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

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

Keith M. Little

Keith Little during his oral history interview with Ann Ramsey in 2004

Unit: 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division
Dates of Service: May 1943 - November 1945
Battles / Campaigns: Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima

"My weapon was my language, and that language probably saved countless lives." (Video Interview, Part 4, 27:15)

Keith Little grew up near Tonalea, Arizona within the Navajo reservation. His family made a living raising sheep and other livestock, and he was brought up by an older sister after both of his parents died when he was young. His family tried to keep him out of boarding school, but he ran away to Tuba City and enrolled himself because even as a child he was determined to attain an education. Though the boarding school environment was harsh, he explained that "I wanted to write very bad so it was interesting" (Video interview, Part 1, 2:23). He was 15 years old and a student at Ganado Mission School when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he became determined to do his patriotic duty and join the military.

Little enlisted in the Marine Corps without telling his family shortly after turning 18. At graduation from boot camp one of his drill instructors asked him if he was Navajo, and Little soon found himself at the Navajo Communication School at Camp Pendleton. There he was reunited with some of his childhood friends from Tuba City, and he completed the training to become a Code Talker in December 1943. Little was then assigned to 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division. His first experience of combat came quickly - at the Battle of Kwajalein in January-February 1944. Little was assigned to be the battalion commander's radio operator, and his first commander was killed on the second day of the battle.

Little next took part in the Battle of Saipan in June-July 1944, where he witnessed desperate banzai attacks made by the Japanese, as well as tragic mass suicides of Japanese civilians. Recalling his time on Saipan, Little reflects on the seemingly random nature of death faced by him and his comrades there, "it makes you wonder why didn't they land in my hole or in my crater? He missed. You survive again, but the sad part of it is somebody else always gets killed" (Video interview, Part 3, 16:25). The war did not get any easier for Little, as he and the rest of the 4th Marine Division were involved in the Battle of Tinian two weeks later, and then the Battle of Iwo Jima came six months later in February-March 1945. On Iwo Jima, he and his battalion were pinned down on the beach for two days, and Little remembers that all radio calls for artillery fire or close air support, along with troop movement orders, were sent in Navajo Code. The brutal fighting on Iwo Jima lasted more than a month, and Little recalled losing many good friends.

After the war, Little completed his high school diploma at the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma, before using the GI Bill to finish college in Utah. While a college student, Little worked as an English teacher at the Intermountain Indian School. He then went into the logging industry, eventually becoming an executive at Navajo Forest Products Industries, as well as serving on the Intertribal Timber Council's board of directors, including a stint as president. Little also served for many years as the president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. He owned a ranch near Crystal, New Mexico, where he remained active tending his livestock until his death in 2012.

Oral History Interview

Interview Excerpts

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