SIOUX CITY | Michael John Sr. was just a boy when his uncle let the secret slip.
"Your dad, when he came back from the service, he had a chest full of medals," John, of Sioux City, remembers his uncle saying. "Did you know your dad was a code talker?"
At the time, John didn't even know what a code talker was. Only in recent years did he learn his father, Army Pfc. Walter C. John, used the Dakota language to foil Japanese forces in the Philippine Islands during World War II. Called code talkers, Walter C. John and other Native American soldiers used their native dialects to relay encoded messages to and from U.S. troops on the battlefield in World Wars I and II.
Walter died in 1998, but on Wednesday, his family and his tribe, the Santee Sioux, will receive congressional medals honoring his service. Several family members will travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the ceremonies.
In all, 33 tribes will be honored for having code talkers. They include the Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Yankton and Standing Rock Sioux tribes and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate from the Dakotas.
The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 directed that medals be struck to honor the nation's code talkers.
Congressional recognition for Native soldiers' contributions during wartime will be a historic moment, said Walter’s granddaughter Renae John, 28, of Sioux City. Their work isn’t recognized as it should be, she said.
"It's a really big deal for some of those families," Renae John said. "I'm really happy for them. It's an honor."
Speaking in their native dialects, code talkers relayed secret messages by radio among U.S. troops. The Japanese and Germans didn't have anyone who could translate all those languages and break down the codes, so the messages were safe from enemy interception, said University of South Dakota history professor Kurt Hackemer.
Though the military had equipment that could encode and decode messages, the Native soldiers could do the job faster and more efficiently, Hackemer said.
The Navajo are most associated with code talkers, thanks at least in part to the 2002 movie "Windtalkers," Hackemer said, but hundreds of Natives from other tribes also were involved. A significant number of them served on the front lines.
"They could find themselves in the most horrific circumstances of the war," Hackemer said.
Walter C. John served four years with the Army's 302nd Cavalry Reconnaissance troops. His sons and granddaughters are proud to show photos of him serving in the Pacific Theater.
Walter was proud of his service but never did tell his family about being a code talker. When he died, his military medals were buried with him.
"He was sworn to secrecy," said his son Walter John, of Sioux City. "(Told) not to talk about it by the Army. They were secret weapons."
Danielle John, 26, said recognizing her grandfather and the other Native code talkers sends a message to Natives everywhere: Your contributions to this country are important.
“You don’t feel invisible,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.