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The Navajo Code

The Navajo Code

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Early in 1942 Philip Johnson, met Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and suggested that the U.S. Marines used the Navajo language as a secret code. Johnson, who had grown up on an Navajo Reservation, argued that because it of its complex syntax, tonal qualities and dialect, the Japanese cryptographers would find it impossible to decipher. He also pointed out that Navajo was not a written language and less than 30 non-Navajos understood it. Johnson added that it was an extremely complicated language. Meaning in the language is not only dependent on accurate pronounciation, the tonal emphasis can totally change the sense of a word

Vogel was convinced by Johnson's arguments and it was decided to establish a Navajo code programme at Camp Pendleton at Oceanside, California. In May 1942 the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers were recruited. Over the next few months more than 450 frequently used military terms were given Navajo equivalents. For example, dah-he-tih-hi was the Navajo word for hummingbird. In the code dah-he-tih-hi now became the word for fighter plane. Whereas toh-at (between waters) meant Britain.

An estimated 400 Navajos agents were trained to use the code and around 300 saw action in the field. Speaking Navajo and using an additional code within that, they were able to convey information and orders among Marine units and Navy warships and aircraft. The Code Talkers served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units. The Code Talkers were a part of every major Marine assault during the Second World War and first saw action on 7th August 1942 when the marines landed on Guadalcanal.

Merril Sandoval and several other Navajos who was sent with the marines that invaded Japanese held Iwo Jima on 19th February, 1945. The Navajo Code Talkers were distributed among the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine divisions. Sandoval's job was to stay behind the frontline and translate reports from two-man code talker teams elsewhere on the island. Sandoval then sent back these messages to military commanders based on Hawaii. Sandoval was also responsible for passing on orders to the U.S. Marines on the frontline.

Some senior officers believe that the contribution of the Navajo code played an important role in the success of the operation as the Japanese had already broken the codes of the United States Army and the United States Air Force. Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signals officer, later argued: "Were it not for the Navajos, the marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

Being a Navajo Code Talker was a dangerous occupation. According to Merril Sandoval, Navajo soldiers were at great risk from being shot in battle by their own side: "Those city kids had no idea. On the frontline, some of them mistook us for Japanese."

Sandoval and his team of code talkers fought throughout the Pacific campaign and were with the U.S. Marines when they arrived in Japan in September 1945.

The role of the Navajo code breakers was kept a secret until 1968. It was claimed that the main reason for this was that the military might want to use the code again after the war. Another factor might have been because the government had for many years been involved in trying to destroy the Navajo language. For example, during the Second World War, while the Code Talkers were risking their lives on the frontline, back home, Navajo children were being punished at reservation schools for speaking their native language.

In December 1981 President Ronald Reagan awarded the Navajo Code Talkers with a Certificate of Appreciation. A campaign led by Senator Jeff Bingaman led to the first 29 Code Breakers receiving Congressional Gold Medals in 2001 and the rest received Silver Medals. A Hollywood film based on the role of the Navajo code talkers, Windtalkers, appeared in 2002.

The original 29 Navajo Code Talkers were recruited early in 1942 in response to the growing problem of Japanese interception of radio transmissions, which meant codes were becoming increasingly elaborate and taking longer to decipher. This was not the first time native Americans had been used to pass military information in battle: a group of eight Choctaw were used to transmit messages during the closing stages of the first world war. But it was the first time such a language had been used to create a code. The result was so baffling that, after three years of trying, the Japanese never broke it.

The idea belonged to Philip Johnston, a missionary's son, who had been brought up on a Navajo reservation and spoke the language, called Diné, fluently. Diné had the advantages of being naturally complex and virtually unwritten: the first, incomplete Diné alphabet was developed in the early 20th century. Meaning in the language is not only dependent on accurate pronunciation: the tonal emphasis can totally change the sense of a word - "doc", for example, is either "and" or "not" depending on your tone. But the final defeating challenge must be the "ejective" consonants, expressed with a burst of breath.

Young Navajo men who were already trained as Code Talkers came to the school and talked to all the 18-year-old boys. They wanted boys who were in good physical condition, who could speak and write English and speak Navajo fluently. It took us about two months to learn the code. Then we were shipped to New Zealand, and from there to Guadalcanal, after it was secure, where we were trained for the jungle.

At first there were quite a few generals and commanders who didn't think it was going to work. So they set up two communications centres, one run by white signalmen. They gave us both 10 messages to send and decipher. Theirs took almost five minutes to cypher and decode, ours took one to two minutes.

Sometimes we worked off the beach; then they sent us back and forth from the command ship to the front line. We were working almost day and night.

Looking back, I don't think I was even scared. When you are young you don't think much about what's going to happen. "Kill or be killed', that's what the training had instilled in us. I was just thinking it was like a film.

The landing was terrible. The surf was really rough and the beach was steep, so when the landing craft didn't hit straight on they turned over. In the end we had to dump all our gear, including the radios, and swim ashore or we would have drowned.

One incident in particular I remember distinctly. We encountered a force that was superior in manpower and firepower, and so we were pinned down for a couple of days at least. That was the time the antenna on my radio was shot off.

We were trained in a number of areas of communication, and one of those was field wire, so we'd always have some field wire with us and the tools to work with it, like pliers and cutters and stuff like that. So I was fortunate enough to put that back together. At least for a temporary fix to get a message out. So we got a message out for an air strike. And they showed up in just a little while and saved the day. That was on Okinawa.

