Flagstaff archives show birth of Code Talkers

By Betsey Bruner
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) June 2011

You can tell a lot about a person by the papers they leave behind.

Case in point: The papers in the Philip Johnston Collection in the Special Collections & Archives at NAU's Cline Library.

Johnston is best known as the man who pushed successfully for the adoption of the Navajo language for secure military communications in the hands of the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II.

The three acid-free, cardboard boxes in the library hold a variety of paper materials, including tissue-thin, hand-typed letters from the 1920s, `30s and `40s, yellowing copies of magazine articles, colorful maps, tickets and brochures from Mexico, transcripts of oral histories, Code Talker reunion programs and thick manuscripts of Johnston's writings, including various articles on the Southwest.

A gap in correspondence from 1942 through `45 may reflect the top-secret nature of the Navajo Code Talkers and their work.

However, some of the more yellowing letters, sent from Los Angeles, are from just after the war and deal with Johnston's efforts to help the Navajo people.

“If you have been on the Navajo reservation you will realize how terribly unprovided for the area is in terms of roads and public services generally,” Johnston wrote in a Nov. 4, 1946, letter to William Brophy, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior.

The Johnston Collection provides a fascinating view into the mind of a man whose brilliant code concept undoubtedly aided the Allied victory in the war.

“Here is someone with obvious regional and local interest,” commented Sean Evans, an archivist at Cline. “When you think historically about anything, there is so much stuff that people just throw away because they don't think it's important.”

Online through Cline Library, there are also more than 2,000 black and white photographs that Johnston took, many of them with Native American themes, including scouting trips on the reservation.

There is also a 1940 photo of the old El Pueblo Motor Inn in Flagstaff, which Johnston built in 1937, working with contractor R.E. Goble.

Described in a 1936 Coconino Sun article as an “auto court,” the court was described as having “a five-room caretaker's home and three double camp cottages. They will be of Spanish design, stuccoed outside and plastered inside.”

Johnston had moved back to northern Arizona with his wife Bernice, and they had decided to make this location their permanent home.

They purchased a site 3 miles east of downtown Flagstaff for the motel.

They also built a private residence behind the motel.

Today, the facility, now called the El Pueblo Motel, still stands on east Route 66 and is the oldest motel remaining along Route 66 outside of the downtown area.

It was from the motel that Johnston engineered the recruitment of Navajos to serve in the Marines as Code Talkers.

The property itself is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a national landmark because it exemplifies the motor court building type and it is associated with an individual who made significant contributions to American and world history.

“The preservation of heritage resources is how we connect to and learn from the past, and importantly, it's how we implement the Regional Plan and preserve the character of our community,” said Karl Eberhard, historic preservation officer for the city of Flagstaff.

The El Pueblo Motor Inn is one of 27 remaining motels, out of 50 in 1960, from Chicago to Los Angeles that contribute to the National Historic District of Route 66.

Johnston was born on Sept. 17, 1892, in Topeka, Kan., and died on Sept. 11, 1978, in San Diego, Calif.

His love of things Native American began in his childhood.

The son of a missionary, Johnston came in 1896 with his family to Flagstaff, from where his father, William Johnston, was to serve Navajos residing on the western part of the Navajo Reservation.

On the reservation, young Philip learned to speak Navajo while playing with Navajo children and was one of perhaps 30 non-natives who understood the complex and subtle Navajo expressions.

In 1902 he traveled with his father to Washington, D.C., with his father and local Navajo leaders when they spoke to the President Theodore Roosevelt to persuade him to add more land to the Navajo Reservation via an Executive Order.

In fact, the youth was translator between the local Navajo leaders and the president.

In the early 1900s, Johnston attended and graduated from the Northern Arizona Normal School, which is now NAU.

In March 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army 319th Engineers, where he received a reserve commission, before shipping to France to participate in the Great War.

It was here that he may have learned about Comanches being used as code talkers by U.S. Army units.

As a veteran, Johnston attended the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he earned his graduate civil engineering degree in 1925.

Afterward, he took a job with the city of Los Angeles water department before returning to Flagstaff a dozen years later.

Johnston never forgot the usefulness of Native American languages for secure communications during World War I.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked and America entered the war, Johnston wrote a “Proposed Plan for Recruiting Indian Signal Corps Personnel,” which he submitted in February 1942 to Major General Clayton B. Vogel and his staff to convince them of the value of the Navajo language as code.

“Because of the fact that a complete understanding of words and terms comprising the various Indian languages could be had only by those whose ears had been highly trained in them, these dialects would be ideally suited to communication in various branches of our armed forces,” he wrote.

Johnston recommended recruitment from the Navajo tribe, because at 49,338 member, it was the largest tribe in the U.S., according to his research in 1942.

In an article in the Cline Library archives by A.E. Mortensen, “A Typical Arizonian at War,” Johnston is described as a “human dynamo” and a true patriot.

“Philip Johnston was flying the true colors of a real American,” Mortensen wrote. “On October 2nd, 1942, Philip Johnston now 50 years of age, voluntarily gave up all civilian ties and entered the Marine Corps with rank of Staff Sergeant.”

The first assignment for Johnston was a recruiting tour through Arizona and New Mexico, based out of the motel, and “then back to Camp Elliott to take over the actual schooling of the Navajos,” Mortensen continued.

Not much is known of Johnston after World War II, although letters in the archives show that he remained very active in his work to help Native Americans, including creating a nonprofit organization to raise money to send them to college during the 1950s.

This year, there were seven Navajo Code Talkers, each with a companion, entered in the Armed Forces Day Parade on May 21 in Flagstaff:

Sidney Bedoni, Peter MacDonald, Alfred Peaches, George Willie, Dan Akee, Samuel Sandoval and Samuel Tsosie.