SANTEE, Neb. — Walter “Cody” John’s family knew he served during World War II, but they never knew his secret — and dangerous — mission.
The Santee Sioux tribal member served with the U.S. Army as one of the American Indian code talkers. They sent strategic Allied messages in their native languages the enemy couldn’t decipher.
Michael John said his late father wouldn’t even acknowledge himself in wartime photos.
“All my father would say was, ‘I was there.’ I asked more questions, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about these things,” Michael said. “To him, it was ‘Private First Class John reporting for duty.’ He never told me he was a code talker.”
Seven decades after the war ended, Cody John and other code talkers have finally received the Congressional Medal of Honor. A Washington ceremony recently honored about 3,000 code talkers from 33 tribes across the nation.
On Saturday, the Santee Sioux tribe held its own honoring ceremony for John, who died 15 years ago. Visitors could view two Congressional Medals of Honor — a gold version for the tribe and a silver version for John’s family.
Saturday’s audience included the Crow Creek, Winnebago and Yankton Sioux tribes, according to Santee Sioux tribal chairman Roger Trudell. The program recognized 90-year-old Yankton Sioux code talker Elmo Eddy, who was in the audience with his wife of 72 years.
Eddy served in Europe, receiving five battle stars. He is the last surviving World War II veteran for the Yankton Sioux, while the Santee Sioux have none.
At Saturday’s program, three of Cody John’s family members — sons Michael and Walter and daughter Yvonne Reinhart — spoke briefly. They displayed a range of emotions, from quiet memories of their father to heartfelt thanks for the ceremony to choking back tears.
Michael John recalled his father’s joy at spending time with other veterans. As a code talker, Cody John felt he was doing his duty and would be miffed at Saturday’s special recognition, his son said.
“If my dad was alive now, he would say, ‘How come these people are doing this (honoring ceremony)?’” Michael said. “And I would say, ‘Because they want to honor you, pop!’”
The South Dakota congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem — honored the Sioux code talkers, including the Santee Sioux even though their reservation lies in Nebraska.
At the Washington reception, Michael John said learned his father’s life was threatened not only by the enemy but by the soldiers protecting him.
“Kristi Noem said the code talkers had a target on their backs. If they were caught, the (Allied) soldiers were supposed to kill them (so they didn’t reveal the language),” he said. “It made an impact on my mind. If my dad was caught, I wouldn’t be here, and my children and brothers and sisters wouldn’t be here.”
During World War II, Cody John was stationed in the Pacific Theater, first in Australia and then in the Philippines as part of the “island hopping” strategy leading to Japan’s surrender.
After Saturday’s ceremony, Walter John told the Press & Dakotan that attending the Washington ceremony was “fantastic.” However, he feels the code talkers’ contributions have been overlooked until now.
“This recognition is a long time coming,” he said. “They should have had it a long time ago.”
American Indians have served honorably in the U.S. military despite their grievances against the federal government, Walter said.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) referred to those issues at the Washington ceremony, according to Santee Sioux tribal member Rick Thomas, a Vietnam veteran.
“Senator Reid said, ‘It’s an honor to be here with the ‘originals.’ I know the history you have been through. We have taken your land, we have separated your families and we have sent your children to boarding schools,’” Thomas said.
The code talkers formed an elite group during World Wars I and II, Thomas said.
“Here, it’s the 21st century, and they’re just now beginning to recognize how valuable these vets are, because of the code talking,” he said.
Saturday’s speakers noted, ironically, the code talkers used native languages that the U.S. government and others had sought to extinguish for generations.
“Harry Reid said, ‘We tried to take your language away, but we needed it to win the war,’” said Crow Creek tribal chairman Brandon Sazue.
Santee Sioux tribal member Redwing Thomas, who teaches the Dakota language, paid tribute to all code talkers with a victory song. He spoke of the need for keeping alive the native language.
Santee Sioux chairman Trudell, a Vietnam veteran who fought in the Battle of Hamburger Hill, noted his grandfather served in World War I even though he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
The Washington ceremony brought attention to tribes, including the Santee Sioux, whose contributions have been overlooked, Trudell said.
“For a long time, people thought the Navajos were the only code talkers because they were getting the recognition. But our tribe had code talkers during World War II,” he said.
Saturday’s honoring ceremony brought tributes from other tribes.
Yankton Sioux member Basil Heath, a Vietnam veteran, said it was “a great feeling” to see the congressional recognition for the code talkers.
“(The code talkers) were told never to mention that they had the ability to confuse our enemies with our language,” he said. “I don’t believe our language was ever broken or decoded.”
Winnebago member Matthew Pilcher, a Korean War veteran, noted Cody John was a family member whose Dakota name translated to “Walking Strong Boy.”
“People achieve miraculous accomplishments, and they never talk about themselves,” Pilcher said. “That’s the kind of man (Cody John) was.”
The code talkers aren’t the only Native military members to wait decades for recognition, Pilcher said.
“Woody Keeble of Sisseton received his Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously,” he said. “Why did it take 60 years to award an American Indian that congressional medal of honor?”
The Native warrior tradition extends to a growing number of females, Pilcher said. One of the first Operation Iraqi Freedom fatalities was an American Indian woman, he said. “The percentage of American Indians is always the biggest number of any race in the military service,” he said.
Retired Gen. Roger Lempke, the former adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard, addressed the Santee audience as U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns’ (R-Neb.) director of military affairs.
During World War II, the code talkers turned the tide for good toward the Allies, Lempke said. “With the Native American code talkers, (the Japanese) never knew what we were going to do,” he said.
Sadly, World War II veterans are rapidly dying from the scene, Lempke said. He called on the young people at Saturday’s honoring ceremony to remember and honor their warrior heritage.
“Some day, this country will call for your service, so remember the service of your ancestors,” he said.