When I ran across that Death Valley, I ran into a whole bunch of Marines who got shot down trying to cross that valley. Some were still alive, and they reached out to us to ask for help. But the sergeant was right behind us and said, "You're not supposed to do that kind of duty, you're supposed to locate the machine-gun nests and report back. That is your mission." So we didn't have time to help anybody out, we just kept going and we located a couple of them (enemy positions).

Just to keep the machine guns silent, we threw some hand grenades close by the machine-gun nest. And we found out it's not an open nest, it's an enclosed nest, and there's just a slit where they were firing from. Even though we hit the enclosed nest, the hand grenade bounced off and exploded outside. But then that was just to keep their heads down until we crossed back across the valley and report, and we did report, and that's when one of the Navajo Code Talkers sent a message and ordered artillery fire, mortar fire and rockets.

While he was sending over there, and I was over on the other side, the sergeant chewed me out. Oh, he really got after two of us who stopped and tried to help those wounded Marines. And when they finished sending the message, within about five minutes, they started shelling and (dropping) all that bombardment on that machine-gun area, they just literally blew everything up. I don't know how many minutes it took them.

When they stopped firing, they ordered the Marines to cross it, and the Marines just walked across that valley. So those machine guns were all knocked out. That was toward the end of the Iwo Jima operation."

I raised my hand and swore to protect the flag, the constitution and my country. But after the war, having fought and been injured, I came back and found we Navajos were still being pushed around. I worked seven years in a uranium factory. It was the only job I could get.

Navajo History

The Long Walk of the Navajos is a prominent history in Navajo life because it officially established Navajoland upon the release of the Navajos from Bosque Redondo, New Mexico where they were incarcerated in January 1864. Navajo were forcefully removed from their land due to continued conflict with settlers moving on and surrounding their land. The map on the right shows the original land base with addition to the land base through Executive Order.

For more information on the Long Walk, contact the Navajo Nation Museum at (928) 871-7941 for information on the Hwéeldi Baa Hane’ exhibit.

Information can also be found here: Year of Naaltsoos Sání 2018


Diné Bikéyah (pronounced as Din’eh Bi’KAY’ah), or Navajoland is unique because the people here have achieved something quite rare: the ability of an indigenous people to blend both traditional and modern ways of life. The Navajo Nation truly is a nation within a nation. In years past, Navajoland often appeared to be little more than a desolate section of the Southwest, but yet is a mixture of arid deserts and alpine forests with high plateaus, mesas and mountains. The discovery of oil on Navajoland in the early 1920’s promoted the need for a more systematic form of government, when the Navajo Nation became known as a wealthy nation in a world of its own. In 1923, a tribal government was established to help meet the increasing desires of American oil companies to lease Navajoland for exploration. Navajo government has evolved into the largest and most sophisticated form of American Indian government.

The current Navajo land base map extends into Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah is noted on the right. The yellow area is the original Hopi land, but an addition was made, highlighted in pink. Navajos lost some land base resulting in Navajo people living in the area to be relocated off Hopi land.


The origin of the Navajo Government goes back to 1923, when the first Navajo Tribal Council was established. However, it was not until 1938 when the very first election took place. Since then through 1989, the Navajo Nation government consisted of the tribal council headed by the Chairman of the Council. In December 1989, Title 2 Amendment were passed, which established a three-branch system of government, comparable to the major democracies of the world: The Executive Branch The Judicial Branch and The Legislative Branch.

The Executive Branch is headed by the President and the Vice-President. They are elected by popular vote of the Navajo people for a term of four years. The Judicial branch is headed by the Chief Justice who is appointed by the President and then confirmed by the Navajo Nation Council. The Navajo Nation Council comprises the Legislative Branch of the Navajo Nation. It consists of Twenty-Four (24) members called Council Delegates. These delegates are elected by a four-year term by the registered voters of all the 110 Chapters, which are the smallest administrative units across the Navajo Nation.

In the early 1930s, Window Rock, AZ was chosen as the capital of the Navajo Nation by John Collier, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at the time. Not only was Window Rock a unique and beautiful sandstone formation, it was also just one day’s ride by horseback to the nearest railroad 30 miles southeast in Gallup, NM.

Navajo Nation Office of the President/Vice President Navajo Nation Council Chambers


The Great Seal of the Navajo Nation was designed by Mr. John C. Claw Jr. of Many Farms, AZ. This was officially adopted by the Navajo Tribal Council on January 18, 1952.

​Two cornstalk with pollen symbolizes the sustainer of Navajo life. A horse, cow and sheep, located in the center, symbolizes the Navajo livestock.


The Navajo Nation Flag was designed by Jay R. DeGroat of Mariano Lake, NM and adopted by Navajo Tribal Council on May 21,1968. The flag incorporates several elements from the Navajo Nation Seal.

The Navajo Nation flag has a pale buff color background, bearing a map of the Navajo Nation in the center. The original area of the 1868 reservation is dark brown, while the much larger current borders are copper.

Surrounding the map are the four sacred mountains in each cardinal direction: black (representing the north), turquoise (representing the south), white (representing the east), and yellow (representing the west). These four colors form a recurring theme in the legends of the Navajo, beginning with the Navajo creation story. In it, the world began as a black island floating in the mist. Above it were four clouds: black, white, blue (meaning turquoise), and yellow. The story describes the colored clouds as successive worlds and narrates the themes of birth, propagation, flood, escape, and continuing life. Arching over the mountains and map is the rainbow of red, yellow, and blue, with red outermost in reverse sequence from the Navajo Nation seal. The rainbow symbolizes Navajo sovereignty.

