Word of Honor

Sally - Westminster, Colorado
Entered on June 20, 2005
Age Group: 50 - 65
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I was born in 1950, part of the post World War II baby boom, raised to obey my parents, be truthful, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and when I gave my word of honor I was expected to keep it. Although I believed I understood what giving my word of honor meant I was only partly right. Full and comprehensive awareness came to me during research regarding the Marine Corps Navajo code talkers of World War II.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 Navajo men flocked to the nearest recruiting stations determined to serve and protect their people and the country their land lay within. The Marine Corps welcomed them and in the course of their duty created the only unbroken oral military code in the history of the world. Over four hundred Navajos became certified code talkers and served in every South Pacific campaign from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. The Navajo combat code saved thousands of lives during the course of the war and when it was over their commanding officers obtained a vow from them to never reveal the code they created and used to anyone; not their parents, relatives, wives or girlfriends until they were informed otherwise.

Without hesitation every one of them gave their word of honor to the Marine Corps that what they did during the war would remain a secret.

In 1969 the code talker program and the Navajo language based combat dictionary they created was finally declassified. One year later they formed a non profit organization called The Navajo Code Talkers Association. For the first time in twenty-four years the code talkers were allowed to tell their families and friends about the unique and valuable service they contributed during the war.

When I began the search for the story of the code talkers I found that interviewing them was, at times extremely difficult. War is not only physically harsh on those who have endured combat but dealing with the mental and emotional aftermath was something I was unprepared for. Almost all of the code talkers I was privileged to interview were extremely forthright in relating their experiences, good and bad. Many of them opened up and related to me their entire story while others only felt comfortable in revealing certain aspects of their service. One code talker reluctantly agreed to reveal to me a banzai attack that occurred on Guadalcanal in October of 1942.

“The nights on Guadalcanal seemed to last forever. Our orders were not to move after dark and no lights. There was no casual chatter just the checking and re-checking of weapons. Then, without warning the Japanese would appear from nowhere screaming at the tops of their voices, ‘Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!’ They rushed our positions and everyone jumped into action. I sent an urgent coded message over the radio call for illuminating shells and when the shells exploded high above our heads everyone was cast in a ghoulish green hue. The Japanese fought without regard for their lives or Marine lives and they did not stop until they were all dead. The entire attack might have only lasted maybe ten, fifteen minutes but it felt as if it had been hours. The carnage was surreal; I had never seen a dead enemy and the waste of life made me ill. It would be many hours before I could close my eyes to sleep and even then I saw the dead enemy scattered over the ground.”

He paused, as if to gather himself in order to proceed and then said, “It is not a good thing to make human beings become mindless killing machines. It is not good for the soul, heart or mind and the Japanese forced many a man to become the one thing humans must never become: mindless killers.”

We sat in silence for quite some time. When it felt right I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to tell me and he shook his head no. I thanked him for the time he had given me then handed him a release form that would give me his permission to include the story in the book. He took a few minutes to review the document then handed it back to me unsigned. As this had never happened before I wasn’t sure what to say so I decided to ask him why he refused to sign and the answer I got surprised me.

He said, “When the war was over my commanding officer asked me for my word of honor that I would not tell anyone about the code or how I had used it until otherwise notified. He asked me if I understood and I replied, ‘I give you my word of honor I will tell no one about the code or how I used it.’ Until today, I have never said one word about what I did during the war. Both of my parents passed away without knowing and my wife and children are just now learning about it but I can’t sign that paper.”

I spent the next ten minutes patiently explaining how necessary his story was and how important a contribution it would be and that I would truly love to include it in the book. He asked me if what he said could be included without his name and I told him I didn’t know if my publisher would agree to it. I said I understood the promise he made forty-five years ago and reiterated that he was no longer bound to that promise.

What he said next sent a wave of chills down my spine. He said, “I understand that the order of silence has been lifted but, how do I declassify my word of honor?”

In that moment I fully understood the meaning of that oath. I also knew that I would convince my publisher that his story would be included in the book without his name attached to it. I smiled at him and replied, “I give you my word of honor that your name will not be attributed to the story you just told me.” He signed the release after I included in writing what I had sworn to; he shook my hand and wished me good luck with the book.

The book was published with my and the code talkers’ word of honor intact.