Dooley Shorty, 88, Navajo Code Talker in Marines


By William H. Honan,, June 12, 2000


Dooley D. Shorty, who helped to train the fabled Navajo Code Talkers, a team of marines who used a code based on the Navajo language to befuddle the Japanese military in World War II, died on June 4 in Albuquerque.

He was 88.

Navajo, an Indian language that has no written form, was chosen by the Marines as the language least likely to be understood by the enemy. And sure enough, during the war in the Pacific, Japanese cryptographers cracked the codes of the United States Army, Navy and Air Force but never had any idea what was meant by the sounds they intercepted on Marine radio broadcasts. Marine commanders could issue orders and report troop movements in safety.

Partly because the Navajo language has few words for modern military equipment, Mr. Shorty and his colleagues added a second meaning to some expressions. For example, tas-chizzie, the Navajo word for swallow, was used to mean torpedo plane. Jay-sho, or buzzard, was used for bomber. And da-he-tih-hi, or hummingbird, was a fighter plane.

Mr. Shorty was one of the original 29 Navajo men assigned to train fellow Navajos in the code.

All told, there were about 400 Navajo Code Talkers, and they worked extremely well. In the first 48 hours of the battle of Iwo Jima, Navajos sent or received 800 messages without an error.

The code was considered so valuable that it was classified until 1968. Since then, the story has attracted historians, screenwriters and politicians. The story of these men who fought with their tongues was recounted by Simon Singh in "The Code Book" (Doubleday, 1999), a history of cryptography, and was recently the subject of a television documentary on the History Channel.

In 1982, President Reagan designated Aug. 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day.

Last Thursday, the United States Senate adopted a proposal by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, to honor the Navajo Code Talkers with medals -- a gold medal for the first 29 Marines to join and a silver medal for about 370 others. The proposal, now in the form of an amendment to the Senate's Defense Authorization Bill, is expected to encounter no opposition in the House-Senate conference committee.

Most honors would be made posthumously.

Born on June 8, 1911, on the Navajo reservation in Cornfields, Ariz., Mr. Shorty spent most of his life in Albuquerque. For 30 years, he taught silversmithing at the Intermountain Indian School, one of the largest boarding schools in the Southwest at one time.

Mr. Shorty's survivors include a brother, John Y., and two sisters, Dorothy Paul and Dolores Miller.

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov