ROY -- Students at Sand Ridge Junior High got a firsthand glimpse into a unique part of World War II history on Wednesday.
Samuel Tsosie, 84, was one of about 400 members of the Navajo Indian tribe who served as U.S. Marine communications specialists in the Pacific theater.
Called the "Code Talkers," they baffled Japanese intelligence throughout the defining years of the war with a code derived from their native language. The code was never cracked.
Dressed in his military uniform with a Navajo necktie and a turquoise necklace around his neck, Tsosie sat at the front of the auditorium with his daughter Loretta next to a table loaded with photos, scrapbooks and memorabilia, including a bilingual Navajo code-talking G.I. Joe action figure.
Each class period, more than 75 students were ushered into the auditorium to hear Tsosie recall stories from his days as a Marine. Fewer than 100 Navajo Code Talkers remain alive, and at least five have died in the last three months.
Many of the students listened on the edge of their seat as Tsosie spoke.
"The talk around the school was this is pretty cool," said Dave Gordon, a counselor at the school who set up the visit. "Some students were disappointed they missed it."
When he was 16, Tsosie lied to a recruiter about his age and forged his mother's signature to enlist in the military, much to the students' consternation.
"When you decide you want something, it doesn't matter how, you do whatever it takes," said Tsosie, who enjoys speaking to groups. "I just wanted to join."
Many of the Navajos were expert marksmen because they had practiced shooting prairie dogs on the reservation, Tsosie said.
Tsosie became a radio/telephone operator before joining the Code Talkers. Using hundreds of Navajo terms, the Code Talkers could communicate much quicker than by using by coding machines.
Tsosie said the Code Talkers used Navajo terms that were associated with the respective military terms they resembled. In this way, the Code Talkers could quickly and concisely communicate with each other in a manner even uninitiated Navajos could not understand.
"For the word 'grenade,' we used the Navajo word for potato. For the word 'plane,' we used the Navajo word for bird," said Tsosie, who splits his time between his native Arizona and the Salt Lake City area where his daughter lives.
During his service, Tsosie traveled to locations from Australia to China. After the war, he worked for 40 years in public health and retired in 1985. Four of his sons served in the military.
He doesn't view his role as a Code Talker as anything special.
"I was just doing my duty," Tsosie said.
Following the war, Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy for more than 20 years. President Reagan first acknowledged their service in 1982. The original 29 were given the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2001. A Nicolas Cage movie based on the Code Talkers' World War II military service, called "Windtalkers," was released in 2002.
As the number of living Code Talkers declines, a campaign is under way to fund and build a museum and veterans center in New Mexico.
For more on the Code Talkers, visit navajocodetalkers.org.