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

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

George Smith

George Smith during his oral history interview with Carol Fleming in 2003

Unit: 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division
Dates of Service: April 1943 - January 1946
Battles / Campaigns: Saipan; Tinian; Okinawa

"The medicine man told us ‘when you get back, we’ll wash this off of you—if you come back.’" (Video interview, 16:02)

George Smith was born in Mariano Lake, New Mexico, and spent much of his childhood herding sheep with his brothers before being sent to boarding school in Crownpoint and then Fort Wingate. Smith’s mother died when he was very young, and he remembers that boarding school was an improvement over life with his cruel stepmother (Video interview, 1:03:20). While a student in Fort Wingate, he began working in his off-hours at the age of 14. When World War II started, his oldest brother Ray joined the Army, and George and his younger brother Albert both joined the Marine Corps together in early 1943. Albert was underage, but both Albert and George lied about their ages so that he would be able to enlist. Before he left home, Smith’s family arranged for a traditional Navajo protection ceremony to be performed for him and his brother, a ceremony which Smith credits with keeping him safe from harm (Video interview, 14:45).

After completing boot camp and training at the Navajo Communication School at Camp Elliott, California to become a Code Talker, Smith was assigned to the 10th Marine Regiment - the artillery regiment for the 2nd Marine Division. While at Camp Elliott, his superiors warned him not to discuss the Navajo Code with anyone, and they also warned him that he was likely to encounter bigotry from his comrades-in-arms (Video interview, 8:10). After being assigned to the 10th Marines, Smith spent several months in Hawaii performing garrison duties and training. One vivid memory from his time there was seeing wounded Marines and broken equipment coming back from the Battle of Tarawa. While training in Hawaii, Smith and the other 10th Marines Code Talkers worked out how they would operate together, including how they would rotate duties with forward observer teams on the front lines (Video interview, 22:35). During a party where alcohol was served shortly before they left for the invasion of the Marianas, Smith was troubled by a white Marine who questioned why Native Americans were in the military while many were not able to vote (Video interview, 18:35).

George Smith’s first experience of combat came during the Battle of Saipan, from where he maintained painful recollections of seeing dead Marines on the beach when he landed, and coming under heavy Japanese artillery fire while working as a wireman in the 10th Marines gun positions. He also recalled his regiment losing many of its officers when a group of them were ambushed by Japanese soldiers in an area that was thought to be secure. Smith also held happier memories from his time on Saipan - after the island was secured he was able to see both his older brother Ray, who was there with the Army’s 27th Infantry Division, and his younger brother Albert, who was there as a Code Talker assigned to the 4th Marine Division. They had little time for reunions, however, as the American commanders quickly turned their sights on the nearby island of Tinian. George Smith worked at gun position that supported the landings with artillery fire from Saipan, but joined the invasion forces a few days into the battle. After Tinian, Smith and the rest of the 2nd Marine Division would participate in feinted landings to deceive the Japanese defenders during the Battle of Okinawa, but he would see no more combat. After the war ended, he would spend four months in Nagasaki on occupation duty before being discharged in January 1946.

Smith returned home to the Navajo reservation after the war, and he worked for a time disposing of old ammunition at the Fort Wingate Army ammunition depot. He had always had a passion for working on automobiles, however -- an inclination he learned from his grandfather. Smith soon found a job as an auto mechanic in Fort Wingate, and would eventually become a certified diesel mechanic for automobiles and heavy equipment. He worked in this capacity for the Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority for many years before retiring in 1995. Smith became an active member of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, an affiliation that gave him the opportunity to return to Saipan and Hawaii, and talk to schools and civic groups about his experiences.

George Smith passed away in November 2012 at the age of 90.

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.