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Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project

Biography of Navajo Code Talker Albert Smith, together with a video recording of his oral history interview from the Veterans History Project archives.

Albert Smith

 Albert Smith during his oral history interview in 2007

Unit: Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division
Dates of Service: April 1943 - November 1945
Battles / Campaigns: Kwajalein; Saipan; Tinian; Iwo Jima

"Then my elders gave me one suggestion, they said 'leave your war stories behind, leave it where it happened.'" (Video interview, Part 2, 28:48)

Albert Smith, from Gallup, New Mexico, enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was fifteen years of age and an eighth grader in boarding school in Fort Wingate. He told recruiters he was seventeen and convinced his father to sign off on his early enlistment so that he could join at the same time as his older brother, George Smith. Albert and George hoped to serve together in the same unit, but military policy dictated that brothers should not serve together - a policy reinforced by the loss of the five Sullivan brothers on the USS Juneau in November 1942.

Smith remembers having to "study like we never studied before" to get through Code Talker training at the Navajo Communication School at Camp Elliott, but he graduated on time and was assigned to Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division (Video interview, Part 1, 8:52). With the 4th Marine Division, Smith took part in the battles of Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. In his oral history interview Smith demonstrates his skill as a teacher (a job he held for many years), providing a comprehensive overall history of the war in the Pacific, as well as explaining how the Navajo Code was devised and used in practice (Video interview, Part 1, 9:40).

But he also provides some more personal reflections - Smith was highly sensitive to racial tensions that existed in the military and in American society at the time (Video interview, Part 1, 19:14), and also jokes about the stress of preparing for nighttime banzai attacks on Saipan while constant rain made weapons maintenance almost impossible (Video interview, Part 1, 33:42). Smith also provides important insight into security and secrecy measures in place to protect both the Code and the Code Talkers. While most Code Talkers were not assigned bodyguards as pop culture portrayals have suggested, they were kept away from operations center tents that represented high value targets to Japanese artillery, and Marines were instructed to never use the word "Navajo" to refer to them on the radio or even in person, but rather to use coded terms (Video interview, Part 1, 15:25). Smith also recalls witnessing some of his comrades break from the psychological strain of combat, and how the Code Talkers were not given special treatment, but rather were expected to pitch in and help where needed (Video interview, Part 1, 36:55). He also provides vivid memories from his time on the island of Roi during the Battle of Kwajalein, where he saw a bunker filled with Japanese troops who had been killed instantly by the concussion of an exploding shell or bomb. While on Roi, Smith and his colleagues also had to fight a determined enemy who tied themselves into treetop fighting perches, and hid in drainage ditches after the island was secured so that they could attack American sentries at night (Video interview, Part 1, 46:01).

After the war, Smith went back and finished high school in less than two years, then enlisted in the Army after having difficulty finding a job. While in the Army, he experienced life on the East Coast for the first time, and was shocked by the segregation and racial tensions he saw in the community outside Camp Lee, Virginia, where he trained for the Quartermaster Corps (Video interview, Part 1, 52:44). Albert Smith later went to work in education for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 38 years before retiring, and he completed a bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern New Mexico University. He maintained a strong belief in traditional Navajo religious teachings. In reflecting on the creation of the Navajo Code, and the Code Talkers’ significance in American history, Smith states “I think what the Code Talkers did is bring out, not only as Navajos but all the natives, what we are and who we are. We are examples of Mother Earth. We use all that we have."1

Albert Smith passed away in April 2013 at the age of 88.

Oral History Interview

Interview Excerpts

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Further Reading

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Notes

  1. Laura Tohe, Code Talker Stories (Tucson: Rio Nuevo, 2012), 136. Back to text