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

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

Roy O. Hawthorne

Roy Hawthorne during his oral history interview in 2003

Unit: 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division
Battles / Campaigns: Okinawa

"To most of us—maybe for all of us as Code Talkers—it was just another day at the war, we just did what we were supposed to do, that’s all." (Video interview, 23:18)

Reverend Roy O. Hawthorne was born in 1926 in Ganado, Arizona to a Navajo mother and a white father who operated a trading post on the Navajo reservation. He was descended from the author Nathaniel Hawthorne on his father's side, and grew up speaking both English and Navajo at home. Hawthorne completed elementary school at a public school off the reservation, before being sent to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school from the seventh grade on. From his boarding school days, he remembers the extreme physical punishments that students faced for speaking in Navajo, even if they were only trying to assist other students who were struggling with English. During his first year of high school, Hawthorne dropped out to enlist in the Marine Corps at the age of 17, but would later go on to complete a PhD.

When Roy Hawthorne volunteered for the military he wanted to be a submariner in the Navy, inspired by his love for the book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. However, he was channeled into the Marine Corps, as Navajo speakers were needed for the Code Talker program. He completed training and was assigned to H&S Company, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and met up with his unit on the already-secured island of Guadalcanal. There he conducted training with his unit as they prepared for the massive battle to come on Okinawa. During the Battle of Okinawa, Hawthorne remembers that all calls for fire support had to be sent using the Navajo Code due to the Japanese’s skill at intercepting American radio communications. He also recalls taking part in the intense fighting on Dakeshi Ridge, where he called in a critical airstrike using the Navajo Code.

Hawthorne was discharged from the Marine Corps after the war, but after less than two years as a civilian he decided to re-enter the military and joined the Army. In the Army, he became a paratrooper, rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant, and also fought in the Korean War, during which he experienced the Chinese Spring Offensive of 1951 before being wounded in the leg by shrapnel from a mortar round. Doctors amputated Hawthorne's right leg at the knee, but he persevered and stayed in the Army for several more years after the Korean War ended. During his peacetime service after the war, Hawthorne felt a calling to become a Christian and enter the ministry. After being medically retired, he completed seminary school and eventually became a Baptist pastor. In addition to serving as a pastor for many years, Hawthorne served as a tribal police officer, and was highly involved in the Navajo Code Talkers Association. He felt strongly that the Code Talkers played a key role in dismantling stereotypes about Native Americans:

"When I was inducted into the Marine Corps, and I raised my hand and I swore allegiance to the United States of America and I became a Marine - that's when I became somebody. And that's when the whole world realized that they had made an error, and that it wasn't true that Native Americans were non-achievers - that they were achievers. That's what makes me very proud of the fact that we were chosen to do this specific task, and so we did." (Video interview, 22:20)

Reverend Roy Hawthorne passed away in April 2018 at the age of 92.

Oral History Interview

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