An Imposition of Greatness
James Michael Dorsey
Teddy Draper died not long ago. He was a big fish in a small pond, the kind whose passing is little more than a footnote on the evening news. But great people often go unnoticed. Greatness, like fame, is usually imposed upon people, elevating the ordinary to extraordinary. It imposed itself on Teddy.
Teddy was a revered Navajo, respected not only as a tribal elder, but as one of the last of the “Code Talkers” of World War Two. Some four hundred Navajos fought in that war, most of them as Marines, sending and receiving military messages in their native tongue, a strictly oral language so difficult as to be almost incomprehensible to one not raised in the culture. To this day, no complete book has been written in the Navajo language. None of their messages were ever decoded by the enemy. Their work was considered so vital, that each of them was assigned a Marine bodyguard, whose job it was to kill them should it appear they might be taken prisoner. They accepted this risk.
Archeological evidence places the Navajo in Monument Valley, a vast landscape where modern Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado bump corners, as Paleo-hunter/gatherers as early as 12,000 BC, but it wasn’t until the 12th-16th centuries that distinct cultural traits began to emerge that formed today’s Navajo.
The land itself is an endless sculpture shaped by “Tsohanoai,” who brings the morning, and “Tklehanoai,” the night carrier. They are both deities of an ancient and vast cosmology that has made the Navajo the least warlike of all the American plains tribes. It is a wind-blown, sun-baked marvel of red rock and sand that can kill the unwary but give sustenance to a traveler. Its heart and soul is the magnificent Canyon de Chelly, America’s only national park occupied by indigenous people since before recorded history. People came to know it through the movie westerns of director John Ford. Teddy Draper was born there, the son of a medicine man, and a keeper of the earth. My wife and I went in search of his story.
Teddy was known to frequent a café in Chinle, Arizona, a coffee stain on a map. The “Code Talker” restaurant was easy to find, nondescript as are so many of those places that shrink ones’ own life to insignificance. The walls were alive with photos, yellowed newspaper stories, medals won through heroic action, each like a Christian votive candle, each a warrior’s artifact, speaking loudly for those silenced long ago. In that silence I heard the voices of dead heroes whose spirits still linger to keep their stories alive. I heard those voices sending unintelligible messages to and fro, deciding the fate of hundreds of young men far from home. It was a shrine that happened to have a restaurant attached, and no more hallowed place existed. Their messages became louder until I had to leave, but turning to go, I realized that Teddy was standing next to me. He wore a red American Legion hat that proclaimed him a Code Talker. His brown leathery face was as ruggedly cut as the cliffs of his home while his handshake was soft as a child’s.
He heard I was looking for him and he was gracious to find me. As we sat to talk, he was tentative, understandably uneasy to surrender private memories to a stranger, so my wife prodded the conversation by comparing her Northwest Coast jewelry to his own traditional turquoise bracelet. That put him at ease and he began to talk to her, while she adroitly passed the conversation over to me. She has long been my wingman, getting those to talk that I could not.
We sat on a bench in the Arizona morning and the words flowed in his need to vent. I was blindsided when he told me he wanted someone to write his story and did not know how to go about finding one, and so perhaps, I was sent to do just that. I did not need to coax him to speak.
He said he wanted to defend his country but was averse to taking lives and thought that being a Code Talker would keep him behind the lines where he could contribute to the war effort without having to confront an enemy face to face, but war does not follow rules or accede to peoples’ wishes. Iwo was tiny, there was no front line, and it was kill or be killed. The Japanese put up a fanatical resistance because the fall of the island would set the stage for an invasion of mainland Japan.
Teddy spoke of his fear of being overrun by a human wave attack, a favorite tactic of the Japanese army who followed the code of Bushido, “Way of the Samurai,” where death is preferable to surrender. In such a situation he would either die by the enemy’s hand or that of a fellow marine. On March 8, one thousand Japanese soldiers attacked, charging maniacally into murderous automatic fire. Ninety Marines died but the enemy lost seven hundred and eighty-four. Teddy was not wounded but was internally scarred. He said he fired his rifle until it jammed, the barrel smoking from friction. He told me how the enemy hid in a vast cave system, built over many years and were forced out by American flame throwers. His tales were those of a down-in-the-dirt mud Marine trapped in an impossible situation.
One day, Teddy saw four Japanese soldiers emerge from a hidden cave entrance. Looking around, he found himself alone except for his bodyguard. Without thinking, he took aim and carefully shot all four of them. He told me that at that point he dropped his rifle and stared at the bodies. He knew he had done his duty as a Marine but had violated his ethics. It was one of those moments we all experience when we react to a situation by instinct and only consider the ramifications with any real thought much later. Teddy had reacted as a soldier at war, and it would haunt him for decades.
Because their work was classified, the “Talkers” were not allowed to reveal it to anyone and so the guilt festered like a deep tumor. It would be decades before science gave a name to post-traumatic stress. During Teddy’s war, it was called “shell-shock,” and many believed it was the path of a coward. It was not until the Reagan era that the Code Talkers’ work was declassified, and they could find solace in relating their ordeal to friends and relatives, but by then the wounds had been open for decades.
