Robert “Jeff” David never told his family about the true
nature of his service. Photo courtesy of the Haines Sheldon Museum.

Tlingit World War II veterans George Lewis and Robert “Jeff” David, both longtime Klukwan and Haines residents now deceased, were honored by the Alaska Legislature last week for their service as code talkers in the Pacific.

Lewis and David were among five Tlingit veterans honored for their service. Those men, along with Native veterans representing 32 additional tribes across the United States, were recruited by the military to transmit secret coded messages for tactical military operations using their native languages. The use of such tactics was the first time in modern warfare that such transmissions were used to confuse the enemy. The Japanese were unable to break the Tlingit code, and the Tlingit men saved many lives, according to the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008.

The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 for the first time publicly honored the veterans. Their contribution to the war effort was classified, and many of the service members, including Lewis and David, never told their friends and families the details about their service.

“I did not know anything about his military service during WWII,” Lewis’s daughter Verna Adams,72, told the CVN this week. “He saved a lot of lives. All code talkers did. They spoke their Tlingit language, or their Native language, and they weren’t able to break the code.”

Adams said when she first learned the true account of her father’s military service, she didn’t believe it. When her father was young, he would get his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Tlingit, the same language he used as a U.S. service member to save American lives.

“I’m proud of my dad. Even though we were not to learn our language, it is amazing to me that he did this during WWII and saved thousands of lives along with the other code talkers.”

Lewis, a member of the Eagle Killer Whale clan, was a boat builder, carpenter and mill worker. Raised in Sitka, he moved to Haines in the 1960s and died here in 1991. He’s buried at the cemetery at 1 Mile.

David was a well-known basketball player in Haines and a member of the Gold Medal Hall of Fame. His son, Jeff David Jr., told the CVN that his father never mentioned his military service.

“He said he was stationed in the Philippines,” David said. “He couldn’t say anything until they let it finally be public. When I went to D.C., at first, they only recognized the Navajo tribes, just a couple people. Then they finally recognized all the tribes.”

Many more people are aware of the Navajo Code Talkers, who have been recognized by Hollywood and in books. Veteran advocate and former state legislator Bill Thomas drove the effort to raise awareness and ensure Alaska honored its Tlingit veterans code talkers after the 2008 federal act.

“After six years I was disappointed that nobody recognized them in Alaska,” Thomas said. “I had Sealaska Heritage draft (a citation). Being here in Juneau as a veteran, to me it was big to have code talkers. It took a while. We had to prepare background information. I made sure we used veterans to speak about the code talkers.”

On March 6, the Alaska Legislature passed a citation honoring the Tlingit men. Sen. Jesse Kiehl noted the irony inherent in the calling on the same service members who were punished for speaking their language as children to help win WWII by speaking it.

“When wartime came, when they answered their nation’s call, it was in part their languages, their cultures and their connections to one another that was such a strength, that saved so many American service men and women and helped us to be victorious,” Kiehl said from the Senate floor.