Last Updated on November 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758
Ned Begay (Kii Yazhi)
Ned is the narrator and main character of this story. Kii Yazhi is his real name, but it is changed to Ned Begay (an English name) when he is forced to abandon his family and tribe to attend Rehoboth Mission boarding school at the age of six. He is made to wear his hair short and speak English rather than Navajo. However, he is intelligent and learns the new language quickly (although he still speaks Navajo with the other students as an act of rebellion against the school).
Many years later, Ned is recruited to the US Marines, and he finds out that Navajo is being used as a code to communicate so that the Japanese will not be able to understand the Marines’ communications with other Allied forces. He joins this effort, becoming a “code talker.” In his unit in the marines, he grows close to his comrades (although he has a very different background than the white men there). A unique challenge for Ned is that his darker skin means that he resembles a Japanese man and can be mistaken for an enemy soldier. Although code talkers are instrumental during the war, he is still discriminated against both during the war and after it ends. Code talkers are not allowed to discuss their service in World War II until 1969.
Smitty is one of Ned’s compatriots. Because it is possible for people to think that Ned is Japanese instead of Navajo, Smitty works hard to keep Ned safe and make sure other marines know he is on their side. During the battle for Iwo Jima, Smitty and Ned are able to stay together because they have been put in the same Signal Corps group—one that is part of the first wave of the attack. By this point, Ned and Smitty are extremely close, and they both feel as if being assigned to the same group is a symbol of good luck. Smitty is also the one who wakes Ned in the foxhole and lets him know that the island has been won and that the Japanese have retreated. Both Smitty and Ned survive war. Overall, Smitty seems to have a very protective personality, but he also has a great sense of humor, and his antics often boost morale among his comrades.
Marine General Holland “Howling Mad” Smith
Ned describes General Smith as having a deceptively calm appearance and says that he looks as if he could be a storekeeper rather than a war general. However, he also says that General Smith becomes much more intimidating when he gets angry. General Smith is responsible for coming up with a strategy that allows the Marines to infiltrate the island of Iwo Jima. In spite of everything that has been done to wipe out Japanese defenses there, he expects it to be a long, difficult, and bloody fight—but he maintains that it is a fight the marines will be able to win.
Georgia Boy is a medic in the war. He is white and was born in Georgia. He works alongside Ned for quite a while, and the two eventually became close friends. They start to get to know each other when Georgia Boy—who doesn’t know how to read—asks Ned to read a sign for him. Later, Georgia Boy treats Ned after he is shot by a sniper in the jungle: without hesitation, Georgia Boy picks Ned up and runs him to safety. Overall, Georgia Boy is courageous and extremely loyal to his friends and the men he works with.
Corporal Johnny Manuelito
In the marines, Johnny works as a recruiter. His job is to convince Navajos to become Marines so that they can work as code talkers. He is also their instructor, and he makes it very clear that being a code talker requires accuracy and attention to detail. The fact that Johnny emphasizes the importance of the Navajo language makes Ned feel like he is getting back some of his own culture. Ned describes Johnny as being pensive and having a strong work ethic. Johnny helps Ned realize that being Navajo actually gives him some advantages in being a marine. For example, he points out that many men don’t make it in the marines due to a lack of physical strength. This boosts Ned’s spirits significantly, because he is able to take advantage of his build to succeed at physically demanding tasks. Because of Johnny, Ned feels a little less out of place than he had before.