Teddy consulted with a medicine man, but the shaman told him that using his native tongue to kill men was akin to the Christian concept of sin, and that deepened his suffering. His burden was increased when the medicine man told him the “holy people” would punish him for his actions. He underwent multiple Navajo purification ceremonies in his quest for peace, but it eluded him.
Now, there is a second part to this story that took place on the most significant day of the battle. Teddy was on his radio when Marines took the summit of Mt. Suribachi, the tallest point on the island, setting into motion two historic events.
First, the flag that was raised was tied to a tree branch and not very dramatic. The story goes that a ranking Marine officer wanted his own flag to fly from the summit, and so he ordered the original flag lowered and his own, larger one, to be raised. That brief moment, on February 23, 1945, was immortalized by combat photographer Joe Rosenthal. The photo shows four marines and a navy corpsman raising the flag, frozen at a forty-five-degree angle. It is an image embedded in the American psyche and a gigantic bronze re-creation of the event is now the Marine Memorial in Arlington Virginia. Marines consider it hallowed ground.
The second event, little known to this day, was the message that went out to the world about that flag raising. “Naastosi Thanzie Dibeh Shida Dahnesta Tkin Shush Wollachee Moasi Lin Achi” were the Navajo words. Mouse, Turkey, Sheep, Uncle, Ram, Ice, Bear, Ant, Cat, Horse, Intestines. Those listening in, both Japanese and American, were baffled by this transmission. Only the Code Talkers knew that the first letter of each word spelled Mt. Suribachi, the code signal that it had fallen to the Marines. That message in Navajo, was spoken by Teddy Draper, assuring his place in history during one of his lowest personal moments. It also gave the public the wrong idea about how the battle was going and the government did nothing to dispel that.
Seeing the highest point of the island in American hands, most Americans assumed that the battle was over and victory celebrations spread across the land. America was not told that the battle lasted another thirty-six days and cost thousands of additional American dead and wounded. Teddy had no idea of the false impression his message had given the world.
We talked for hours and at the end of the day, Teddy was emotionally spent, but sensing I was still waiting to hear his answer, he said something to the effect of “At that moment I guess I was just more Marine than Navajo,” and that was that. I knew he would say no more. The Marine part of him decided long ago to live with the guilt, his Indian part kept it silent within. Having had my own clashes with such times, I did not pursue it further. Everyone reacts differently under stress and each of us is capable of killing another human given the right circumstances, but that is not a sufficient answer for a medicine man.
But Teddy wanted his story told and so we parted ways with a handshake, and that was our contract for me to write a book of his exploits on Iwo Jima. He agreed to share his thoughts and feelings as well, seeing the book as a final way to purge his soul of his deeds in battle. Besides his personal story, it would be an intimate account of what battle at ground level really does to a man. He envisioned it as a psychological memoir. I felt our handshake to be as valid as any written contract, and we both believed it was meant to be. I promised to return, and Teddy told me he was going to send me a box full of photos and letters from his time on Iwo to get me started. But life intervened.
I had an attorney draw up a contract to protect both of us, with the bulk of the proceeds going to Teddy with his imprimatur, but a family member got involved, and I felt compelled to walk away from the book, though I could not give up on the story.
I followed Teddy over the years. It was not difficult as his “Code Talker” fame kept him in the public eye. He fought for years to get compensation for hearing and partial loss of sight suffered on the island, specifically from when a Japanese artillery round landed almost on top of him. He was finally awarded a purple heart fifty-three years later. It came, impersonally, in the mail.
Thanks to many people, Teddy did well in his later years. Honors long overdue, eventually came to him. He was made an honorary sergeant major, a lofty rank for a mud Marine, and he was in great demand as a speaker. He enjoyed being a celebrity in his hometown of Chinle, holding daily court at the Code Talker Café, but I doubt any of those who sought him out knew of his inner turmoil. I often check online to see if anything by or about him has been published. Aside from articles, to my knowledge, no book of what he did has been written.
Of the twenty-two thousand Japanese troops at the beginning of what was called “Operation Detachment,” all were killed or wounded except for three thousand fanatical warriors who hid in the cave system for weeks after the battle ended. Many committed ritual suicide, known as “Seppuku,” and in the end, two hundred and sixteen emaciated and starving soldiers were taken prisoner. The final soldier only surrendered when his commanding officer was made to order him to. America suffered six thousand eight hundred dead and twenty-six thousand wounded. It was the only battle of the Pacific war which America won, but suffered more casualties than the enemy.
Teddy died not long ago and with his passing only four living Code Talkers remain. Now, aside from this simple story, what he did on that historic day is gone like the smoke of battle. Perhaps that is best because what he did was after all, just a simple act. But sometimes a simple act, like a stone cast into a lake, has repercussions as its effect spreads further and further from the moment.
The deeds of great men outlive them, often without the public knowing those who committed them. Deeds become legends, legends become fact, and in time, as each version takes on the essence of the speaker, the truth is slightly altered if not diminished with each telling. Serendipity imposed greatness on Teddy Draper, and his deeds will become stories told by his people for generations.
Not everyone wants to be famous or considered great, and fewer yet seek out either one. Teddy Draper had no choice. Both were imposed upon him.