Our Neighbors...Code talker took his secret to the grave
Jana Hollingsworth and Sarah Nelson Katzenberger
The late Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa member, who served as a code talker during the early 1950s conflict, was posthumously honored with a congressional silver medal in November.
Code talkers, like Lex, transmitted codes in 33 different tribal dialects during both World Wars and the Korean War in an effort to keep enemy intelligence from deciphering the secret tactical information transmitted. The program remained classified until 1968. However, many code talkers like Lex Porter never broke the vow of silence they took upon entering the program.
And while Navajo and Hopi code talkers may have been the best known — the 2002 movie “Windtalkers” dramatizes a Navajo story — members of other tribes participated as well.
“They said at the ceremony that code talkers were 100 percent accurate,” said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band, who attended the Nov. 19 event in Washington, D.C. “When they were using encryption, it would sometimes take a half hour to get their orders translated. Using the translators it was instantaneous because they were talking in their language.”
Lex Porter, who died in 1990, was among hundreds from American Indian tribes throughout the country honored in November. While Navajo code talkers have received recognition over the years, Diver said, Congress passed legislation in 2008 authorizing the same medals to other tribes. But it’s taken years of research to find the remaining code talkers, she said.
“So the ceremony was a lot about making amends to other tribes and code talkers and recognizing them,” she said. “They are still finding some of them.”
Nolan said Porter is the only known code talker from Minnesota.
The Fond du Lac Band was honored with a congressional gold medal during the same ceremony. The medals are the country’s highest civilian honor. Silver medals were given to the code talkers and gold to their tribes. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., spent time with Porter’s two surviving children and some of his grandchildren at the event.
“They had no idea the role he and other code talkers played,” Nolan said, explaining that the possibility of using the tactic again for future conflicts led the code talkers to keeping their jobs a secret.
“He took his oath of secrecy about it really seriously,” Diver said.
According to the CIA, the Navajo code was developed by taking words from the Navajo language and applying it to war terms. A fighter plane was the Navajo word for hummingbird — da-he-tih-hi; bombs were the Navajo word for eggs — a-ye-shi.
When moving planes, ships and personnel, the work of code talkers was critical and “exceptional,” Nolan said.
“Both the Allies and Axis had their intelligence operations trained to decipher one another’s codes so they could be prepared in terms of maneuvers,” he said. “Having secret communication is an incredibly indispensable part of what’s required for success, so you don’t get caught by surprise, like we did at Pearl Harbor.”
Ironically, at the same time the code talkers were saving lives during war, the U.S. government was still operating Indian boarding schools. Starting in late 1879 and continuing through the 1960s, many Native American families were forced to send their children to the military-style boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak even a word of their Native languages or engage in any other traditional Native American ways of life. The goal was to assimilate the children into mainstream American culture.
The Native Words Native Warriors website (Nmai.si.edu) had this to say about the contradiction: “Many code talkers attended boarding schools. As adults, they found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service.”
subhed: A simple radio man
Grandson Freedom Porter doesn’t have a lot of memories of his grandfather, Lex. He died when Porter was just a kid.
Freedom, 34, said his last memory of his grandfather, an active member of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, was at a powwow on the Mille Lacs Reservation.
“It meant a lot to my dad that my last memory of Lex was of him at a powwow and I hung onto that my entire life up until recently,” Freedom recalled.
Writer and Fond du Lac member Jim Northrup also remembers seeing Lex at numerous powwows, and added that Lex Porter lived most of his life in Grand Portage.
It was last year that Freedom Porter — who lives in Baxter, Minn. — found out his grandfather would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Freedom said his family was surprised to hear of the award, but more so because his grandfather never mentioned to anyone that he served as a code talker during his time in the service. Lex took his secret to his grave.
“He told us he was a simple radio man,” Freedom recalled. “Which was true — he just never told us he was a code talker.”
Freedom said he grew up hearing stories about code talkers but never had any idea his grandfather played such a key role among the group of Native Americans who risked their lives during the war.
“It took a while for it to set in — what he did during the war,” he said. “He had a remarkable talent that made him so special.”
When Freedom Porter found out about the ceremony in Washington D.C., he wasn’t sure he’d be able to go. As a full-time student at Central Lakes College, money was tight. Porter said he was contacted by the office of Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Benjamin wanted to help. Freedom said the Band paid the entire trip costs for him and his sister, Allison Porter.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go if they didn’t help,” Freedom said. “I’m really grateful for that.”
Freedom said he had been to Washington D.C. previously, “but never for something like this.” While he tried to take in the importance of this trip, he said it wasn’t until he was sitting in Emancipation Hall and House Speaker John Boehner teared up that Porter really felt the significance of his grandfather’s service.
“That’s when it finally clicked,” he recalled. “My eyes watered. My throat tightened — that’s when I really felt the pride.”
Freedom said the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James Winnefeld, credited Native American code talkers with the Allies’ successful outcome of the war.
“Hearing so many call my grandpa ‘hero’ was amazing,” Freedom said. “To me he was just Grandpa.”
Freedom said he’s not sure what this grandfather would think of receiving the medal of honor.
“Those old men who were still alive at the ceremony had so much humility,” he said. “They did not want to be called ‘hero.’ I imagine my grandpa would have been the same way.”
Freedom pointed out that during World War II, Native Americans were not yet considered American citizens and he remembers his grandfather talking about why he served knowing he may never receive any recognition for his service.
“This is home,” he said. “Someone had to defend freedom. He just wanted to help.”
Diver said the Fond du Lac Band has a large number of veterans, and she wasn’t surprised a code talker was found among its members.
“We’re delighted to find out about Lex’s role,” she said, “and we’re proud of his efforts.”