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.
Stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Rock is a B-2 Spirit 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 history.
“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 lineage began.
This Rock family tradition started with his great grandfather, Joseph Rock – Grandpa Joe – who served in World War II.
“At first, I didn’t know much about what my great grandfather had done,” Phillip said.
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.
Rock recalled asking his grandfather about his great grandfather’s role in the major world conflict which spanned across Europe and the Pacific.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that the war Grandpa Joe fought in? What did he do?’”
His grandfather told Phillip “He was a code talker.”
Western expansion, cultural repression
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.
By 1941, shortly after the U.S. had entered WWII, the Marine Corps began to recruit Navajo tribal members for a top-secret code-communications program that wouldn’t be declassified until two decades later.
At first, fewer 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.
“He was told if he served, the family would get some of their land back and a house,” Phillip Rock said. “None of that happened.”
But 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.
The Navajo 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 learn.
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 Marine general was quoted as saying after the Navajo code was first used in WWII. “We don’t understand it either, but it works.”
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
Before he knew his Grandpa Joe served as a code talker, Phillip learned about his tribe’s role in WWII as a boy in school.
“We were taught that we should be extremely thankful for what they did,” Phillip said. “Without the code talkers, we wouldn’t have won the war.”
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 island.
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.
“I 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 Force.
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.”
Meanwhile, Navajo 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.”