Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records. Invaluable assistance to this blog was also provided by Cara Lebonick of the National Archives at St. Louis.
The concept of using tribal languages as a battlefield code was first explored in WWI but wasn’t systematically used until WWII. While this blog only explores one such Navajo Code Talker, readers should note that at least 14 other tribal languages were used by servicemen worldwide, codes never broken by enemy forces.
74 years ago this month, a scant seven months after being wounded in the Battle of Saipan, U.S. Marine Corps Private First Class John Werito, with the military specialty 642 – Code Talker, embarked aboard LST 763 at Kahului Maui for a one month voyage to a little known volcano island called Iwo Jima, a place that would soon be indelibly stamped into Marine Corps lore. According to Major Howard Connor, the 5th Marine Division signal officer during the battle, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” And so goes, were it then not for John Werito. This is his story.
It was May 2, 1923, outside Star Lake New Mexico when John Werito “was born in an old adobe house little better than the log cabin in which Lincoln was born.” Werito’s early years are chronicled in an “autobiography,” a handwritten story of a student’s life which are occasionally found in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) student case files. Werito attended the Southern Ute Boarding School, which was shortly after his tenure renamed the Ute Vocational School, in Ignacio Colorado from which student case files can be found within the National Archives at Denver BIA holdings. Such case files are closed to the general public for 75 years after the creation date unless said student has passed away. Given both of these conditions have been met, Werito’s case file is open and so this is where our story begins.
Werito’s family at the time of his birth consisted of his parents, a brother, and a half-brother from a previous marriage of his mother. High mortality rates leading to shifting families was common at the time and it only became worse for the Werito’s, with the loss of two infant sisters born later. John touches on his intense homesickness when he was first sent away to Crownpoint Boarding School, an all too familiar reaction for young children often forcibly separated from their families during the BIA’s boarding school era, but he writes that eventually he “liked school well enough.” The spring of 1937 brought further tragedy when his beloved mother fell ill and passed away. “This was a hard blow to me, because I adored my mother.” His father moved on, marrying again, but John left Crownpoint for Ignacio, entering the school there.
John earned a solid B average at the Southern Ute School, excelling at basketball while playing for the Red Raiders and working as a hospital orderly. In 1941 he took his first trip to Denver, opening his eyes to what he called a “wonderful city.” On April 29, 1943, Werito graduated along with eight others but his future plans were already decided as three days previously he had entered the U.S. Marine Corps. John Werito was going to war.
That July Werito sent a souvenir picture postcard back to the school principal Robin Dean, who was noted on his draft registration as “the person who will always know your address.” While Dean would not know, and the public at large would not learn until many decades later, Werito’s return address of the Field Signal School at California’s Camp Pendleton meant he was starting his training into becoming one of the famed Navajo Code Talkers.
Correspondence with former students can often be found in BIA student case files, whether conducting unfinished academic or financial business, or as appears in Werito’s case simply touching base with a friend, the principal Robin Dean. The Christmas postcard is undated and unaddressed but similarly thought to have been sent to Dean.
Werito’s first taste of the war was the following January, when he partook in the Battle of Kwajalein. Six months later, on June 15, 1944, Werito and 8,000 of his fellow Devil Dogs poured onto the Island of Saipan under withering Japanese fire. Werito was hit, earning himself a Purple Heart and a bed on the hospital ship USS Bountiful.
After nearly a month on the desolate rock of Iwo Jima, Werito clambered aboard the USS Bollinger on March 20th to return back to Pearl Harbor. The war was over for John Werito and he was formally discharged that November, having earned the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation, the Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars, and the WWII Victory Medal . Werito returned to the city that so entranced him in high school, Denver, Colorado, where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Briefly reactivated during the Korean Conflict but seeing no action, John Werito retired in 1972 and passed away on March 29, 1983. In 2002, his widow Rose and children Nellie and Michael were on hand in Window Rock Arizona to receive his posthumous Silver Congressional Medal awarded by the United States Congress to all identified Navajo Code Talkers or their next of kin.
John Werito’s school record comes from the series “Student Case Files, 1937 – 1970” found at the National Archives at Denver, National Archives Identifier 74589173, and documents and information from his Official Military Personnel File come from the National Archives at St. Louis. Further information is found in the various military series on Ancestry.com; U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949, U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947, and World War II Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Casualties, 1941-1945.
For those wishing to pay their respects, John Werito and his wife Rose are buried together at Section S Site 6665 in Fort Logan National Cemetery, 400 West Kenyon Avenue, Denver Colorado.