Centered on the map is a white disk bearing the corn stalks and three domestic animals from the Navajo Nation seal representing the Navajo livestock economy. Along with symbols of other aspects of the Navajo economy: a traditional hogan (hooghan), modern home, oil derrick, forestry, mining (which symbolizes the resource potential of the Navajo Nation), and recreational with fishing and hunting. All, but, the green and yellow corn stalks appear in black outline. At the top near, the sun, the modern sawmill symbolizes the progress and industry characteristic of the Navajo Nation’s economic development.

The orientation of the sacred mountains on the flag differs from the seal. The Navajo consider east (há’á’aah) to be where everything begins and signifies all things good and beautiful, it is the location of the white mountain. On the Navajo Nation seal, east and the white mountain are at the top on the Navajo Nation flag, they are to the right.


The Navajo Code Talker’s served in all six Marine divisions from 1942 to 1945 and have been credited with saving countless lives.

The Navajo Code Talker’s primary job was to transmit information on tactics, orders and other vital battlefield information via telegraphs and radios in the Diné language.

The method of using Morse code often took hours whereas, the Navajos handled a message in minutes. It has been said that if it was not for the Navajo Code Talker’s, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.

The Navajo’s unwritten language was understood by fewer than 30 non-Navajos at the time of WWII. The size and complexity of the language made the code extremely difficult to comprehend, much less decipher. It was not until 1968 that the code became declassified by the US Government.

What Are the Key Events of Navajo History? (with pictures)

The history of the Navajo people is usually seen as robust mix of early tribal engagement, conflict with Europeans, and integration into the modern United States. Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the United States, and its home reservation, Navajoland, spans more land than any other. Covering 24,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the sparse, dry lands bear little resemblance to the lands of the tribe's origin. The tribe's immigration from northern Canada in 1400 A.D. is one of the earliest known events in Navajo history. Other key events include migration to the southwestern part of what is now the United States, battling with settlers and militia, adopting the traditions of their neighbors, and a 400-mile forced march known as the Long Walk, which claimed many lives. In more modern times, the tribal language proved invaluable when converted to military code, and Navajo men are credited with many of the U.S.’s victories in the Second World War. These men are known today as “Code Talkers.” Navajo reservations offer a wealth of historical appreciation for both residents and visitors, and the nation’s governmental structure has proved highly successful and effective.

Early Nomadic Life

When the Navajo made their trek to the desert lands of North America in 1400 A.D., they lived a nomadic lifestyle. The tribe hunted, gathered and migrated. Their lives had little in common with the tribal traditions of today. Of course, this history sometimes meets resistance from those who believe the legends linking early Navajo history to sacred landmarks in the area in which they dwell in modern times.

Raids and Warfare

Over time, the Navajo began to adapt to the ways of their neighboring tribes. By the 1500s, they were raising corn and beans, just like the Pueblo Indians. The Navajo changed again with the coming of foreign settlers, and they began raising sheep and crafting silver jewelry, just like the Spaniards. The Navajo also continued their tradition of raiding neighboring tribes. The Spanish introduction of the horse in the 1700s brought this practice to a head.

In 1804, with help from the Pueblo, Ute and Blackfoot tribes, the Spanish government attacked the Navajo in retaliation. Men died on both sides, and problems between the tribes died down. It wasn't until the U.S. expanded into New Mexico and new settlers moved into Navajo territory that raiding began once again.

U.S. Government Treaty Attempts

In 1849, the U.S. government attempted to forge a treaty with tribal leaders, but the meeting ended in conflict and tragedy. In the end, seven Navajo were killed, including an influential warrior named Narbona. Talks strained between the Indians and the U.S., which had vastly different ways of working out deals, and misunderstandings became a breeding ground for problems.

A series of failed treaties and attacks motivated the U.S. government to form a relocation program for the Navajo and Apache Indian tribes. In 1863, General Kit Carson arrived with plans to move all tribal members to Fort Sumner in southeast New Mexico. The rounding up of Indian tribes was a messy and violent affair.

The Long Walk

In 1864, the Navajo — men, women, and children of all ages — were made to walk 400 miles to an encampment called Bosque Redondo. This trek is known as the Long Walk, and many people died during the 18-day journey. There was suffering at Bosque Redondo, as well, and in 1868, a treaty was drafted that allowed for the Indian tribe's return to its homeland. The Treaty of Bosque Redondo called for numerous provisions, including an end to the raids that had plagued the Southwest for centuries.

The Long Walk was the darkest point in Navajo history, but it also united the people in a way they had never experienced. By 1923, they established a formal governmental body and were working out land lease agreements with companies thirsty for New Mexico oil. By 1924, they were being counted as U.S. citizens and securing the right to vote.

Role in Wartime Coding

In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of Navajo volunteers was recruited to create a secret code using their native language. The code proved unbreakable and was used throughout the efforts of World War II to relay messages without any fear of the enemy intercepting them. They are credited with the victory at Iwo Jima, among others. Nearly 60 years after their efforts, in 2001, the so-called Navajo Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Navajo Code - History

What is Navajo history? Navajo is one of the oldest tribes in the world. Long before the theory of land bridge from Asia to North America all through the Bering Strait, the elders of Navajo tribe already told their story about the Navajo history. The Navajo history is considered as one of the most colorful and interesting stories in the American history.

The Emergence of the First Man and Woman

The Navajo recounts that the emergence of the first man woman and the first world to the fourth world or the present world we live today. The first man according to Navajo history brought the significant mountains such as the Yellow Mountain or Mount Humphreys, Turquoise Mountaion or Mount Taylor, White Mountain or White Mountain and Black Mountain Hesperus Peak. These mountains are very sacred for Navajo people. Many anthropologists believed that Navajo split from Southern Athabaskans to Southwest during 200-1300 A.D.

