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The Navajo Code Talkers

The Japanese were expert cryptanalysts, breaking every U.S. military code in the early days of World War II. In response, the US Marine Corps recruited Navajo Native Americans to create a unique spoken language code based on the Navajo language, a language almost unknown outside of the Navajo reservations and people. The program was a highly praised success, able to keep battle zone communications flowing and never broken by the Japanese.

While universally known as Code Talkers today, according to Wilfred Billey, who served as a Code Talker with the 2nd Marine Division during World War, the term "code talker" was first used in 1971 when the Navajo Code Talker Association was formed. Until then, they had been addressed simply as 'radiomen.'

PFC Preston Toledo and PFC Frank Toledo, Navajo cousins and Code Talkers in a Marine artillery regiment, use a field radio in the Pacific Theater
PFC Preston Toledo and PFC Frank Toledo, Navajo cousins and Code Talkers in a Marine artillery regiment, use a field radio in the Pacific Theater.

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Origins of the Navajo Code Talkers

CPL Henry Bake, Jr. (left) of Ft. Defiance, AZ and PFC George Kirk of Leupp, AZ  operate a portable radio in the jungles of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands
CPL Henry Bake, Jr. (left) of Ft. Defiance, AZ and PFC George Kirk of Leupp, AZ operate a portable radio in the jungles of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands.

The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Technical Sgt. Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajo tribe and one of the few non-Navajo people fluent in their language. Johnston, who grew up on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military's search for an unbreakable code for battlefield communications. He also knew that Native American languages (notably Choctaw) had been used in World War I to encode messages.

Johnston believed Navajo was ideally suited to the military's code requirements because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity and expressive power. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. One estimate stated that fewer than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II.

Most Native American groups in the United States had been overrun with German students in the 1920s and 1930s. Germans had been studying tribal dialects ostensibly as anthropologists and art students, to the point where German and other foreign diplomats were among the chief customers of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the purchase of publications dealing with the tribes. It was suspected that the Germans were so interested Native American languages because Germany understood their potential for military use, based on experience in WW I. However, the Navajo were not studied by Germans and it was decided that even if Navajo books were in enemy hands it would be virtually impossible for the enemy to gain a working knowledge of the language from that source alone.

On 25 Feb 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff to convince them of the Navajo language's value as code. Johnston, with the help of Navajos living in the Los Angeles area, staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Cryptographic machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Convinced, Vogel recommended to the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the Marines recruit at least 200 Navajos.

On 4 May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits began basic training at Camp Elliott in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego (now Miramar), before assignment to the Field Signal Battalion Training Center at Camp Pendleton, CA, for advanced training. This first group (the "original 29") created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and devised Navajo words for military terms that were not part of their language (eg, tank, bomber, submarine). Multiple terms were provided in the code for each letter in the English language as a way to spell words not in the dictionary.

While all the recruits spoke the same Navajo, there were certain word variations that caused difficulties, based on inflections. That is, in Navajo, there are words that may be spoken with multiple, different inflections to convey different meanings for each inflection. The early recruits had to agree on words and inflections that had no ambiguity, to eliminate unacceptable variation in military messages.

The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training. No written form was permitted due to the extreme security precautions required to keep the code securely under wraps.

Navajo Code Talkers in World War II

Navajo Code Talkers took part in every assault the US Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language, the only code that the Japanese never broke.

After training, a Navajo Code Talker was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater. The unique relationship between the Navy and the Marine Corps allowed Navajos to communicate with each other, whether based on ship or ashore. Communication was fast and accurate, without disclosing knowledge of planned events to the enemy. The Code Talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. Code talkers were not used in units below battalion level, where the high level of security was unnecessary.

Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor had six Navajo Code Talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error.

The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the US Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines.

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as Code Talkers while the rest served in other capacities. Thirteen Code Talkers were killed in action during the war.

Navajo Code Talkers after World War II

Navajo Code Talkers Memorial, Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ
Navajo Code Talkers Memorial, Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ.

