Navajo Code Talkers, The

views updated

The Navajo Code Talkers

Approximately 400 young Navajo men were
recruited from their reservation (which
includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and
Utah) to join the U.S. Marine Corps and become

"Code Talkers." The Navajo Code Talkers
developed a code based on the Navajo
language that was never deciphered and
that played an important role in
military communication

Some of World War II's most important and toughest battles took place in the islands of the western Pacific Ocean. Fighting the Japanese for control of the region, the Allies had to contend not only with a strong, determined enemy but also with dense jungle terrain. Secure communications by radio and telephone were crucial to the success of both planning and fighting battles. But the Japanese were good at cracking codes—they seemed to quickly decipher every one the Allies came up with. It wasn't until a World War I veteran suggested that members of the Navajo nation (a Native American people who live in the American Southwest) become "Code Talkers"that the U.S. Marines found a truly unbreakable code. Although the Navajo Code Talkers have never received much recognition from the public, they took part in every battle the marines fought in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They contributed greatly to the Allied victory over Japan (the Allies were all the countries fighting against Germany, Japan, and Italy, which were called the Axis. Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union were the major Allied powers).

A boy grows up in Navajo country

The Allied strategy in the Pacific was to "leapfrog" from island to island, bypassing areas with high concentrations of Japanese troops. They would attack where they were least expected, in less protected areas. The Allies needed secret communications to succeed. The Japanese were so good at breaking codes that there was something called the "twenty-four-hour rule": a code could only be used for twenty-four hours, because after that period the Japanese were sure to have figured it out.

The answer to this dilemma finally came from a World War I (1914-1918; a war that began as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and escalated into a global conflict involving thirty-two countries) veteran who was too old to fight in World War II but still wanted to help his country's war effort. Back in 1896, young Philip Johnston had traveled with his family into Navajo country where his father served as a Christian missionary. Philip spent all of his time with Navajo children and soon spoke their language fluently. He played Navajo games, ate Navajo food, and joined his friends in hunting with a bow and arrow and riding horses bareback.

When he was only nine years old, Johnston traveled with his father and some representatives of the Navajo and Hopi nations to Washington, D.C., to request that a certain piece of land be set aside as a reservation. Young Philip served as a translator when the group met with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Johnston loved his childhood, and even after his family moved to Los Angeles, California, he kept up his ties with the Navajo community. He went to the University of California and earned a degree in civil engineering, and he was working for the city of Los Angeles when World War II started. Aware of the military's problem with finding a safe code, Johnston wondered if some of the smart, capable Navajo men he knew could be used as communicators, talking to each other by radio in the Navajo language.

A successful demonstration

The Navajo language seemed an ideal choice for such a task, because it was spoken almost exclusively by Navajos (a population of about 50,000 in 1942) living in an isolated area, and it was estimated that only about thirty non-Navajos spoke the language at that time. Navajo is mostly an oral language and has no written alphabet. It is very complex and its tonal qualities and dialects make it very difficult to learn.

Early in 1942, Johnston brought his idea to Major J. E. Jones, a communications officer at Camp Elliot in San Diego, California. Although doubtful that the plan would work, Jones told Johnston to bring some Navajos to San Diego for a demonstration. Johnston rounded up four Navajos from the reservation and found another who was already serving in the Marine Corps. The men were to demonstrate their skills to General Clayton B. Vogel, commander of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet.

First the Navajos were given forty-five minutes to translate six military messages into their native language. There were many terms with no equivalents in Navajo, so they had to make up simple translations. Then they showed that they could translate a written or verbal message into Navajo and transmit it by radio to another Navajo in a different room, who would then translate the message back into English. The men proved that they could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line message in English in only twenty seconds, whereas it took thirty minutes for a coding machine to do the same thing.

Recruiting and training the "Code Talkers"

The marines were convinced. The next step was to recruit Navajo men to serve as what came to be known as "Code Talkers." The first recruiters who went to the reservation were met with suspicion, so Chee Dodge, the chairman of the Navajo nation, got involved in spreading the word that the marines needed men to serve as special communications agents. Notices went up around the reservation, and men started to volunteer.

In February 1942 twenty-nine Navajos (known thereafter as "The First 29") were inducted into the marines. They boarded trains in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Gallup, New Mexico, to go to boot camp (general training) in California. Four of the men began to devise a code and to teach it to the others. The Navajo marines were required to memorize the entire code during their training period; there would be nothing written down for them to use in battle.

The code was soon tested in combat, and when it worked well, authorization was given for another 300 Navajos to be recruited. Despite his age, Johnston was allowed into the marines so that he could help train and recruit the Code Talkers. Recruits fresh from boot camp were now sent to Staff Sergeant Johnston for training in how to use the code. In early 1943, Johnston worked with professional code makers to develop an even more sophisticated code.

How the code worked

The Navajo Code Talkers used from one to three Navajo words to stand for each letter of the English alphabet. For instance, the Navajo word for ant, "woh-la-chee," stood for a; "na-hash-chid" or badger was b; and "moasi" or cat was c. Words would then be spelled out letter by letter. For nearly 400 military words and expressions, the Code Talkers came up with symbolic Navajo names: the Navajo word for "chicken hawk" meant dive-bomber, "iron fish" meant submarine, "fast shooter" was machine gun, and "hummingbird" was fighter plane.

The code was so ingenious that Navajos who hadn't been trained in its use could not decipher it. Some of them were known to say "That's crazy Navajo!" when they heard it. One Navajo soldier who was captured while fighting in the Philippines was ordered by his Japanese captors to decipher the code, but of course he couldn't. He later said, "I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying." Two American code-breaking specialists who were called in to test the code could not even transcribe the sounds of the words, much less decipher their meaning.