Cultural Development

During the period of 900 and 1525 A.D. the tribe has developed a complex and rich culture in the location of the present day New Mexico. This is also the period according to Navajo history start to develop trade network with the historic Pueblo and Anasazi peoples, which also brings new technologies like moccasins and flint points through the southwest. Additionally, some Navajos also relocated to southwestern Utah in 1620. The early years of eighteen century, the Navajo people spread to Southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona.

Encountering the Spanish Explorers

The Navajos came to contact with the Spanish explorers in 1600 century. In 1680, the Apache and Navajo group helped the Pueblo Indians during the Pueblo revolt. This is the war of independence from the Spaniards who have enslaved and brutalized the Pueblos for several decades. The rebellion resulted for the Spaniards to return to Mexico. On the other hand in 1893, the Spanish re-conquered the Rio Grande Valley. This is where some Pueblo people seek refuge to Navajos. This has resulted of the mixture of the tradition and culture of two tribes. The relationship of both groups has blossomed and even make them realize the significance of working together as one group that fight the Spanish colonizers to protect them as well as their children.

In the late phase of 18th century, the Navajos has experienced direct problem with the Spanish colonizers as they intend to conquer the Southwest. To weaken the Navajo tribe, the Spanish has formed an alliance with Utes and Comanches and from this period many people became a victim of Spanish Slavery.

The Navajos are indeed some of the most interesting tribes in the Native North American history. They are known to have rich culture and tradition. Additionally, they also have known for their myths and legends such as the coyotes and skinwalkers, which are quite creepy. However, these are just myths and are not solid evidence, although many people especially elders believed that they are real.

Types of Code

One of the reasons why the code talkers were so successful was because their language is generally incomprehensible and has been compared many sounds that don’t sounds like a language in of themselves. When the code was first started being transcribed, there was no existing Navajo alphabet nor was it available in any written form.

When the Navajos were tasked with creating code words that had to be short, easy to learn and be recalled, the men developed a two-part code. The first one was a 26-letter phonetic alphabet that used names for 18 animals or birds, plus the words “ice” (the letter I), “nut” (N), “quiver” (Q), “Ute” (U), “victor” (V), “cross” (X), “yucca” (Y), and “zinc” (Z). The second part was a 211-word English vocabulary with Navajo synonyms.

National Museum of the American Indian

Type 1 Code

The original twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers first came up with the first type of code eventually called, Type 1 code. It consisted of 26 Navajo terms that stood for individual English letters that could be used to spell out a word. Since they had to memorize all the words, they used things that were familiar to them, such as kinds of animals. Then, they translated those words into Navajo. For instance, the Navajo word for “ant,” wo-la-chee, was used to represent the letter “a” in English.

Type 2 Code

Type 2 code contained words that could be directly translated from English into Navajo, and the code talkers also developed a dictionary of 211 terms (later expanded to 411) for military words and names that didn’t originally exist in the Navajo language. For example, since there was no existing Navajo word for “submarine,” the code talkers agreed to use the term besh-lo, which translates to “iron fish. Many American Indian Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages. A message such as “send more ammunition to the front” was just translated into the Native language and sent over the radio. These became known as Type Two Codes.

Philip Johnston's Idea

The son of a Protestant missionary, Philip Johnston spent much of his childhood on the Navajo reservation. He grew up with Navajo children, learning their language and their customs. As an adult, Johnston became an engineer for the city of Los Angeles but also spent a considerable amount of his time lecturing about the Navajos.

Then one day, Johnston was reading the newspaper when he noticed a story about an armored division in Louisiana that was attempting to come up with a way to code military communications using Native American personnel. This story sparked an idea. The next day, Johnston headed to Camp Elliot (near San Diego) and presented his idea for a code to Lt. Col. James E. Jones, the Area Signal Officer.

Lt. Col. Jones was skeptical. Previous attempts at similar codes failed because Native Americans had no words in their language for military terms. There was no need for Navajos to add a word in their language for "tank" or "machine gun" just as there is no reason in English to have different terms for your mother's brother and your father's brother - as some languages do - they're just both called "uncle." And often, when new inventions are created, other languages just absorb the same word. For example, in German a radio is called "Radio" and a computer is "Computer." Thus, Lt. Col. Jones was concerned that if they used any Native American languages as codes, the word for "machine gun" would become the English word "machine gun" - making the code easily decipherable.

However, Johnston had another idea. Instead of adding the direct term "machine gun" to the Navajo language, they would designate a word or two already in the Navajo language for the military term. For example, the term for "machine gun" became "rapid-fire gun," the term for "battleship" became "whale," and the term for "fighter plane" became "hummingbird."

Lt. Col. Jones recommended a demonstration for Major General Clayton B. Vogel. The demonstration was a success and Major General Vogel sent a letter to the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps recommending that they enlist 200 Navajos for this assignment. In response to the request, they were only given permission to begin a "pilot project" with 30 Navajos.

The Navajo Code from World War Two: Was it Unbreakable?

The Navajo Code, which was used during the Second World War, has become one of the most famous military codes of all time. The code was developed in 1942 for use by the United States Marine Corps. This code was complex and sophisticated which made it perfect for military use. The Navajo Code’s complexity made it different from other Native American military codes used at the time or in World War I. The code was never broken but there was a close call during World War II. It achieved some important successes during the conflict, and became invaluable to the U.S. Marines and helped baffle the Japanese military.

