Ellwyn Ashley’s history as a Marine was shaped by his ancestor who served in World War II as one of America’s top-secret elite fighting forces, the Navajo Code Talkers.
As a young boy, Ashley knew his grandfather, who did not parade or brag about his past life when he served in World War II. Yet, as the years passed he learned he was related to one of the greatest fighting forces in the Marines, a Navajo Code Talker.
“I am a Marine and a third generation descendant,” Ashley said. “And my grandfather Joe Price was a Navajo Code Talker.”
His grandfather, who died in 2006, received the Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush.
“My grandfather was a humble and polite man,” Ashley said.
Born on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, Ashley tells people he had good clean air and the biggest playground in the world.
Ashley’s Navajo name is Osh-kíí Döń, which means “Restless one” or “Restless boy.” He has been a resident of San Quentin since September 2010.
Ashley’s father was a combat Marine like his father. “My dad served in Khe San during the Vietnam War and he saw battle like my grandfather did.”
Following in his father’s and grandfather’s military path, Ashley joined the Marines in the early 1980s.
He also never studied the history of the Navajo Code Talkers, but “I lived among them.”
Navajo is a language of extreme complexity. Its varied tonal qualities and syntax make it unintelligible to a non-speaker. The language has no alphabet or symbols and is spoken only in the Navajo lands of the American Southwest.
“Out of reverence for the elders who served in WWII, the families rarely asked the veterans about their experiences in that war,” said Ashley. If they talked about it, the families had to be fortunate to be present and listen. “We had a lot of admiration for them,” Ashley said.
The idea to use the Navajo dialect for secure communications was the brainchild of Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran. Johnston a non-Navajo was the son of a missionary and was raised on the reservation where he learned to speak fluent Navajo.
As a boy Philip had translated for the Navajo. At a Native American conference in Washington, D.C., he translated for President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1942, Johnston met with Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff to persuade the Marines to use the Navajo language as a code.
On Feb. 28, 1942, Johnson and four Navajo staged a test under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job.
Despite some concerns by others, Vogel recommended to General Thomas Holcomb, the Marine Corps Commandant, that they recruit 200 Navajos. The recommendation was approved.
Encouraged by Chee Dodge, chairman of the Navajo Nation, the men were recruited, some of them only 15 years old.
“Most of the code talkers were very educated,” Ashley said. “They spoke fluent English. My grandfather was very educated he spoke Navajo and English.
After training, in August 1942, the first all Navajo fighting force emerged to represent the United States Marine Corps as Platoon 382.
“When they hit the Pacific Theater they were discriminated against,” said Ashley. “Many were called Chief, and they did not like it.”
His grandfather told him that many of the Navajos responded that if they had been the Chiefs, the country would not have been in this mess in the first place.
Several Navajo Indians were also mistaken for Japanese and taken as prisoners. Afterwards they would have to prove that they were Navajo, some had to have bodyguards and escorts to stop this early form of racial profiling.
At a time when America’s best cryptographers were falling short, these modest sheepherders, and farmers had fashioned the most ingenious and successful code in military history.
When a Navajo code talker received messages, he heard chains of ostensibly unrelated Navajo words. First, they translated each Navajo word to its English equivalent. The first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word was used. Therefore, the Navajo words “Ah-jah” (ear), “Dzeh” (elk), “Ah-nah” (eye), all stood for the letter “e”.
“In Navajo we can express one thing in three to five different ways. It’s a very versatile language,” Ashley said. “So if you think you know Navajo you really don’t. It’s just like that, but I speak it fluently.”
Eventually the military discovered the code needed expanding due to the frequency at which words were spelled. To confuse the Japanese they increased the alphabet from 211 words and phases to 611 terms by adding more words to be associated with each letter.
According to Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima. During one battle, six Navajo Code Talkers transmitted and deciphered around the clock in the first two days of the battle. The speed of the Navajo code saved three companies (units of about 100 Marines) on Iwo Jima at Hill 362A.
Those six sent and received over 800 messages in a two-day interval and all of those 800 messages in those two days were without error.
Ashley pointed to the reason the Navajo agreed to join the fight in the battle of the Pacific was they had already been invaded by the Europeans
“It was about sustaining the way of life and the country from another possible invasion,” said Ashley. “They spoke not just for the Navajos because by that time it wasn’t about the Navajo, it was about this country.”
In the Pacific, from 1942 to 1945, the Navajo Code talkers were deployed to the dense jungles of the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and to the sands of Iwo Jima. They were in every assault in which the U.S. Marines engaged. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units.
“On behalf of not only the Navajos but also Native Americans in this country, who serve in the military to sustain freedom,” Ashley said. “We owe them a lot for their sacrifices.”