Airman’s Great Grandfather Served As A Navajo Code Talker In WWII
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kayla White,
509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
March 11, 2019
Airman 1st Class Phillip Rock is part of his family’s legacy of
military service – a legacy that, in fact, would not have continued
if it weren’t for that military service itself.
Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, Rock is a B-2 weapons load crew
member in the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. It is his first
Air Force assignment and the most recent in his family’s military
“I was raised in Kayenta, Arizona, which is an hour
away from the four corners,” said Phillip, who is three-quarters
Navajo American Indian. “It is really the heart of the reservation.”
Raised by his grandparents, he learned much about his cultural
heritage from them. He also learned where his family’s long military
November 15, 2018 - Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, weaves a dream catcher in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. Rock's family history is deeply rooted in both the U.S. Armed Forces and the Navajo tribe ... as is the traditional native American jewelry near Phillip Rock on his couch. Each piece of the jewelry was gifted to Rock throughout his childhood. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photos by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
This Rock family tradition started with his great grandfather,
Joseph Rock – “Grandpa Joe” – who served in World War II.
first, I didn’t know much about what my great grandfather had done,”
Grandpa Joe died in 2004 at age 92 when Phillip
was 5 years old. It wasn’t until he was nearly a teen that Phillip
realized his great grandfather was a war hero.
One day, when
Rock was 12-years-old, he was flipping through TV channels with his
grandfather, Ernest Rock Sr., in their living room. They stopped to
watch a historical documentary about World War II.
recalled asking his grandfather about his great grandfather’s role
in the major world conflict which spanned across Europe and the
“I said, ‘Isn’t that the war Grandpa Joe fought in?
What did he do?’”
His grandfather told Phillip: “He was a
It was the early 1900s and
Joseph Rock was a young boy living on a Navajo reservation in
Arizona. As the country expanded westward, much of the tribe’s land
was taken by the U.S. government. Joseph was sent to school, where
his long hair was cut and his name was changed.
“He went up
to a chalkboard, pointed at a random configuration of letters, and
that’s how he became Joseph Rock,” Phillip said. “Four generations
later, we still carry on that last name.”
Grandpa Joe was
also punished in school if he spoke his native language – the same
language that would later save countless lives.
shortly after the United States had entered WWII, the U.S. Marines
began to recruit Navajo tribal members for a top-secret
code-communications program that wouldn’t be declassified until two
At first, less than 30 Navajo Indians were
recruited as code talkers. In total, only about 400 of the 44,000
American Indians who served in WWII were Navajo code talkers. Joseph
Rock was asked to work among them, and he accepted.
told if he served, the family would get some of their land back and
a house,” Phillip Rock said. “None of that happened.”
those promises weren’t what enticed Grandpa Joe to join the
military. He wanted to serve his country, and did so honorably.
“My great grandfather was proud of his service,” Phillip Rock
said. “It’s his legacy.”
This was not the first time American
Indians were recruited for U.S. military service, either as
combatants or code talkers. During the first World War, American
troops relied on messages transmitted in Cherokee and Choctaw tribal
languages to pass secret information. However, the languages used
were eventually all deciphered by enemy troops.
language, though, is considered particularly linguistically
difficult. And at that time, it had not been written down. The U.S.
government knew it would be nearly impossible for a non-Navajo to
So, in the early 1940s, Navajo code talkers used their
language to create more than 200 new words for military terms and
then committed them to memory.
“The enemy never understood
it,” a U.S. Marine general was quoted as saying after the Navajo
code was first used in WWII. “We don't understand it either, but it
The Navajo code is the only spoken military code that
has never been deciphered, and Navajo code talkers are credited with
saving thousands of Americans’ and allies’ lives.
Winning The War
he knew his Grandpa Joe served as a code talker, Phillip learned
about his tribe’s role in WWII as a boy in school.
taught that we should be extremely thankful for what they did,”
Phillip said. “Without the code talkers, we wouldn’t have won the
During the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Navajo code
talkers worked around the clock sending and receiving thousands of
messages. One Marine later stated, "Were it not for the Navajos, the
Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” according to the Naval
History and Heritage Command.
Joseph Rock was one of those
code talkers involved in the critical battle to claim the Pacific
During the battle, a grenade landed only feet away
from Joseph Rock, who “watched it hit the ground,” Phillip said.
Then, Joseph Rock saw one of his fellow Marines dive on top of it,
giving his life to save Grandpa Joe.
“He wanted to save the
life of a code talker,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s inspiring what
people will do to continue with the mission. My Grandpa Joe owed his
life to that man.”
Neither Joseph Rock nor the Rock family
was ever able to find out who the Marine was, but know future
generations of Rocks have their lives thanks to his valor.
owe my life to that man, too,” Phillip said.
Culture and Service
Since Grandpa Joe, many members of the Rock Family have answered
their nation’s call including his grandfather, his father, uncles,
and an aunt.
For Phillip, his great grandfather’s service as
a code talker influenced Philip’s own decision to join the Air
Phillip is the most-recent member of his family to
serve in the military.
“I feel like it was a prideful thing
to carry on that lineage of service,” said Phillip. “It felt like
the right calling. My Grandpa Joe was the first to wear this name on
a uniform. I am very proud of this name. I knew I wanted to carry
that on and wear it on a uniform.”
principles have taught him respect, perseverance and determination.
“My culture really shapes who I am,” Phillip Rock says. “I wear
my culture on my sleeve and my name on my chest.”