Navajo code talkers. Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, June 1944.

The Japanese Military had cracked every code the United States had used through 1942(1). The Marines in charge of communications were getting skittish([1]). There was an imminent need for an unbreakable code! Civil Engineer Philip Johnston, who had spent time on the Navajo Reservation came up with the idea of using the Navajo language (which was unwritten and understood only by those who lived with the Navajos) as the basis for an unbreakable code([2]). Philip Johnston presented the idea to the U.S. Marine Corps ‘top brass’ and they decided to implement the idea right away(2). Communications officer Major James E. Jones, Major General Clayton B. Vogel (commander of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet), and Commandant Thomas Holcomb were responsible for launching and recruiting the men who became code talkers(3). These men agreed on the need for the maximum secrecy of the program([3]).

In February, 1942 at Camp Elliot, Vogel and Jones witnessed and ran a test experiment with Navajo men(3). This test experiment involved the Navajo men giving Navajo words to military terms in the period of an hour(3). Jones and Vogel also witnessed Navajo and Marine communications men transmitting several messages resembling in style and content the military messages that would be used in battle(3). At the time the standard used code was the “Shackle” code, which was written in English, encoded via a coding machine, and sent(3). Then the receiving end decoded the message, again via machine, and wrote it out English(3). It took an hour to transmit and receive the test messages using the “Shackle Code”(3). In contrast, when the same messages were transmitted and received in Navajo - with the Navajo men acting as human coding machines - it took only forty seconds for the information to be transmitted accurately(3). The test experiment was a success and Vogel agreed to launch a pilot, but due to the secrecy of the program it was decided to limit the trial program to 29 Navajo men(3). From July 1942 to September 1942, 29 Navajo men from Platoon 382 helped invent and develop the Navajo Code([4]). The 29 Navajo men of Platoon 382 asked three Navajo speaking military men named Felix Yazzie, Ross Haskie, and Wilson Price to help them work on the Navajo Code([5]). Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez said of the addition of these three men “I don’t know why historians insist on separating them from the original twenty-nine. For me, it was the original thirty-two. They deserved credit for the code just as much as any of us did”(5).

A unique code

The Navajo Code differed from other Native American Codes used in the past, in that the Navajo resisted adopting English words and folding them into the Navajo language like telephone and radio([6]). The Navajo instead made up their own words for such inventions such as telephone and radio and thus keeping their language free from outside influence([7]). A person who is not Navajo finds it difficult to hear Navajo words properly, virtually impossible for him to reproduce the words, and nearly impossible to even pronounce even one word of Navajo if they are not used to hearing the sounds(6). Furthermore, as future Navajo Code Talker Sam Tso said “My language, my Navajo language, does not have an alphabet. we cannot write down our language, and we cannot read it. So, when they invented this code they used the English alphabet and they gave a certain word, to the ABC’s there and then as I looked at it and found out they have divided all those ABC’s according to the animals that lived in the water, travel on the water, that flew in the air, and those animals that live on the land. So, they divided into three parts”([8]).

There were two types of Navajo code developed by the original Navajo Code Talkers(9). The first was the Type 1 code, which consisted of 26 Navajo terms that stood for individual English letters that could be used to spell out a word(9). For instance, the Navajo word for “ant”, in Navajo wo-la-chee, was used to represent the letter “a” in English([9].) Also, the original Navajo Code Talkers developed the Type 2 Navajo Code which contained words that could be translated from English into Navajo and included a dictionary (9). For example, in the Type 2 Navajo Code there was no existing word for “submarine”, so the Navajo Code Talkers agreed to use the term besh-lo, which translates to “iron fish”(9).

In contrast, during World War I, Choctaw and Comanche soldiers transmitted messages in their complex language to stymie the Germans, which was by no means a code (6).The Choctaw and Comanche were used on a limited basis during World War I(6). It was after World War I had ended that the Germans discovered which native languages had been employed by sending “tourists”, “scholars”, and “anthropologists” to learn the languages of various Native American tribes (6). Fortunately, the Navajo were not visited by these Germans spies(6). This prevented the secrets of the Navajo language from being passed on to Nazi Germany’s ally, Imperial Japan. This allowed the then secret language of Navajo to be used in developing an unbreakable code(6). Also, the Navajo Code contained 642 words or terms in their dictionary([10].) By comparison the World War II-era Comanche Code Talkers only had 250 terms or 250 words and the primitive World War I era- Choctaw speaking experiment had only 20 terms or 20 words([11] ). The Comanche Code Talkers served in Europe against the Third Reich ([12]).

Japanese code cracking efforts

A Japanese interrogator named Goon, interrogated a captured Navajo prisoner named Joe Kieyoomia (who had the survived the 1942 Bataan Death March) and came to the conclusion that the Code had something to do with the Navajo language([13]). Joe Kieyoomia, despite being brutally abused by his Japanese captors, never gave away any of the Navajo Code secrets(13). The Japanese Chief of Intelligence. Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while he was able to decipher the code used by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Air Corps, he was never able to crack the Navajo Code ([14]). In the aftermath of World War II, the Fuji Evening, a Tokyo newspaper, stated “If the Japanese Imperial Intelligence Team could have decoded the Navajo messages.. the history of the Pacific War might have turned out completely different”([15]). This shows the effectiveness in secrecy surrounding the Navajo Code.