The Navajo code remained potentially valuable even after World War II was concluded, keeping it a classified military secret. Code Talkers continued to serve in the Marine Corps, providing their special skills during the Korean War and in Vietnam. The Code Talkers, whose skill and courage saved American lives and contributed to the success of military operations, did not earn recognition for their service, nor were they known to the public, until after their mission was declassified in 1968. In 1971 President Nixon issued certificates of appreciation. Then 14 August 1982 was designated as the first National Navaho Code Talkers Day by President Reagan; the date is celebrated annually. On 17 Sep 1992, Navajo Code Talkers were honored for their World War II contributions in a ceremony at the Pentagon. Thirty-five Code Talkers attended the dedication of the Pentagon Navajo Code Talker historical exhibit, now a regular stop on the Pentagon tour.

In 2001 the original 29 Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, although only five survived to receive it in person. More recognition followed as the role of the Navajo Code Talkers became better known and appreciated. For example, on 28 Feb 2008, the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial statue was unveiled at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, in Phoenix, AZ. Memorials and museum exhibits have multiplied in other locations.

Navajo Code Talker "Kill Order"

It is widely believed that Navajo Code Talkers were guarded to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Furthermore, it is said that the guards had orders to kill their Code Talkers to prevent capture. Part of the discussion of the bill to authorize the President to award a Congressional gold medal to the "original 29" states this as fact (Congressional Record House: 15 December 2000, Page 26872):

This Code was so successful that some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow Marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy;

The 2002 movie with Nicolas Cage, Windtalkers, about the Navajo Code Talkers, is based on this idea. But is it true?

Probably not. Surviving Code Talkers generally dismiss the notion, although a few agree. There is no document that records such a policy and the Marine Corps denies it. It may never be fully resolved, but its unlikely that there was a kill order on the Code Talkers as has been cliamed and depicted in fiction.

Navajo Code Talkers Methods and Dictionary

Marines who heard the Navajo radio messages compared the sound to gurgling water. When a Navajo Code Talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The Code Talker first had to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word. Thus, the Navajo words "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple) and "tse-nill" (axe) all stood for the letter "a." One way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)." Most letters had more than one Navajo word representing them.

Not all words had to be spelled out letter by letter. The developers of the original code assigned Navajo words to represent frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language. For example: "besh- lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine," "dah-he- tih-hi" (hummingbird) meant "fighter plane" and "debeh-li-zine" (black street) meant "squad." The original list of about 200 military terms expanded to more than 600 by the end of the war. This private language of the Code Talkers meant that even the ability to speak Navajo fluently would not enable the Japanese to decode a military message using these words improvised by Navajos in the field.

The Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary has been declassified and can be examined here:

The document includes a translation of The Marine Hymn to Navaho code.

Other Native American Code Talkers in World War II

While the Marines' use of the Navajo Code Talkers is now the most famous use of Native Americans for the purpose, they were not the only ones. The US Army formed a special communication unit that consisted of seventeen Comanche. Like the Choctaws before them in World War I, they handled field telephone calls, translated radio messages, and used their language with a combination of specially crafted military terms to write field orders for radio transmission that could not be understood by the Germans.

Several tribes spoke on military frequencies in Africa, Sicily and Western Europe. During 1939 to 1945, the Army recruited Hopi, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Winnebago, Seminole, Navajo and Cherokee Americans to use their languages to communicate. For example, in the European Theater of Operations seventeen members of the Comanche tribe served as voice radio operators with the 4th Signal Company of the 4th Infantry Division during the June 1944 Normandy beach landings and its aftermath. The Army recruited only about fifty Native Americans for such special communication assignments.

Even though such techniques were considered secret codes, most Native American tribesmen were only using their stamdard language dialects and not actual coding or encryption.

This page adapted from U.S. Navy Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet and other sources.

Recommended Books about the Navajo and Commanche Code Talkers

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