
“These Tlingit soldiers bravely passed along our nation’s secrets at a very difficult time, but their story should not be a secret to Americans today,” Murkowski said. “Alaska’s World War II history is far too often an untold and unappreciated part of our nation’s history.
“Our territory was occupied in the Aleutians, our first people represented the Alaska Territorial Guard and our code talkers stepped forward with a willingness to defend a nation they had yet to fully belong to,” she said. “I thank them and their people for their courage and commitment.”
“Today is a proud and long overdue day for members of the Tlingit tribe and the families of the Tlingit code talkers,” Begich said. “As a result of the tireless efforts of the Tlingit code talkers in World War II, thousands of American and Allied lives were saved.
“Few men are so deserving of the gold medal, and I was honored and humbled to be able to witness the recognition of these five brave, patriotic men.”
Code talkers were first utilized in World War I, when standard methods of communications had become decoded by enemy intelligence, according to the press release. Native American code talkers used their native tongue to communicate real-time wartime messages with great accuracy and speed at a time when secret messages otherwise would have taken up to a half-hour to decipher their information.
This top-secret communications method continued extensively throughout World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters. But these instrumental soldiers, who laid the groundwork for wartime communications, returned home not as praised heroes but rather sworn to secrecy. The code talker program remained classified until 1968.
Murkowski and Young were both cosponsors of the 2008 legislation, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (H.R. 4544), that honored these previously unrecognized tribal groups and veterans. Navajo code talkers were honored with the same distinction nearly a decade earlier.