The Navajo Code also had some important successes on the battlefields of the Pacific during World War II. During the Guadalcanal campaign, Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez and his friend Roy destroyed a Japanese machine gun position using the power of the Navajo Code to order an artillery strike to destroy it([16]). In the Battle of Iwo Jima, from February 1945 to March 1945, signal officer Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division, said “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima”(14). Signal officer Howard Conner had six Navajo Code Talkers with him and during the first two days of the battle of Iwo Jima from February 1945 they sent over 800 messages, all without error(14). One of the final transmissions of World War II were American scientists’ observations of the August 9, 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki and it was sent back via the Navajo Code(15).

In retrospect

The Navajo Code had everlasting fame as a military code. This code that was developed for the Marine Corps served with success from 1942 to 1945. The complex and thoroughly detailed nature of the Navajo Code made it perfect for military use and was different from other Native American codes. Except for a close call, the Code was never broken. The Navajo Code was truly unbreakable!

Now, read Daniel’s article on “Did World War Two Japanese Kamikaze Attacks have more Impact than Nazi V-2 Rockets?” here .

[1] Avila, Judith and Nez, Chester. Foreword by Bingaman, Jeff United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 93.

[2] Avila, Judith and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 90.

[3] Avila, Judith and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff United Sates Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The First and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 92.

[4] Avila, Judith and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 101-102.

[5] Avila, Judith and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 109.

[6] Avila, Judith and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The First and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII . New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 91.

[7] Avila, Judith Schiess and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII . New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 91-92.

[8] Navajo code talkers of World War II: Journey of Remembrance. Dreamscape-Contemporary Learning Systems. Starbright Media Corporation production. 2018.

[9] “American Indian Code Talkers, The National WWII Museum-New Orleans”. December 12th, 2020. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/american-indian-code-talkers .

[10] Avila, Judith Schiess and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff, United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers . New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 273-291.

[11] Greenspan, Jesse. “How Native American Code Talkers Pioneered a Type of Military Intelligence”. Updated: November 11th, 2020. History Channel. Accessed January 1st, 2021. https://www.history/com/news/world-war-is-native-american-code-talkers .

[12] McIntyre, Cindy. “Comanche language helped win World War II”. Last Modified November 14th, 2017. United States Army. Accessed on January 3rd, 2021. https://www.army.mil/article/178195/comanche_language_helped_win_world_war_ii .

[13] Avila, Judith Schiess and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff, United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 207-208.

[15] Avila, Judith Schiess and Nez, Chester. Foreword by Bingaman, Jeff, United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the of the original code talkers . New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 215.

[16] Avila, Judith Schiess, and Nez, Chester. Forward by Bingaman, Jeff, United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers. New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011. 133.

“American Indian Code Talkers, The National WWII Museum-New Orleans” December 12th, 2020. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/american-indian-code-talkers .

Avila, Judith, and Nez, Chester. Foreword by Bingaman, Jeff, United States Senator from New Mexico. Code Talker: The First and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII . New York: New York. Dutton Caliber. 2011.

Greenspan, Jesse. “How Native American Code Talkers Pioneered a New Type of Military Intelligence”. History Channel. Updated: November 11th, 2020. Accessed on January 1st, 2021. https://www.history/com/news/world-war-is-native-american-code-talkers .

McIntyre, Cindy. “Comanche language helped win World War II”. Last Modified November 14th, 2017. United States Army.Accessed January 3rd, 2021. https://www/army.mil/article/178195/comache_language_helped_win_world_war_ii

Navajo Code talkers of World War II: Journey of Remembrance. Dreamscape-Contemporary Learning Systems. Starbright Media Corporation. 2018.

Native American Soldiers

There were more than 500 people that joined the Navajo code talkers, coming from many different Native American tribes. Cherokee, Comanche, Navajo, Sioux tribes, and others gave soldiers that were trained to speak the language of code.

The very first time Navajo code talkers showed how useful this way of communication can be was in 1918. Eight members of the Choctaw tribe served in World War I in France, where they played a huge role when the Meuse-Argonne offensive took place. The Germans had no idea what they were hearing in the comms.

Navajo Code Talkers: Key to U.S. Victory in the Pacific during World War II

Navajo Code Talkers Marine Corps Cpl. Henry Bake, Jr. and Pfc. George H. Kirk use a portable radio near enemy lines to communicate with fellow Marines in December 1943. The Navajo language proved to be an unbreakable military code that assisted Navy and Marine operations in the Pacific during World War II. The secret of the Navajo Code Talkers and the use of the Navajo language would not be revealed until the late 1960s. National Archives and Records Administration photo.


Assiniboine Edit

Native speakers of the Assiniboine language served as code talkers during World War II to encrypt communications. [9] One of these code talkers was Gilbert Horn Sr., who grew up in the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation of Montana and became a tribal judge and politician. [9]

Basque Edit

In November 1952, Euzko Deya magazine [10] reported that in May of that year, upon meeting a large number of US Marines of Basque ancestry in a San Francisco camp, Captain Frank D. Carranza had thought of using the Basque language for codes. [11] [12] [13] His superiors were circumspect as there were known settlements of Basque people in the Pacific region, including: 35 Basque Jesuits in Hiroshima, led by Pedro Arrupe a colony of Basque jai alai players in China and the Philippines and Basque supporters of Falange in Asia. Consequently, the US Basque code talkers were not deployed in these theaters, instead being used initially in tests and in transmitting logistics information for Hawaii and Australia.

According to Euzko Deya, on August 1, 1942, Lieutenants Nemesio Aguirre, Fernández Bakaicoa, and Juanana received a Basque-coded message from San Diego for Admiral Chester Nimitz. The message warned Nimitz of Operation Apple to remove the Japanese from the Solomon Islands. They also translated the start date, August 7, for the attack on Guadalcanal. As the war extended over the Pacific, there was a shortage of Basque speakers and the US military came to prefer the parallel program based on the use of Navajo speakers.