By 1943, 191 Code Talkers were serving in the marines; by the end of the war around 400 had served. Their job was to talk back and forth to each other, transmitting information on tactics, troop movements, and orders. As long as there was a Navajo Code Talker at each end of the telephone or radio connection, the code could be used. Intelligence officers in the field were skeptical at first about how secure it would be to have soldiers talking back and forth to each other in battle, but they soon saw that the code was effective.

Some Code Talkers' experiences

The experiences of King Mike are an example of the work done by the Code Talkers. Mike traveled from the remote Monument Valley in Arizona, where he was living on his wife's family's sheep farm, to take part in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. After his entire brigade was wiped out in an attack on the island of Guam, Mike was reassigned to the 6th Division of the 22nd Regiment just before the U.S. invasion of Okinawa (a large island in the Pacific Ocean).

Mike was assigned to a five-person regimental intelligence team made up of a demolition (explosives) specialist, a soldier fluent in Japanese, a communications expert, a technician, and a Navajo Code Talker. After the U.S. Navy had bombed a particular shore area, the team would land on the beach and make their way behind enemy lines, then radio back information on how much damage the enemy had taken and how and when U.S. forces could invade. Much of this work was done at night, and there was constant danger of capture and death. But the information Mike's team gathered was crucial to the Allies' success on Okinawa and in other battles.

Another Code Talker, Teddy Draper, Sr., took part in the battle of Iwo Jima—later made famous by the memorial in Washington, D.C., that shows a group of marines valiantly raising the U.S. flag. This was a hellish, thirty-sixday battle that involved hand-to-hand combat. The Navajo code was the only code used at Iwo Jima, and during the first two days of the battle, six Code Talkers worked around the clock to send and receive 800 messages, which they completed with no mistakes. Major Howard Connor, signal (communications) officer of the 5th Marine Division, is quoted on the Navy and Marine Corps World War II Commemorative Committee's web site saying: "Without the Navajo Code Talkers the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

During one battle on the island of Saipan, Code Talkers successfully redirected some American troops who were accidentally firing on their own troops—those shooting could not be convinced they were firing at Americans until they heard the Code Talkers confirm it.

A secret until 1968

When he heard the story of the Navajo Code Talkers after the war, Japanese intelligence chief General Setzo Avisue said, "Thank you, that is a puzzle I thought would never be solved" (quoted on web site Passages West: The Navajo Code Talkers by Gerald Knowles). Some believe that the code devised and carried out by the Navajos may have been the only unbreakable code in military history.

The Code Talkers returned to their reservation and underwent the traditional Navajo "Enemy Way" ceremony to cast away their painful memories and chase away any lingering ghosts of fallen friends or enemies. They went back to their normal lives, and it would be many years before their contribution to the Allied victory was openly acknowledged. One reason is that the government kept information about the Code Talkers secret until 1968, perhaps because they thought they might use them again in another war.

Honoring the Code Talkers

In 1969, the 4th Marine Division held a reunion for World War II veterans, and they invited the Code Talkers, along with Philip Johnston, to attend. They were presented with special bronze medallions depicting a Native American on a pony next to the Iwo Jima flag-raising scene. A representative of President Richard Nixon read a message honoring the Code Talkers for their role in the war. In 1971, the Code Talkers held their own reunion at Window Rock, Arizona, where they gave demonstrations of their skills to a thrilled audience of younger Navajos.

There has been more recognition for the Code Talkers in recent years. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan praised them for their "dedicated service, unique achievement, patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage." And in September 1992, thirty-five surviving Navajo Code Talkers attended the dedication of a special exhibit at the Pentagon (the headquarters of the Defense Department) in Washington, D.C. Put on permanent display were photographs, equipment, the original code, and explanations of how the code worked, so that for many years to come visitors would learn about the unique contributions the Navajo Code Talkers had made during World War II.

Where to Learn More


Aaseng, Nathan. Navajo Code Talkers. New York: Walker and Company, 1992.

Kawano, Kenji. Warriors: The Navajo Code Talkers. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing Company, 1990.

Lagerquist, Syble. Philip Johnston and the Navajo Codetalkers. Council for Indian Education, 1996.

McClain, S. Navajo Weapon. Boulder, CO: Books Beyond Borders, 1994.

Paul, Doris A. The Navajo Code Talkers. Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance &Co., 1973.

Web sites

Knowles, Gerald. "America's Secret Weapon in Defeating the Japanese in World War II." Passages West: The Navajo Code Talkers. [Online] Available (February 10, 1999).

Kukral, L.C. "The Navajo Code Talkers." Navy and Marine Corps World WarII Commemorative Committee, Navy Office of Information. [Online]Available (February 10, 1999).

Two American code-breaking specialists who were called in to test the Navajo code could not even transcribe the sounds of the words, much less decipher their meaning.

LetterNavajo WordMeaning
McClain, S. Navajo Weapon . Books Beyond Borders, 1994.

An Example of a Translated Order

The order in English.…

Request for artillery and tank fire at 123 B, Company E move 50 yards left flank of Company D.

Would be translated into Navajo words that meant.…

Ask for many big guns and tortoise fire at 123 Bear tail drop Mexican ear mouse victor elk 50 yards left flank ocean fish Mexican deer.

McClain, S. Navajo Weapon . Books Beyond Borders, 1994.

TermNavajo wordMeaning
Major GeneralSo-na-kihTwo Stars
ColonelAstah-besh-legaiSilver Eagle
Fighter PlaneDa-he-tih-hiHummingbird
Transport PlaneAstahEagle
Aircraft CarrierTsidi-ney-ye-hiBird carrier
McClain, S. Navajo Weapon . Books Beyond Borders, 1994.