Skip to Main Content

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

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

Samuel Jesse Smith, Sr.

Samuel Jesse Smith during his oral history interview in 2004

Unit: Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division
Battles / Campaigns: Kwajalein; Saipan; Tinian; Iwo Jima

"I was turned down on account of being too young, but I went outside for a while and changed my birthdate and birth year, and went back inside and re-registered." (Video interview, 0:19)

Samuel Jesse Smith grew up in Cornfield, Arizona, and remembers that his family prepared him for war from childhood - they put him through physical training from a young age, and he remarked that "when I was born, they gave me a warrior's name." (WWII Reunion: Navajo Code Talkers 2, 37:30) Smith was only 15 years old and a student at Albuquerque Indian School when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but he was determined to join the military and do his part. Together with his classmate Sam Billison, Smith lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps in early 1943. His grandfather worried about his youthfulness, but gave him a traditional blessing before he left home. Smith wanted to fly or join the artillery, but after finishing boot camp he found himself at Camp Elliott learning the Navajo Code as well as the skills of a communications specialist.

After training, he was assigned to the 4th Signal Company, 4th Marine Division, with whom he participated in the battles of Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Smith worked directly for the commanding general of the 4th Marine Division - first for General Harry Schmidt, and then for General Clifton B. Cates, who would later serve as Commandant of the Marine Corps. Smith had hoped that working directly for the commander would keep him far from the front lines, but these hopes were quickly dashed as he routinely found himself being "volunteered" for combat patrols. Between battles, Smith remembers returning to Hawaii and meeting with the Code Talkers from the other Marine Divisions to make improvements to the Code and ensure that it was being used in a uniform manner across all commands. On Tinian, Smith remembers how the Japanese propensity for banzai attacks made the Marines' task easier--if also unnerving--as banzai charges made them into easy targets. The Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima did not make banzai charges, but instead had to be driven yard by yard out of a carefully designed network of emplacements and tunnels. Smith remembers how the Marines would seal off caves using bulldozers, only for the Japanese soldiers to dig themselves out a few days later and attack the Marines from behind.

When Smith returned from the war, his grandfather and great-uncle performed a traditional Navajo ceremony for him to cleanse him from the negative experiences of combat. After leaving the military, Smith worked for many years in law enforcement as a chief ranger and as a Bureau of Indian Affairs special officer. He was also an auto mechanic and worked in administration for the Navajo Nation.1

Samuel "Jesse" Smith passed away in 2014 at the age of 89.

Note: many of the experiences described in this section come from Samuel Smith's appearance at the WWII Reunion: Navajo Code Talkers discussion hosted by the Library of Congress in 2004.

Oral History Interview

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.


  1. Laura Tohe, Code Talker Stories (Tucson: Rio Nuevo, 2012), 147-151. Back to text