In 2017, Pedro Oiarzabal and Guillermo Tabernilla published a paper refuting Euzko Deya ' s article. [14] According to Oiarzabal and Tabernilla, they could not find Carranza, Aguirre, Fernández Bakaicoa, or Juanana in the National Archives and Records Administration or US Army archives. They did find a small number of US Marines with Basque surnames, but none of them worked in transmissions. They suggest that Carranza's story was an Office of Strategic Services operation to raise sympathy for US intelligence among Basque nationalists.

Cherokee Edit

The first known use of code talkers in the US military was during World War I. Cherokee soldiers of the US 30th Infantry Division fluent in the Cherokee language were assigned to transmit messages while under fire during the Second Battle of the Somme. According to the Division Signal Officer, this took place in September 1918 when their unit was under British command. [15] [16]

Choctaw Edit

During World War I, company commander Captain Lawrence of the US Army overheard Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb having a conversation in the Choctaw language. Upon further investigation, he found that eight Choctaw men served in the battalion. The Choctaw men in the Army's 36th Infantry Division trained to use their language in code and helped the American Expeditionary Forces in several battles of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On October 26, 1918, the code talkers were pressed into service and the "tide of battle turned within 24 hours . and within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack." [17] [18]

Comanche Edit

German authorities knew about the use of code talkers during World War I, which led Josef Goebbels to declare Native Americans to be fellow Aryans. [19] In addition, the Germans sent a team of thirty anthropologists to the United States to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II. [20] However, the task proved too difficult because of the large array of native languages and dialects. Nonetheless, after learning of the Nazi effort, the US Army opted not to implement a large-scale code talker program in the European theater.

Initially, 17 code talkers were enlisted but three were unable to make the trip across the Atlantic when the unit was finally deployed. [21] A total of 14 code talkers using the Comanche language took part in the Invasion of Normandy and served in the 4th Infantry Division in Europe. [22] Comanche soldiers of the 4th Signal Company compiled a vocabulary of 250 code terms using words and phrases in their own language. [23] Using a substitution method similar to the Navajo, the code talkers used descriptive words from the Comanche language for things that did not have translations. For example, the Comanche language code term for tank was turtle, bomber was pregnant bird, machine gun was sewing machine, and Adolf Hitler was crazy white man. [24] [25]

Two Comanche code talkers were assigned to each regiment and the remainder were assigned to the 4th Infantry Division headquarters. Shortly after landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, the Comanche began transmitting messages. Some were wounded but none killed. [24]

In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche code talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit. On November 30, 1999, the United States Department of Defense presented Charles Chibitty with the Knowlton Award, in recognition of his outstanding intelligence work. [24] [26]

Cree Edit

In World War II, the Canadian Armed Forces employed First Nations soldiers who spoke the Cree language as code talkers. Owing to oaths of secrecy and official classification through 1963, the role of Cree code talkers were less known than their US counterparts and went unacknowledged by the Canadian government. [27] A 2016 documentary, Cree Code Talkers, tells the story of one such Métis individual, Charles "Checker" Tomkins. Tomkins, who died in 2003, was interviewed shortly before his death by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. While he identified some other Cree code talkers, "Tomkins may have been the last of his comrades to know anything of this secret operation." [28] [29]

Meskwaki Edit

A group of 27 Meskwaki enlisted in the US Army together in January 1941 they were 16 percent of Iowa's Meskwaki population. During World War II, the US Army trained eight Meskwaki men to use their native Fox language as code talkers. They were assigned to North Africa. The eight were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2013 unfortunately all were deceased. The award was accepted by members of the Meskwaki community. [30] [31]

Mohawk Edit

Mohawk language code talkers were employed during World War II by the United States Army in the Pacific theater. Levi Oakes, a Mohawk code talker born in Canada, was deployed to protect messages being sent by Allied Forces using Kanien'kéha, a Mohawk sub-set language. Oakes died in May 2019 leaving no surviving Mohawk code talkers. [32]

Muscogee (Seminole and Creek) Edit

The Muscogee language was used as type two code (informal) during World War II by enlisted Seminole and Creek people. [33] Tony Palmer, Leslie Richard, Edmund Harjo, and Thomas MacIntosh from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Muscogee (Creek) Nation were recognized under the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008. [34] The last surviving of these code talkers, Edmond Harjo of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, died on March 31, 2014, at the age of 96. His biography was recounted at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring Harjo and other code talkers at the US Capitol on November 20, 2013. [35] [36] [37]

Navajo Edit

Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, [38] proposed the use of the Navajo language to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II. Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajo and was one of the small number of non-Navajo who spoke the language fluently. Many Navajo enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor and eagerly contributed to the war effort.

Because Navajo has a complex grammar, it is not mutually intelligible enough with even its closest relatives within the Na-Dene family to provide meaningful information. At the time, it was still an unwritten language, and Johnston believed Navajo could satisfy the military requirement for an undecipherable code. Its complex syntax and phonology, not to mention its numerous dialects, made it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. One estimate indicates that at the outbreak of World War II, fewer than 30 non-Navajo could understand the language. [39]

In early 1942, Phillip Johnston met with the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Major General Clayton B. Vogel, and his staff. Johnston staged simulated combat conditions which demonstrated that Navajo men could transmit and decode a three-line message in 20 seconds, compared to the 30 minutes it took the machines of the time. [40] The idea was accepted and Vogel recommended that the Marines recruit 200 Navajo. The first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp in May 1942. This first group created the Navajo code at Camp Pendleton. [41]

The Navajo code was formally developed and modeled on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet that uses agreed-upon English words to represent letters. Since it was determined that phonetically spelling out all military terms letter by letter into words while in combat would be too time-consuming, some terms, concepts, tactics, and instruments of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive nomenclatures in Navajo. For example, the word for shark referred to a destroyer, while silver oak leaf indicated the rank of lieutenant colonel. [42]

A codebook was developed to teach the many relevant words and concepts to new initiates. The text was for classroom purposes only and was never to be taken into the field. The code talkers memorized all these variations and practiced their rapid use under stressful conditions during training. Uninitiated Navajo speakers would have no idea what the code talkers' messages meant they would hear only truncated and disjointed strings of individual, unrelated nouns and verbs. [43] [44]

The Navajo code talkers were commended for the skill, speed, and accuracy they demonstrated throughout the war. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." [41]

After incidents when Navajo code talkers mistaken for ethnic Japanese being captured by other American soldiers, several were assigned a personal bodyguard whose principal duty was to protect them from their own side. According to Bill Toledo, one of the second group after the original 29, they had a secret secondary duty: if their charge was at risk of being captured, they were to shoot him to protect the code. Fortunately, none was ever called upon to do so. [45] [46]

To ensure a consistent use of code terminologies throughout the Pacific theater, representative code talkers of each of the US Marine divisions met in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings in the code, incorporate new terms into the system, and update their codebooks. These representatives, in turn, trained other code talkers who could not attend the meeting. As the war progressed, additional code words were added and incorporated program-wide. In other instances, informal shortcut code words were devised for a particular campaign and not disseminated beyond the area of operation. Examples of code words include the Navajo word for buzzard, jeeshóóʼ , which was used for bomber, while the code word used for submarine, béésh łóóʼ , meant iron fish in Navajo. [47] The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers who developed the code, Chester Nez, died on June 4, 2014. [48]

Four of the last nine Navajo code talkers used in the military died in 2019: Alfred K. Newman died on January 13, 2019, at the age of 94. [49] On May 10, 2019, Fleming Begaye Sr. died at the age of 97. [50] New Mexico State Senator John Pinto, elected in 1977, died in office on May 24, 2019. [51] William Tully Brown died in June 2019 aged 96. [52] Joe Vandever Sr. died at 96 on January 31, 2020. [53]

The deployment of the Navajo code talkers continued through the Korean War and after, until it was ended early in the Vietnam War. The Navajo code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered. [42]

Nubian Edit

Tlingit Edit

During World War Two, American soldiers used their native Tlingit as a code against Japanese forces. Their actions remained unknown, even after the declassification of code talkers and the publication of the Navajo code talkers. The memory of five deceased Tlingit code talkers was honored by the Alaska legislature in March 2019. [59] [60]

Welsh Edit

A system employing the Welsh language was used by British forces during World War II, but not to any great extent. In 1942, the Royal Air Force developed a plan to use Welsh for secret communications, but it was never implemented. [61] Welsh was used more recently in the Yugoslav Wars for non-vital messages. [62]

Wenzhounese Edit

China used Wenzhounese-speaking people as code talkers during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. [63] [64]

The Navajo code talkers received no recognition until 1968 when their operation was declassified. [65] In 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by US President Ronald Reagan, who also named August 14, 1982 as Navajo Code Talkers Day. [66] [67] [68]

On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 106-554, 114 Statute 2763, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 World War II Navajo code talkers and Silver Medals to each person who qualified as a Navajo code talker (approximately 300). In July 2001, President George W. Bush honored the code talkers by presenting the medals to four surviving original code talkers (the fifth living original code talker was unable to attend) at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. Gold medals were presented to the families of the deceased 24 original code talkers. [69] [70]

Journalist Patty Talahongva directed and produced a documentary, The Power of Words: Native Languages as Weapons of War, for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2006, bringing to light the story of Hopi code talkers. In 2011, Arizona established April 23, as an annual recognition day for the Hopi code talkers. [7] The Texas Medal of Valor was awarded posthumously to 18 Choctaw code talkers for their World War II service on September 17, 2007, by the Adjutant General of the State of Texas. [71]

The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-420) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on November 15, 2008. The act recognized every Native American code talker who served in the United States military during WWI or WWII (with the exception of the already-awarded Navajo) with a Congressional Gold Medal. The act was designed to be distinct for each tribe, with silver duplicates awarded to the individual code talkers or their next-of-kin. [72] As of 2013, 33 tribes have been identified and been honored at a ceremony at Emancipation Hall at the US Capitol Visitor Center. One surviving code talker was present, Edmond Harjo. [73]

On November 27, 2017, three Navajo code talkers, joined by the President of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, appeared with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in an official White House ceremony. They were there to "pay tribute to the contributions of the young Native Americans recruited by the United States military to create top-secret coded messages used to communicate during World War II battles." [74] The executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, Jacqueline Pata, noted that Native Americans have "a very high level of participation in the military and veterans' service." A statement by a Navajo Nation Council Delegate and comments by Pata and Begaye, among others, objected to Trump's remarks during the event, including his use "once again . [of] the word Pocahontas in a negative way towards a political adversary Elizabeth Warren who claims 'Native American heritage'." [74] [75] [76] The National Congress of American Indians objected to Trump's use of the name Pocahontas, a historical Native American figure, as a derogatory term. [77]

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